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From Wounded Wood Duck To Thoroughbred In A World Series-Bound "Stable"

Do you know the typical setting of a rookie reliever making his 1,000th Major League pitch? That answer is an emphatic "No" perhaps followed by a good-natured "No one does." Even in today's pitch count-centric world, that's not a threshold any analyst is rattling off during a telecast. But, by diving heavy into the research, I found out that we may have witnessed the most iconic instance in baseball history on Saturday night.

For your [modern] classic one-inning bullpen guys, with an average of 17 pitches per, you're looking at their 58th career appearance. With the focus on service time and "starting the free agency clock" it's become really tough to squeeze that many outings into a singular rookie campaign. 

On the rare occasion that a rookie spends an entire season with a Major League club like a Jeurys Familia did with the 2014 New York Mets 1,000 occurs during appearance number 61 in the dog days of summer (August 20). He went on to appear in 15 more games and throw 221 more pitches.  

Those quantities are right up against the dreaded "rookie wall"  uncharted territory due to a Major League Baseball calendar that extends far beyond any other level of the sport. What to expect when a pitcher is throwing a single-season amount they've never eclipsed is a mystery. The instances of bad usually outnumber the good. Thus, the trend has become to hold back young arms until at least Memorial Day.

When you make your MLB debut in June, like an Edwin Diaz did for the Seattle Mariners in 2016, you make 49 appearances and 839 pitches in Year 1. If that team doesn't make the playoffs  or said player isn't included on the Postseason roster  pitch number 1,000 has to wait until the following year. Should the rookie make the roster right out of camp, the "milestone" occurs in an innocuous early-season game. With our Diaz example, it happened to be a 0-1 slider to Jose Ramirez on a random Friday in late April of 2017. Though it did help improve Seattle's record to 11-13, it was pretty forgettable by all accounts. 

This is a normal storyline for mid-season call-ups that carry over rookie status to a following Spring Training. Break camp in March with a steady gig and roll over a new place on the odometer by May. But nothing has been normal about 2020. Thanks to Covid-19 and a shortened regular season, Peter Fairbanks of the Tampa Bay Rays was called upon to throw the 1,000th of his MLB career in the pressure cooker of the eighth inning of Game 7 in the 2020 American League Championship Series. 

Reaching 1,000 in the middle of October was unique enough a scenario, but the 6'6" rookie added to the oddity in a way few others can: a shoulder-high 100.4 MPH fastball to get Houston Astros third basemen Alex Bregman swinging and end the threat. Not exactly ho-hum Game #24 of 162. Bregman represented a two-time All-Star, former Silver Slugger, runner-up in 2019 AL MVP voting, and most importantly, de facto winning run in a winner-takes-the-pennant game. 

The tilt was only the 18th such Game 7 in the history of Major League Baseball. To add some adrenaline to the moment, the reliever was much more accustomed to throwing in the sixth (21% of the time), seventh (29%), or eighth (14%) than the ninth. Entering the 2020 Postseason, Fairbanks almost had as many career Games Started (2) as Games Finished (5). He's not a guy typically thrust into a moment that large. 

Adding to the drama was all the talk around baseball focusing on the Rays "pulling an '04 Yankees"  a shameful moniker that constitutes monumental collapse. That's a lot to put on a young pitcher's shoulders. Having him look over those same shoulders to find a starting pitcher warming in the bullpen was worse. Sure, a manager needs such contingency plans at the ready, but doing so comes with a psychological risk. It's a delicate balance of preparedness without making the man on center stage feel like you believe he will falter.    

Though the optimism may have been tepid in the dugout, the Rays' bullpen kept the faith. When asked about entering that ninth inning, Tyler Glasnow said, "I was praying I didn't, because Pete was going to come out and shove."

