The Tampa Bay Rays are one win away from a World Series berth. That was also true Wednesday and Thursday, but the Houston Astros won Game 4 (HOU 4, TB 3) and Game 5 (HOU 4, TB 3) of the ALCS to force Game 6 on Friday. Houston is the fourth team ever to force a Game 6 after falling behind 3-0 in a best-of-seven series.

Rays lefty Blake Snell labored through Game 1, throwing 105 high-stress pitches in five innings. He only allowed one run, but it wasn’t easy. In Game 6 (GameTracker), Snell labored again, walking three of the first seven batters and running deep counts to just about everyone. He was able to get Tampa into the fifth inning with a 1-0 lead courtesy of a Willy Adames double, however.

The fifth inning started inauspiciously. Snell walked the struggling Yuli Gurriel to begin the frame — Gurriel was 4 for 38 (.105) in the postseason going into Game 6 — then allowed a ground ball single to Aledmys Diaz. With two on and no outs, Rays manager Kevin Cash was taking no chances. He pulled Snell and went to ace reliever Diego Castillo.

Quick hooks and bullpen games are what the Rays do, but Snell, a former Cy Young winner, was not particularly happy about being pulled with 82 pitches. Sorry in advance for the profanity, lip readers:

The decision to pull Snell backfired horribly. Martin Maldonado bunted the runners up to second and third, then George Springer drove them in with a single. A double (Jose Altuve), a walk (Michael Brantley), and a single (Carlos Correa) brought home two more runs. The Rays went from nursing a 1-0 lead to trailing 4-1 in the blink of an eye.

Prior to the Springer double, Tampa’s bullpen had stranded all 21 runners they inherited this postseason, the most ever to begin a postseason. Castillo, who had thrown 7 1/3 scoreless innings in the postseason going into Game 6, allowed four of the first five batters he faced to reach base, with the Maldonado bunt the only exception. 

Bullpen decisions are ripe for second guessing and, given the current trajectory of the series, the decision to pull Snell and replace him with Castillo will be talked about endlessly. There are two ways to look at this. One, Cash made a huge mistake and should’ve shown more faith in his ace. Blame analytics! That’s what we do when a progressive move backfires, right?

And two, it was the right move, it just didn’t work. Castillo has been lights out this postseason — he did not pitch in Games 4 or 5, so he was rested too — and Snell labored all night. There were two runners on base and the lineup was about to turn over a third time, and Snell’s splits are alarming:

  • First time through lineup: .140/.253/.209 (.462 OPS)
  • Second time through lineup: .307/.350/.627 (.977 OPS)
  • Third time through lineup: .304/.304/.609 (.913 OPS)

The splits were not nearly as drastic last season (.671 OPS to .730 OPS to .716 OPS), but the most recent information is the most relevant, and Snell has had issues going through the lineup multiple times. He walked four batters in four innings plus two batters and wasn’t especially sharp in Game 1 either. This wasn’t a guy dominating the Astros for the second time in the ALCS, you know?

In a short series, it’s fair to wonder whether Tampa’s bullpen-centric approach has diminishing returns. Castillo faced Springer and Altuve in Games 1 and 3 of the series — he faced Brantley in Game 3 as well — before facing them in Game 6. They’re familiar with him now. Nick Anderson was pitching for the third time in the series when he gave up Correa’s walk-off homer in Game 5.

Right move or wrong move, it’s up to the players to perform, and Castillo did not. He was gifted an out on the bunt and the inning unraveled after that. Credit the Astros for getting the runs in and taking advantage of Cash’s questionable decision. Should the Astros come back to win the series, that decision will be seen as an obvious turning point.

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