Toronto–It may be fitting that the biggest game of the Tampa Bay Rays’ 2022 season rests in the hands of their most-maligned pitcher.
Carlos Meza found himself in the bullpen to start the year, where the team employed him as their closer. This was while they exhaustively looked for trade partners for him and his $20 million salary.
“We had a bunch of starters at the beginning of the season,” said Rays Manager Steve Liddle. “We thought he would be a great fit at the back of the pen. He was up for it, and did a solid job.”
Meza went 4-4 with 14 saves, to go along with a 3.27 ERA (134 ERA+). He was good, but not great. So, what changed?
“Injuries and resettling our roster,” said Liddle.
Namely, that would be injuries to Shelby Miller and Kodai Senga. Miller, who went 5-3, 4.91 with Tampa, ended up getting released. Senga was sent to AAA, where he awaits a similar fate; his option for 2023 will not be picked up.
All of a sudden, Tampa was down two starters. The front office and coaching staff had envisioned Tristan Beck for one of those roles. However, he arrived from Pittsburgh as damaged goods, then struggled to find his footing. (Liddle says that Beck is in their discussion for the rotation for next year.)
They tried Jeremy Benson as a starter. He was quite solid, going 1-0, 2.50 in three starts (175 ERA+). However, his value as a reliever has been so high, they decided to keep him there.
The front office had extended discussions about Tyler Dyson, but the AAA prospect was lost for the season right before they decided to bring him up. They considered Aaron Ashby, who is having a marvelous season at AAA. They considered Bryce Wilson and Jeffrey Starks.
“The problem we had was that we had too many capable bodies already up,” said GM Jack Dawkins. “We had to consider looking at solutions that already existed upstairs.”
One of those became Kevin Clancy, who was 3-4, 1.54 (285 ERA+) as a back-end reliever. He’s 4-3, 3.51 as a starter (125 ERA+), though most of that can be attributed to two rough starts. (In three of his last four starts, he has allowed six hits in 17 innings.)
The other chosen starter is the one who goes tonight: Meza.
“Carlos has an elastic arm,” says Liddle. “We didn’t want to try to stretch two guys out (Clancy and Benson) at the same time, and we already have a guy who has done well as a starter.
“Especially with where we were at the time, seeing what he could do back in that role was natural.”
Liddle means the tremendous slide the Rays went on right out of the All-Star break, where they fell to 61-61 at one point. They find themselves at 80-65 going into tonight, coming off their first loss of September, a 2-0 gem at the hands of James Tate and the Blue Jays.
The two teams have unexpectedly been on a collision course, with the Rays soaring, and the Jays tumbling. Tampa won the first of this three-game set, a 2-1 thriller in 11 innings.
“We lost all of those games in August,” said Liddle of the one-run, come-from-ahead losses they suffered during their one true rough stretch of the season. “This team has some heart, man.”
The Rays blew a 1-0 lead in the ninth against Toronto, when Jon Roberts served up a game-tying home run to Don Winston. But Jake Magnum, one of the outfielders Dawkins acquired earlier this season, singled to lead off the eleventh.
He then stole second, and moved up to third when the throw found its way into center field. Then he scored when rookie Nathan DeRemer, who has been a bit of a forgotten entity after starting the season as the starting third baseman, hit a sacrifice fly to score Magnum.
Fellow rookie Gerald Goodwin slammed the door on the Jays in the 11th, sealing the win.
Tate’s one-hitter last night was the main headline, and for good reason. But the Rays have markedly improved their offense over the past few weeks. They still look like a bunch of guys who hit around .250, but the power has gone up. Young players like Jarrad Kelenic, ONeil Cruz, and Brady McConnell have stepped up big time.
Tonight, it’s up to the resident old man of the staff–Meza’s 31 years outpace any other Tampa pitcher by at least three years on anyone not named Christopher Hanna–to get Tampa a crucial win. If they get the win, they will be just a half-game behind Toronto, and possibly out of the third wild-card spot. They could also find themselves just two games out of the AL East lead, something nobody would have guessed on August 18th, when they were 10.5 games out.
The Rays begin a ten-game homestand after tonight’s game. So getting one in Toronto tonight has extra importance.
For the team considered an afterthought a month ago, it is fitting that the pitcher considered to be an organizational afterthought in March is tonight’s lynchpin.