Indeed Pete did. He came in a little deer-in-headlights and plenty amped up, but settled in nicely. You face the stone-faced assassin in Michael Brantley with two runners on and try to do much better than a walk. And on deck? Only the guy whose dramatic ninth-inning, walk-off home run extended the series two nights prior. Carlos Correa took Nick Anderson deep and made a once-lopsided 3-0 series very interesting at 3-2. It was no longer a "cute" series or a sign of one prideful club saving face in a gentleman's sweep. 

With yet another Astros' win on Friday, it had grown into a five-alarm "Oh no, are they really going to blow this?"

For added magnitude of the situation, Fairbanks was carrying the hopes of 29 fan bases that want the vile Houston Astros' title-chasing window to come to a close (and the entire house knocked down). Even by 2020 standards, it would be a gross miscarriage of karmic justice for proven cheaters to stand on the podium as World Champions.  

It's human nature to have all these thoughts creep in; it's merely what you do with them that defines you. Do you succumb to all the reasons why you can't and those with the pedigree should? Or do you push through, trust your stuff, and send your club to its second-ever World Series berth? 

We now have our answer, and know exactly what Peter Fairbanks is made of. Well, the casual baseball fan is just now finding out. Some of us have been fortunate to know his exemplary mental fortitude for years. 

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Without my beloved Cleveland Indians in Major League Baseball's equivalent of the Final Four, I once again find myself talking about the smoke-and-mirror greatness that is the Tampa Bay Rays. As you may recall, this is not my first time lauding the organization. 

I guess it's that whole "enemy of my enemy is my friend" adage. Supporting anyone that takes out the Yankees, Twins, or Sox (of either color) is an easy thing to do. Take it a step further and eliminate this particular Houston Astros team? Baseball fans across America will hold a coast-to-coast parade in your honor.

In writing about the Rays this time around, however, the "friend" is quite literal my buddy, Peter Fairbanks. And the story is hyper-focused on his last three years in and out of professional baseball.

The young man's journey from total rebuild to the 2020 World Series is nothing short of amazing. And not in your typical tear-jerking Cinderella sort of way; more like a "work your ass off to make your own breaks" storyline.

This doesn't aim to be a cliché-filled fluff piece. No motivational poster rhetoric. No slogans you'd expect to see high school teams print on their offseason weightlifting shirts. Likewise, this is not some "never give up on your dreams, kid" speech. Sometimes in life, you simply have to be a "dude" as a prerequisite for this type of fairytale to take place. Being injury-prone, undersized, and untested by quality competition would have closed the book on Fairbanks a long, long time ago. You can be granted more chances if you're only that first one, but not the last two. That's the cold, hard truth of scouting. There is such a thing as insurmountable adversity no matter how hard you try.

Let's not get it twisted; this is the story of a supremely gifted athlete. And he certainly didn't "come out of nowhere." Same franchise, but The Rookie this is not. Have a 6'6" frame with SEC pitching experience, a father who made it to the Minor Leagues, and get drafted inside the top 10 rounds of the MLB Draft. Then... "never give up on your dreams, kid."

And even in that, Pete arguably did something "stubbornly foolish" and "improbable." Statistics show he should have packed up his tents and gone home. The number of comparable cases that end in heartbreak far outweigh those that make it.

Results like Saturday's ALCS Game 7 prove the lesson here is more about avoiding comfort zones than blind hope. Or, spun another way, impeccable self awareness to say the very thing that made you good needs to be completely discarded so that greatness can be achieved.

Apollo 13 when the crew "lost the moon." Ernest Shackleton's Expedition when it was clear they would not reach the South Pole. Certain missions have moments where all parties realize they've come a commendable distance, but continuing on in the previous manner will end in utter disaster. Now, it's human nature to be angry at the suggestion that turning back and restarting from scratch is the right move, but it is.

Peter Fairbanks was presented with a similar no-win proposition: tear down every single piece of his pitching mechanics or quit altogether. He had gotten to a point where the way he threw a baseball was so detrimental to his health and success that there was no alternative but to learn another method. Think about that: something inherent, something he had done hundreds of thousands of times since the age of three, needed to be Etch-A-Sketch'd and redrawn mid-career with no promises from any MLB club, nor long list of precedent setters waiting for him on the other side.

