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Dave Roberts pulled the right strings using Kenley Jansen in 7th, Clayton Kershaw in 9th

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This postseason, perhaps more than ever, is shining a light on the importance of optimal bullpen management. Orioles manager Buck Showalter refused to use closer Zach Britton in the American League Wild Card game against the Blue Jays and it cost his team as Edwin Encarnacion blasted a walk-off three-run home run off of Ubaldo Jimenez. Giants manager Bruce Bochy had no confidence in his bullpen, shuffling through basically everyone in the bullpen… except Santiago Casilla.

For years, those of a Sabermetric bent have been illustrating how anachronistic the save statistic is and how outmoded current bullpen strategy is. Still, in 2016, managers adhere to rigidly-defined roles for their relievers, rarely ever venturing to use their closers outside of a situation or a tie game at home. Indians manager Terry Francona broke that mold in the ALDS against the Red Sox, using Andrew Miller — one of the three best relievers in baseball — in the fifth inning of Game 1 and in the sixth inning of Game 3.

That leads us to Game 5 of the NLDS between the Dodgers and Nationals on Thursday night. Lefty reliever Grant Dayton started the seventh inning but struggled, walking Danny Espinosa before serving up a two-run homer to pinch-hitter Chris Heisey to pull the game to 4-3. Dayton gave up a single to Clint Robinson before manager Dave Roberts decided to bring in his closer, Kenley Jansen. Jansen is, somehow, an underappreciated reliever still despite posting a 1.83 ERA with a 104/11 K/BB ratio over 68 2/3 innings during the regular season.

Leverage index is a statistic used to note how important a particular situation is. According to FanGraphs, a “high” leverage situation is anything with a Leverage Index above 2.00. The six at-bats Jansen had against the Nationals had LI’s of 3.14, 2.59, 4.14, 3.97, 4.52, and 6.24. In the eighth, they would be 2.46, 3.98, 3.33, and 2.40. His final three batters in the ninth had LI’s of 3.40, 2.55, and 4.61. If you’re going to use your best relief arm, those were the spots to do it.

Also worth noting: yes, Jansen pitched into his third inning of work. He threw 51 pitches in total, by far surpassing his previous single-game high of 42, set back on April 2, 2011.

If you thought Roberts’ bullpen management couldn’t get more unorthodox, ace Clayton Kershaw walked out to the bullpen after the end of the eighth inning and began warming up. Jansen got into some trouble in the ninth inning, issuing back-to-back walks to Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth. So Roberts brought in Kershaw on two days’ rest. I need not recall Kershaw’s stats to explain why this was the right move. Kershaw got Daniel Murphy to pop up (7.13 LI) before striking out Wilmer Difo (6.56 LI) to send the Dodgers to the NLCS to face the Cubs.

The storyline in 2014 and ’15 with the Royals was that a lights-out bullpen was crucial to postseason success. This postseason is going a step further. A team needs not only a great bullpen, but the ability to strategize optimally to get the most out of the roster. That’s part of the reason why the Indians and Dodgers have advanced to the League Championship Series.

Rays beat Mets 8-5, clinch 1st AL East title in 10 years

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NEW YORK (AP) Confetti instead of champagne. Silly string instead of beer.

The Tampa Bay Rays, long accustomed to doing more with less, figured out a way to maximize the division-clinching celebration they were allowed to enjoy during a 2020 season shortened by the coronavirus.

Randy Arozarena homered twice and the Rays clinched their first AL East title in 10 years Wednesday night with an 8-5 victory over the New York Mets.

“I’m completely dry right now, which I’m not a huge fan of,” center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, the longest-tenured Rays player, said with a grin. “But you have to adapt to what we’re asked of.”

With teams instructed to celebrate in a muted and socially distant style, the Rays went old school – or maybe elementary school – with their clinching party.

The team filed slowly onto the field after Nick Anderson fanned Andres Gimenez for the final out. A couple of players shot off canisters filled with confetti that eventually dotted the grass and dirt at Citi Field. Hugs and handshakes were exchanged before the Rays doused one another with silly string and lit some cigars in the visiting clubhouse.

Later, hooting and hollering could be heard from the visitors’ dugout.

“We’re little kids trapped in grown men’s bodies,” Kiermaier said.

