In tandem with their famously small payroll and consistently pitiful attendance numbers, the Tampa Bay Rays are defined by their tactical ingenuity. No team defies orthodoxy quite like the Rays, who don't have a go-to lineup and who deploy their relievers in the most aggressive and unconventional ways. That pioneering mindset - especially in the latter regard - played an integral role in getting them to the World Series.
With the American League pennant on the line Saturday, Rays manager Kevin Cash pulled starter Charlie Morton in the middle of a gem against the Houston Astros. Morton hadn't allowed a run. He'd thrown only 66 pitches. He was working with a 3-0 lead. But when a two-out single in the top of the sixth brought the tying run to the plate, Cash - keenly aware of Morton's pronounced third-time-through-the-order struggles - went to the bullpen, unfazed. The decision, which drew widespread ire, worked out: Nick Anderson promptly retired the first batter he faced, quashing the threat.
It was Cash's second "controversial" move in as many days. The day prior, Cash removed Blake Snell, his club's ostensible ace, in the top of the fifth, after the former Cy Young Award winner allowed the first two batters of the inning to reach. Like Morton, Snell was pitching a shutout to that point. The decision irked Snell, who called it "frustrating," but it can't have surprised him. This - optimizing every matchup and eking out every marginal advantage, aesthetics be damned - is what the Rays do. It's how they win.
Yet in Game 1 of the World Series, the Rays curiously deviated from that script. Instead of an early call to his behemoth of a bullpen in the series opener, Cash afforded his starter, Tyler Glasnow, an unusually long leash against the game's most prolific lineup, a decision that precipitated a disastrous fifth inning and led to a series-opening, 8-3 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
As electric as his stuff looked, Glasnow, the towering right-hander who managed a 4.66 ERA across his first four 2020 postseason starts, wasn't particularly sharp in his first World Series start. His fastball sizzled, topping out at 101 mph, and his curveball befuddled in concert, but his command was off: Glasnow consistently worked deep into counts from the get-go, and had already issued four walks - and allowed a two-run homer to Cody Bellinger - on 86 pitches by the time the fifth inning came around.
Still, even with the top of the Dodgers' lineup - the formidable trio of Mookie Betts, Corey Seager, and Justin Turner - due up, Cash sent his laboring starter back out there. Considering the Rays' modus operandi, it was fair to presume Glasnow would be lifted at the first sign of trouble. But he wasn't.
Glasnow walked Betts on five pitches. He walked Seager, too. Yet Cash remained uncharacteristically passive, leaving Glasnow in for another three batters and taking him out only after a line-drive single from Will Smith extended the Dodgers' lead to 4-1. At that point, L.A.'s win expectancy was 91.8%, per FanGraphs. Glasnow ended up throwing 112 pitches. Only twice during the abbreviated regular season did Glasnow reach triple digits, with his previous season high being 105. Two more runs ultimately scored in the inning, both charged to him.
In Cash's defense, Glasnow is something of an anomaly in that he has few third-time-through-the-order issues. For his career, Glasnow's more effective facing an opponent for the third time in a game than he is in their first or second plate appearances. Moreover, once Betts made it to third base with less than two outs (he swiped it on a double-steal with Turner at the plate), there is some merit to going with - or rather leaving in - your best strikeout pitcher: Glasnow posted the 11th-highest strikeout rate (38.2%) in the majors this year among those with at least 20 innings pitched, trumping even elite relievers in that department. And Glasnow did induce weak contact on the unconverted fielder's choice off the bat of Max Muncy that scored Betts from third with one out.
On the other hand, Tampa Bay's bullpen - that "stable of guys who throw 98," as Cash put it - is deeper and stronger than any other in the game. It's one of the bedrocks of the Rays' success. All of their relievers were somewhat rested, too, and have a scheduled breather Thursday after Game 2. Cash could've gone to one of his late-inning stoppers, be it Pete Fairbanks or Diego Castillo, following the leadoff walk to Betts or after the subsequent walk to Seager, and still had plenty of firepower for later in the game. That move would've been decidedly on-brand for the Rays, who used their occasional closer, Anderson, in the sixth inning a few days ago. Instead, after making it abundantly clear in the ALCS that he would rather take his starter out an inning too early (and risk pissing him off) than a batter too late, Cash stuck with a clearly-scuffling Glasnow, who likely won't be able to pitch again in any capacity until Game 5 after so exerting himself in the series opener.
Whether the series lasts five games remains to be seen. But in order to upset these seemingly invincible Dodgers, the Rays will need to be every bit as tactically aggressive and adaptable as they were through the previous three rounds of the postseason and not nearly as - dare I say it - old school as they were in Game 1.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.