This is the path he willingly took on; here is what led him to that harsh reality.

2017:

It was the inaugural season of the Down East Wood Ducks, Advanced-A ball affiliate of the Texas Rangers — based in Kinston, North Carolina. The club was an anemic 36-59 as the bus rolled into Myrtle Beach for four games in three days.

In game 3 of the series, on July 21, Fairbanks was one out away from slamming the door on a rare 5-1 victory. Then came an all-too-familiar pop. For those who have undergone Tommy John surgery before, the feeling of another ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) tear is known in an instant. The ticking time bomb in his right elbow had gone off again. The previous instance was as a junior in high school, back in 2011.

At that point, Fairbanks was a low-90s guy with a “dogshit” slider (his words), a second scar on his right elbow, and a 5.97 ERA in the one of the lowest rungs on the professional baseball ladder. He wasn't striking anyone out (4.8 K/9) while walking the world (6.3 BB/9). Sprinkle in 22 hits over a pedestrian 18.1 IP and he was allowing nearly two base runners per inning (1.875 WHIP). Even though he was a huge upside ninth-round pick out of Mizzou, and only 23 years old, he was about as close to being a Major Leaguer as you and me.

This is the point of his journey where I first met Pete. After successful reconstruction surgery, he became a regular at All-Star Performance (ASP) in St. Louis. I was a pitching instructor, 16U coach for the highly-decorated Gamers program. While at nearby Webster Groves High School (2008-12), Pete was a member of the winter/summer organization. As part of his rehab, the alumnus was back to assist with strength training and conditioning the new batch of high schoolers. It was an opportunity for him to repair any damage to his mind more than his arm.

Fairbanks practically lived at ASP. It was his sanctuary to chase away any feeling sorry for himself. From that depth, he was able to pour a solid foundation for what was to come. Like so many that get their first taste of coaching, the kids he worked with helped him as much he helped them. They reignited his passion for the sport; keeping his eyes on the prize. And, as an added bonus, Fairbanks was able to mix in his necessary work as demonstrator of each exercise.

We hit it off immediately. He was my type of quirk. Great sense of humor; quoting all the right lines from the best obscure comedies and Bo Burnham tracks. He reminded me a ton of my brother, who was also born in 1993. I would have loved to share a bullpen bench with him in college.

But when it came to providing lessons on mechanics to 13U-17U pitchers, it was quite the "do as I say, not as I do" coaching style. At that time, he was working through his own research on what his new delivery would look like. As Will Smith says in Hitch: "'You' is a very fluid concept right now."

2018:

All-Star Performance was a drug to an addict. Watch him on the mound for a half inning and you'll be gripped by his intensity. I'm not sure if he blinked once in the eighth inning of Game 7 Saturday night.

It's not as hyperbolic as the phrase gets tossed about: Fairbanks was the first one there and last to leave. He wanted to jump ahead to Day 150 of his rehab by Week 4. Trainer Tanner Dallas once told me, "he worked to the point where I had to tell him to step on the brakes every now and then."

Everything he did in the weight room was explosive, so it is of little surprise the delivery that emerged from the ash was similarly violent.

The bullpen is where the real fun was had. It was a collaborative laboratory that rivaled the Rangers' spring training/rookie ball facility in Surprise, Arizona. Fairbanks' St. Louis-based team consisted of former Major Leaguer Matt Whiteside; standouts in independent ball, Travis Tingle and James Beever; fellow collegiate pitcher Andy Marks; and myself. We were constantly tinkering with new ways to improve pitch execution, new technology to track progress, and new methods to train pitcher-specific muscle movements.

The Rangers obviously had their guys checking in with Fairbanks every so often, but he truly was self-made that offseason. He was in St. Louis from November through to April before their organization had him report back to any of their facilities.