Joey Wendle and Brandon Lowe also went deep for the Rays to back Tyler Glasnow‘s six solid innings. Tampa Bay will be home at quirky Tropicana Field for a best-of-three first-round playoff series beginning next Tuesday.

It is the third division crown for the thrifty Rays, whose payroll this season is just over $28 million – more than only the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles. Tampa Bay, which began play in 1998, also won the AL East, home of two big-spending powers in the Yankees and Red Sox, in 2008 and 2010.

“It feels great to win the division, no matter what division you’re in,” Kiermaier said. “But especially the American League East – it’s just a different animal.”

After missing a chance to clinch Tuesday, the Rays went into Wednesday again needing just a win or a Yankees loss against Toronto to lock up the division championship.

The Rays (37-20) broke a 2-all tie in the sixth on Arozarena’s two-run homer off Michael Wacha and pulled away, taking care of business themselves while New York was routed 14-1 by the Blue Jays.

“At the end of the day, a clinch is a clinch,” said Wendle, who homered in the second. “But to do it on a win – everybody’s kind of riding the high of winning the game along with the division. We didn’t want to see it come down to them losing a game.”

Tampa Bay also is closing in on wrapping up the top record in the AL and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

Lowe, who had an RBI fielder’s choice in the third, hit a two-run homer in the eighth. Willy Adames added an RBI single later in the inning and Arozarena homered again in the ninth.

The insurance came in handy for the Rays when the Mets scored three times off Oliver Drake in the ninth – via an RBI groundout by Robinson Cano and a two-run homer by Todd Frazier – before Anderson closed the door.

“I think we had the game pretty much in control (and) certainly recognized what was going on in Buffalo, but I don’t know if you can ever prepare for a moment like that – it’s pretty special,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said.

Glasnow (5-1) allowed two runs on three hits and one walk with eight strikeouts.

Gimenez and Dominic Smith homered off Glasnow in the final home game of the season for the Mets, whose long-shot playoff hopes were further damaged with the loss. New York began the day 2 1/2 games out of an NL wild-card spot.

“We still have a shot with the four games left and we’re competing,” manager Luis Rojas said. “We’ve just got to do what we do – just keep fighting like we did in the ninth.”

Wacha allowed four runs on six hits and struck out four in six innings.

STABLE SHIRT

Rays pitcher Charlie Morton sported a T-shirt picturing a stable of horses as he spoke with reporters during a pregame Zoom call. Morton did little to discourage the notion the shirt was inspired by Cash’s viral rant earlier this month, when he declared the Rays have “a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 mph” after Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman threw near Mike Brousseau’s head in the ninth inning Sept. 4.

“The stable shirt?” Morton said. “It was in my locker last week and I like horses.”

With a grin obviously growing even behind his Rays mask, Morton said he rode horses as a kid.

“So I was ecstatic to see this shirt in my locker and I wore it,” he said.

As for the fireballers on the Rays’ pitching staff?

“We’ve got some guys that throw really hard,” Morton said.

ANOTHER LOSING SEASON

The loss guaranteed the Mets (25-31) will finish with a sub-.500 record for the ninth time in the last 12 seasons – a total matched or exceeded only by the Chicago White Sox (nine), Miami Marlins (10) and San Diego Padres (10). The White Sox and Padres have already clinched playoff spots and a winning record, while the Marlins are in second place in the NL East.

New York made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons in 2015 and 2016 and went 86-76 last year.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Rays: LHP Jose Alvarado (shoulder, lat) is scheduled to throw batting practice to 3B Yandy Diaz (hamstring) and 1B Ji-Man Choi (hamstring) at Tropicana Field on Thursday. Cash said all three players are progressing and he hopes they are available for the playoffs. . Brousseau (oblique) missed a fourth consecutive game. Cash said he would have been available off the bench if needed

Mets: RF Michael Conforto (hamstring) returned to the lineup as the designated hitter after missing two games and went 0 for 4. . The Mets activated RHP Dellin Betances (lat), who last pitched Aug. 29, and optioned RHP Corey Oswalt to the alternate site.

UP NEXT

Rays: After a day off Thursday, Morton (2-2, 4.64 ERA) is scheduled to get his postseason tuneup in the opener of a series against the Phillies on Friday.

Mets: Rookie LHP David Peterson (5-2, 3.80 ERA) opens a four-game road series against the Nationals. Peterson struck out a career-high 10 against the Braves last Saturday.