BOSTON – The throwing arm is extremely demanding. You can’t just ignore it and expect it to work when you need it. Fortunately, however, he is not picky. Just ask David Robertson.
Ten weeks before he returned to majors with the Tampa Bay Rays to face the Boston Red Sox, Robertson needed a place to pitch. It was late June and he had already helped the United States Olympic team qualify for the Tokyo Games. But the international tournament was a few weeks away and Robertson’s arm begged for competition.
Robertson therefore adapted for an amateur men’s league team at Cardines Field in Newport, RI, not far from his home in Barrington. He pitched two innings but does not remember the name of his team.
“I had to return my jersey; I didn’t want to take it away from them because I wasn’t coming back, ”said Robertson on Sunday, ahead of a slightly more publicized game at Fenway Park. “I know it was the Sunset League, though, and I was definitely the oldest guy.”
For the record, Robertson pleaded for Westcott Properties against R&R Construction. Soon after, he was in Tokyo, winning two saves and coming back with a silver medal, and from there he was on the Durham Bulls, the Class AAA affiliate of the Rays.
And now, after a call-up in September, Robertson is back in the playoffs for the seventh time. Robertson, a right-hander, pitched in all three games of this American League division series against the Red Sox, allowing no runs in four innings, including two in Sunday’s 6-4 loss in 13 innings. The Red Sox lead the series in best-of-five games, two-to-one, with Game four scheduled for Monday night in Boston.
“Robbie was there and did it all,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash, who caught up with Robertson for the Yankees’ World Series champion team in 2009. “He pitched on the biggest stage, the biggest moments. I think her seasoned knowledge of how to navigate tough times and difficult sites has been a big plus for our entire list. “
Robertson, 36, isn’t the Rays’ oldest player – designated hitter Nelson Cruz is 41 – but he’s the oldest pitcher. He reached major tournaments with the Yankees in 2008, and two years later he started a nine-season streak with at least 60 appearances.
Then his arm betrays him. In his first month of a two-year, $ 23 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, Robertson tore his flexor tendon and ulnar collateral ligament. His recovery went well, he said, until the pandemic hijacked his routine, pushing him back and costing him the abridged 2020 season. The Phillies declined his club option for 2021.
Robertson postponed signing with a team until after the Olympics, where he scored victories against South Korea and the Dominican Republic and also pitched against Japan, which won gold. Playing without fans, he got a taste of the surreal major league experience he missed in 2020.
“It was an interesting trip, let’s put it that way – just a huge stadium with no one inside and you could hear it all,” said Robertson. “These are very rushed games, due to the time constraints they had between the sets. But it was awesome. “
Robertson picked the Rays, he said, because of his familiarity with the Tampa area and the AL East. He also knew the Rays had injuries in their enclosure and figured he could easily slip into a late-inning role.
Much of the Rays’ success, however, comes from embracing the unconventional. They had 14 different pitchers with one stoppage this season, setting a major league record, and their relievers know to be ready at all times. (On Sunday, they used Andrew Kittredge, their only All-Star reliever this season, to stifle a third inning rally.)
It turned out that Robertson was ready for anything.
“In the initial interview, he said, ‘Whatever, I’m fine, three innings, no problem,” said Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder, who also let Robertson start a game. “You might have guys coming here, at least halfway through a previous generation, who don’t necessarily buy into that.
“I know from an industry perspective what we do is being looked at a bit critically. But we only do what we do. We cannot ride the same wave as everyone else; we can’t spend the money they can. We need to find ways to maximize our list. “
In some ways, of course, the Rays are a struggling franchise. With chronically low attendance, they lobbied for a questionable dual city plan in which they would play half of their home games in Montreal. Their still low payroll – just $ 83 million for the 40-player roster this year, according to Baseball Prospectus – gives them the freedom to experiment with mostly low-cost players, just happy for the opportunity.
Their success poses a problem for all players. By proving they can win on a small budget (the Rays have had the best AL record in each of the past two seasons), are the Rays diminishing the value of players’ earnings?
Robertson, as a former player representative to the Major League Baseball Players Association, said he was not concerned.
“It always repeats itself when the union and MLBPA come to a deal where the guys can get a bigger chunk of their market value,” he said. “It’s more of a place where guys can come in, figure out what they’re doing and then they could leave here because they’re earning too much to stay on this list.”
While they’re together, however, the Rays seem to know they’re part of an ever-evolving experiment on how to create a winner. It doesn’t always work; a pitching staff encouraged to fill the strike zone can get hit hard at times, as the Rays have been since their shutout in Game 1 of this series.
But their presence in the playoffs is a testament to their ingenuity. The Rays will be looking anywhere for a player who could help them, even though he played against R&R Construction on his winding path until October.