Sure, Pete was on the shelf and away from a game mound all year, but this is where it all truly turned. He got healthy. He studied film, as is oft-mentioned in his incredible recovery story; modeling his arm action after Joe Kelly. He toyed around with Rapsodo and Diamond Kinetics like a mad scientist, setting in-house records for spin rate on both a four-seamer and slider. If there was something round between 2 oz. and 25 lbs., and it wasn't glued to the floor, Fairbanks was throwing it (very, very hard) into our reinforced wall. The work ethic was unrivaled.

We had a "Be The Guy No One Wants to Play Catch With" t-shirt that hung in the bullpen area, I think mainly for him. Unless it was a football, I didn't want any part of being on the receiving end of his rehab throws. It was coming in hot, but your guess was as good as any on where it was going.

Forget the launch angle revolution on the offensive side. The bigger story about the last five years of baseball has been on the mound. Call it the "scap retraction generation"; which is ironic because it's more of a rebirth of an old way than a truly new innovation. The '90s and early '00s did well to identify and eradicate the infamous "Inverted W." This let a tried-and-true method from the '70s and '80s to reemerge.

Now it's all about buzzwords like "scapular plane" and "adduction." Essentially, get that ball hidden on your back hip and externally rotate it into an elevated position to let 'er rip. It's a far cry from the days of "swing your arm back like a windmill and make a shoulder-height 'L' with your back elbow."


The right elbows of these pitchers [above] are non-existent from this camera angle at front foot strike/plant. At the moment of these still frames, you could pinch a towel in the armpit of any one of them and it's not falling to the ground. They are connected, the scapula is loaded, and hip rotation is about to uncork unreal velocities from such unassuming body types.

Contorting what he looked like before to fit the mold of this became the sole obsession of Pete that winter. He took it a step further by "holstering" the baseball longer than most. He had to take it to this extreme to truly break old habits. Nearly every muscle memory rut needed to be filled in and re-established in a new mode. The arm path had to get shorter. The back elbow had to learn to go back (towards first base) instead of up. The glove side shoulder needed tilt. If all of that happened, the best thing in the world occurred: his ulna laid back like a trebuchet on time as a firm front leg braced for the throw. With his size and newfound strength, 100 MPH was possible.

The funny thing was: it was always in there. But it could never see the light of day, for the machine required 28 1/2 expertly-synchronized steps. Never once had they ever fired in perfect harmony/sequence/time. Strip it bear and try anew with only four steps? Now we're talking. Now we have something repeatable and efficient.

It certainly was a frustrating process at times. And watching a guy break every egg in the carton to make a better omelet is not an easy thing to do. You want to intervene and tell him to step away for a hot second. But he treated that indoor mound like it was a level in a video game he knows he can beat if he just gets one more crack at it. Driven is an understatement and the only person that ever yelled at him or got disappointed with his performance was him:


On his worst days, he'd walk a handful of our high school players on four pitches in simulated games; guys who'd go on to hit .230 for some Midwestern DII college. Point being: he wasn't exactly facing the '95 Indians (tired of hearing about the '27 Yankees) and still not throwing many strikes. Then again, we all knew it was not going to be an easy row to hoe. #TrustTheProcess

Now don't get me wrong, on his best days, it was clear he had Major League stuff. Body parts were moving faster than they ever had before. The breaking ball was a hammer. Thanks to the Core Velocity belt, Fairbanks learned to counterrotate his back knee and sink his hips better than 99% of people on the planet. The million dollar question was: could it all be harnessed and replicated often enough (and in time) to make a splash with the Rangers' development analytics department?

In confidence to me, he would talk about scenarios if it didn't work out. His then-fiancĂ©e — and fellow Missouri Tiger student-athlete was finishing up Occupational Therapy schooling. He could finish up his Physical Therapy degree and the two could go open up a little practice. Pete could train young pitchers as he learned to love that offseason. He'd disappear to the Springfield in middle Missourah, and at some point in his 50s he'd have to convince a bunch of young punks that he used to be a pretty darn good pitcher. It all felt so sad, like it wasn't the way the movie was supposed to end.

