Fernando Rodney is in very rare territory

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The Rays have had the magic touch with lightly regarded relievers before, but Fernando Rodney is easily their biggest success story yet.

The 35-year-old Rodney recorded his 31st save Wednesday, moving himself into a tie for the major league lead, and lowered his ERA to 0.74 with a scoreless inning in a 4-1 win over the A’s.

With the season nearly two-thirds over, Rodney is on pace to join Dennis Eckersley as the second reliever ever to save 40 games with a sub-1.00 ERA.

Eckersley saved 48 games and posted a 0.61 ERA in 73 1/3 innings for the A’s in 1990. That wasn’t his Cy Young and MVP year, though; he got those awards two years later when he finished with 51 saves and a 1.91 ERA in 80 innings.

Just 11 pitchers since 1900 have posted an ERA under 1.00 in at least 50 innings. It happened four times during the deadball era and once by Bill Henry in 1964. The rest to do it were modern relievers:

Rob Murphy (1986 Reds): 0.72 in 50.1 IP
Eckersley (1990 A’s): 0.61 in 73/1 IP
Chris Hammond (2002 Braves): 0.95 in 76 IP
Jonathan Papelbon (2006 Red Sox): 0.92 in 68.1 IP
Dennys Reyes (2006 Twins): 0.89 in 50.2 IP
Eric O’Flaherty (2011 Braves): 0.98 in 73.2 IP

Papelbon, the only closer besides Eckersley in the group, finished with 35 saves in 2006.

After Papelbon, a few others have managed 40 saves with ERAs just above 1.00:

John Smoltz (2003 Braves): 1.12, 45 sv
Jose Mesa (1995 Indians): 1.12, 46 sv
Eric Gagne (2003 Dodgers): 1.20, 55 Sv
Armando Benitez (2004 Marlins): 1.29, 47 Sv

So Rodney could best them all this year, which would be especially amazing considering that his best ERA in the five years from 2007-11 was a 4.24 mark. His career best in a full season was 3.52 in 2006, though he did come in at 2.86 in 44 innings in 2005.

I should also note that Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel could possibly save 40 games with a sub-1.00 ERA as well if he’s near flawless from here on in. He’s pitched 40 innings and allowed six runs so far, giving him a 1.35 ERA to go along with his 30 saves.

A.J. Hinch: “We’ll use every pitcher in Game 7 if we have to”

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It’s not entirely clear why the Astros threw Ken Giles into the ninth inning of Game 6 of the ALCS. With a six-run advantage and the bottom half of the Yankees’ lineup due up, pushing the series to its seven-game capacity looked like a sure bet. Giles may be one of Houston’s better bullpen arms, but he’s not their only option, and it would have made more sense to keep him fresh for a do-or-die Game 7 on Saturday night.

Of course, there’s no such thing as a sure bet when it comes to postseason baseball. That’s more or less what Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch had to say after the game, telling reporters that he had envisioned a quick three outs from his closer as they tried to pull back from the brink of elimination. “We didn’t have the luxury of limping into that inning,” Hinch said. “We’ve seen how these guys can explode in these innings.”

It’s not difficult to recall the Yankees’ explosive drive in the eighth inning of Game 4, when they exploited the holes in Houston’s ‘pen and evened the series with Gary Sanchez‘s go-ahead double off of Giles. Back home in Minute Maid Park, however, there was a slightly different feel to the eighth and ninth innings of Game 6. Jose Altuve led off the eighth with a solo home run, followed by Alex Bregman‘s two-run double and Evan Gattis‘ sac fly. In the ninth, Giles labored through a 23-pitch outing to lock down the win, handing out a base hit and a seven-pitch walk before eventually whiffing Chase Headley on three straight pitches for the last out.

So, while Hinch’s decision to lean on Giles in Game 6 may have felt wasteful, his concerns were not entirely unfounded. He’s prepared to roll with the same strategy during Saturday’s series finale, too, leaving nothing on the table as the Astros battle for their first World Series showdown since 2005. According to Dallas Keuchel, that means all hands on deck — except for Justin Verlander, whose four wins, 24 strikeouts and 1.46 postseason ERA have gotten the Astros as far as he could possibly be expected to take them. “No pitcher is going to be in the dugout,” said Keuchel. “They’re all going to be in the bullpen, myself included. Any way we can help out, we’re trying to get to the World Series, the same way the Yankees are, and that’s a nice feeling to have.”

Does that mean Giles will be available for a Game 7 appearance? Stranger things have happened. Joe Sheehan notes that the right-hander has pitched in back-to-back days 13 times this year, though he’s never thrown as many as 23 pitches on Day 1. Granted, he likely doesn’t have enough left in the tank for another 20+ pitch run on Saturday, but with the World Series on the line, any help he can offer will be invaluable.