Boston – The pitching arm is extremely demanding. You can’t just ignore it and expect it to work when you need it. Thankfully, though, it’s not picky. Just ask David Robertson.
Ten weeks before returning to the Majors with the Tampa Bay Rays to face the Boston Red Sox, Robertson needed somewhere 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 weeks away, and Robertson’s hand was begging for competition.
Robertson was therefore suitable for an amateur men’s league team at Cardins Field in Newport, RI, not far from his home in Barrington. He played two innings but he does not remember the name of his team.
“I had to give back my jersey; I didn’t want to take it from them because I wasn’t coming back,” Robertson said before a somewhat high-profile game at Fenway Park on Sunday. “I know it was Sunset League, though, and I was definitely the oldest.”
For the record, Robertson pitched for Westcott Properties Against R And R Construction. Before long he was in Tokyo, returning with two saves and a silver medal, and from there it was a Durham Bulls, Raze Class AAA affiliate.
And now, after a September call-up, Robertson is back for the seventh time post-season. The right-hander has pitched in all three matches of this American League Division series against the Red Sox, conceding no runs in four innings, including a 6-4 loss in 13 innings on Sunday. The Red Sox lead a best-of-five series, two games to one, with Game 4 scheduled for Monday night in Boston.
“Robby has been there and done it all,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash, who nabbed Robertson for the Yankees World Series title team in 2009. “He stands out on the biggest stage, in the biggest moments. I think his experiential knowledge of navigating through challenging times and challenging locations has been a huge advantage to our entire roster.”
Robertson, 36, isn’t Ray’s oldest player—designated hitter Nelson Cruz is 41—but he is the oldest pitcher ever. He reached the majors with the Yankees in 2008, and two years later began a series of nine seasons with at least 60 appearances.
Then his hand betrayed 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. He said his recovery had been good, until the pandemic toppled his routine, set him back and cost him a brief 2020 season. The Phillies rejected their club option for 2021.
Robertson stopped signing with a team until after the Olympics, where he closed out victories against South Korea and the Dominican Republic and also won against Japan, which won the gold medal. Playing without any fans, he got a taste of the real major league experience he missed in 2020.
“It was an interesting journey, put it this way – just a huge stadium with no one and you can hear everything,” said Robertson. “They were playing very early because they were short of time between innings. But it was amazing.”
Robertson chose the Rays, he said, because of his familiarity with the Tampa area and the AL East. He also knew that Rez had some injuries in his bullpen and thought he could easily slip into the role of late.
However, much of the Rays’ success comes from adopting the unconventional. He’s had 14 different pitchers this season, setting a major league record, and his relievers know how to be ready at all times. (On Sunday he used Andrew Kittredge, his only All-Star reliever this season, to suppress a rally in the third inning.)
Robertson, as it turned out, was ready for anything.
“In early interviews, he’s like, ‘Whatever, I’m good, three innings, no problem,'” said Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder, who let Robertson start a game. “You can get some people who come here at least halfway from the last generation, who don’t necessarily buy into it.
“I know from an industry standpoint, what we do is taken a little critically. But we keep doing what we’re doing. We can’t ride the same wave that everyone else does; we They can’t spend the money they can. We have to find ways to maximize our roster.”
In some ways, of course, the Rays are a troubled franchise. Long with poor attendance, they are pushing for a questionable dual-city plan in which they will play half their home games in Montreal. According to Baseball Prospectus, his consistently low payroll — just $83 million for a 40-man roster this year — gives him the freedom to experiment with mostly low-cost players who are happy when he gets the chance.
His success presents a problem for the players as a whole. By proving that they can win with a low budget (the Rays have the best record in the AL over the past two seasons) are the Rays undercutting the value of players’ earnings?
As for Robertson, a former player representative for the Major League Baseball Players Association, he said he was not worried.
“It always finds itself troubling where unions and MLBPA come to an agreement where people will be able to get a greater share of their market value,” he said. “It’s a place where people can come in, find out what they’re doing and then they can leave here because they’re earning too much to be on this roster.”
Though they are together, however, the Rays know they are part of an ever-evolving experiment to produce a winner. It doesn’t always work; a pitching staff encouraged to fill the strike zone Sometimes hit hard, as the Rays have been since being shut out in the first match of the series.
But his presence season after season is a testament to his ingenuity. The Rays will be looking for a player somewhere who can help, even if it is pitted against R&R Construction on its winding path until October.