From my perspective, it showed how letting go of something you grip too tightly can be often times be the necessary solution. I think he wanted a MLB debut "too hard" as a young Minor Leaguer. He now had the safety net of a plan for life beyond that dream. By being okay with it not working out, he was finally mentally free enough to actually succeed. Ain't life funny that way?

He no longer needed to pitch on a big league mound to have a fulfilled life. Around that year's Christmas, he got married. And true to how crazy Pete is, the two honeymooned in Canada... in the dead of winter. God love him. But that removal of internal pressure likely accounted for what was to happen next.

Pete 3.0 was ready to be tested in MiLB camp. He had the new technique. He simply needed to get back to professional coaches and players to hone in the last bit of consistent accuracy. With that, we all wished him well. He left with a "here goes nothing."

2019:

In what was legitimately his last chance to stick somewhere and ideally ride a wave of success to the sport's pinnacle he only lasted 11 games back with the Down East Wood Ducks... but not for the reasons you might have guessed. Scouts noted the new arm path and, namely, how it was was producing fastball velocities that ranked in the 98th percentile of all professional pitchers. And his very first appearance in his make-or-break return-from-injury year: a two-strikeout save.

He was assigned to Double-A (Frisco RoughRiders) on May 9 and only needed 20 days to outperform that level. He appeared in six games (7.1 IP), faced 24 batters, striking out 14 of them, and only surrendered two measly singles. Most notably, the pitcher that always had issues with walks didn't walk or hit a single batter in a Frisco uniform.

Speaking of their look, I fixed his team's cross-handed logo while he was there.

Fairbanks was then promoted to the Nashville Sounds, in their first year as a Triple-A affiliate of the Rangers (previously the A's, Brewers, Pirates, et alia). His first appearance: two strikeouts out of his three outs recorded, no walks, one hit. Two days later was an improvement on that: two strikeouts out of his three outs recorded, no walks, no hits. And if you didn't think there wasn't much room for besting that type of shutdown relief inning, his third appearance was a similar 1-2-3 affair, but he struck out the side with 81% strikes thrown (13 of 16 pitches). The Rangers' top brass had seen enough. His date with the big boy mound was imminent.

The day every baseball-playing kid dreams of finally came on June 9. And the first impression couldn't have been executed any better. Three up, three down, all strikeouts.

In a particular outing against the Tampa Bay Rays, only Fairbanks' seventh in the Bigs, he clearly made an impression with manager Kevin Cash and the Rays' front office. His one inning of work in the series opened with back-to-back home runs, was followed up with loads of frustrated self-talk into his glove (a Pete staple), and ended with three straight strikeouts. Everyone's chili runs hot after an opposing batter hits a moonshot off of you. Fairbanks already pitches violently and angry as all get out. So roughing him up only makes life miserable for the next people in line. Two homers in a row? You might very well see 102 on the radar gun.

The way he responded was something Cash noted in that day's postgame interview. Fourteen days later, he was traded to Tampa for a similarly high-ceiling prospect, Nick Solak.

The good news: he was bound for a playoff contender. The bad news: the Rays stockpile arms like Pete's more than any other organization, so the MLB reps he had in Texas disappeared in an instant. He was back to Triple-A with Durham until September 1. Even with four multi-strikeout innings and two saves down the stretch, Fairbanks was left off the Rays' 26-man Postseason roster — one that made it to Game 5 of the ALDS.

It was quite the individual roller coaster ride of a season. From throwing to high schoolers that winter then soaring through Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A so fast he was liable to get the bends. He got his cup of coffee with the Rangers and finished with ski goggles in Oakland's visiting locker room, celebrating a Wild Card win. He went from the Carolina League to the taste of MLB champagne (and Budweiser) in just five months. Nothing to hang the head about there.

He capped the calendar year by becoming a father for the first time. To the Fairbanks family, 2019 exited on a trajectory of unfathomable steepness.

2020:

“My number one priority is to make it out of camp and stay up there,” he told Juan Tiribio of MLB.com in March. Being named one of the 26 to break camp with the big club was hardly a shoo-in. And even if that did happen, sticking around isn't guaranteed by that decision. Multiple arm surgeries or not, 26 year-olds with fewer than 25 MLB innings of service typically expect to yo-yo back and forth from the majors to minors  that prototypical Quad-A player. 

Then, of course, Covid-19 hit. Sure, this is near the bottom of the list when it comes to those truly aggrieved by the pandemic/shutdown/quarantine, but what unfortunate luck. There was no 4 year/$15M contract to fall back on. Nor was there And worse, the plug was pulled on the Minor League season fairly early. It was truly a MLB-or-bust scenario.

By June, it looked pretty bleak that there would even be a Major League season of any variety. Every day that passed without the owners and Players Union even speaking to one another was a day where that sharp breaking ball or electric fastball collected dust.

If there was a green flag on this season, getting up for the challenge fell on each individual. Talk about personal accountability; the classic "garbage in, garbage out" principle. Those that worked their butts off outside the construct of an organization telling them what to do would see the best results. For Fairbanks, though, there was more on the line. A July 24 Opening Day was like showing up for the most important audition of your musical life, and the last time you had a formal lesson was four months prior.

To Fairbanks, this feeling was nothing new. He lives for the notion of "who you are when no one's watching says everything about you." Sons of school teachers are built that way. Cut a corner in one of those early-morning personal workouts and *poof* there goes that dream of MLB longevity. When he entered the abbreviated "Summer Camp," he was more than ready.

Covid did come with some positive side effects for guys in Fairbanks' fringe status, however. It expanded Opening Day rosters to 30 players. And the cancellation of all MiLB games actually cemented Fairbanks' days of riding the bus were over; no reason to not keep him up if space is available and the Triple-A reps aren't.

Fairbanks certainly rewarded the club for their highly-circumstantial trust. His regular season included a 6-3 record (team lead in wins; tied for 4th in the AL), 2.70 ERA, and a Whiff Rate or percentage of strikes on swings without contact of 29.3%. Even in the age of the flame-throwing reliever, the league average hovered around 24%.

The combination of triple-digit velocity and a retooled hammer for a breaking ball accounts for his 22 career multi-strikeout innings in only 48 regular-season appearances. He's now struck out the side four times; two instances coming in his first two MLB outings.

There are more household names, but it was Fairbanks who led the club in appearances (27) and holds (7). The success warranted a Sports Illustrated cover story in July. And although Tampa used 25 different pitchers in a shortened regular season, he ascended to a role beyond JAG ("just another guy") status. In a regular-season dust-up with the Yankees, Cash labeled them a "stable." On calmer days, he simply calls Fairbanks plus Nick Anderson and Diego Castillo his "A" group or flight. Aaron Loup, John Curtiss, and Ryan Thompson round out the Rays' lights-out, high-leverage committee of holds and saves. With a 3.37 Bullpen ERA (third-best in MLB), it's tough to argue that their "B" team isn't better than most other's top trio.

The most eye-catching stat he compiled in the 2020 [ir]regular season was a 13.2 K/9 rate. For perspective, Shane Bieber blew the hinges off that record with 14.2; Jacob deGrom finished second at 13.8, a mark that would have been best all-time prior to 2019. Two things are clear: We are knee deep in Major League Baseball's "Walk, Strikeout or Homer" Era, and the format of this season exacerbated the swing-and-miss even more. Clearly pitchers were better suited for the short-sprint nature of a 60-game season, especially because it began so many months removed from any feelings of comfort and timing batters had established in Spring Training. Offenses never truly caught up.

Even with all that inflation, Fairbanks' numbers kept pace with the game's upper-echelon arms. His rate was higher than the official third-place finisher in the category, Trevor Bauer (12.3). Now, obviously, guys out of the bullpen have this metric boosted by lack of exposure in a given game. Strike out the side and then disappear for a few days is the way Milwaukee's Devin Williams and Cleveland's James Karinchak tied at the top with 17.7 K/9 make a living. Remove the conditional clauses to include all MLB pitchers, and Fairbanks still ended the year 26th out of the 484 who threw at least 10.0 regular-season innings. Interestingly, Williams, Karinchak, and Fairbanks were all rookies this season. Youth, man.

Each would be trending towards a full-time closer's role if their respective clubs didn't already have that guy (or think they do). For Fairbanks in Tampa Bay, the road to that level of job security is anything but a straight shot. Cash isn't handing out "closer" as an official job description to anyone any time soon. And if he did, the title would likely land on the business card of Nick Anderson, who's ahead of him on that same list — 14.3 K/9 and logged twice the MLB innings.

With Fairbanks, it's not just the rate. His 39 total strikeouts — in a meager 26.2 IP — was more than some starters amassed in 55+ innings of work (Alex Cobb, Mike Fiers, Jordan Lyles). For perspective, Fairbanks is now sitting at 56.0 IP for his career; equal to Sonny Gray's total in 2020. Pete has 80 strikeouts while Sonny posted 72. That frontline starting pitcher is still in there somewhere, should the Rays ever want to explore the option. And the list of names he's fanned is getting to be quite impressive.

In striking out Alex Bregman of the Astros in Game 7 of the ALCS, Fairbanks now has at least one strikeout in head-to-head matchups with 22 former All-Stars: J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, J.T. Realmuto, Joe Panik, Gleyber Torres, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana, Brett Gardner, Robinson Cano, Gary Sanchez, Eugenio Suarez, Justin Smoak, Juan Soto, Russell Martin, Brock Holt, Jesus Aguilar, Chris Davis, (now teammate) Austin Meadows, Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, and Freddie Freeman. These last three would have been really significant if the Braves could have finished off their 3-1 NLCS lead. We'll conspicuously gloss right past his splits against the Dodgers. Time to get the better of them when it counts.

In the decisive fifth game of the ALDS against New York, it was arguably his most important strikeout of his young career. With runners on first and second, in a 1-1 ballgame, Fairbanks bested fellow St. Louis native and AL MVP candidate Luke Voit on a 100 MPH letter-high fastball to end the New York sixth.

The moment was a microcosm of where Major League Baseball has shifted in my lifetime. In the '90s, the guy getting that type of punchout is wearing pinstripes. These days, however, the best pitchers don't have to be unblemished, proven commodities that require "buying" in the offseason. A good organization can develop the same result with a little analytics, technology, and performance therapy. In short, Pete is the quintessential unsung, scrapheap reclamation player for the perfect unheralded, “how are they consistent winners with such a small payroll” club.

The Rays always get trolled for having an awful facility with no fans, and this year it's actually lead some to speculate those Tropicana Field circumstances are somehow an X-factor. I'm definitely not holier than thou on this topic; it's a real problem for Major League Baseball. And I'm not above cracking jokes about it. As an exercise in satirical journalism, I once dove into a rabbit hole surrounding the Rays joining the Braves in Atlanta.

Perhaps consistently drawing fewer than 10,000 fans for decades has actually prepped them for winning in empty stadiums. Who knows? It's not their fault they play in a facility that was already behind its time when it aimed to lure the White Sox to Florida in the '80s. They also didn't ask to be dropped into the league's toughest division, in the heart of Yankee and Red Sox snow bird retiree country.

Guess what? They don't seem to care at all. Since Tampa Bay exorcised the "Devil" of their beginnings, the Rays have been an easy club to support. What began with John Maddon's Island of Misfit Toys is now a full-fledged Winning Factory under Cash. His boys continue to play the team in the opposing dugout, not the things they cannot control.

Regardless of what happens next, the franchise that emerges as the champion of this #SillySeason will be my undisputed "most-deserving" title winner in the game's history. Requiring 13 Postseason victories is the most ever. Playing all five games of the Division Series and seven games of the Championship Series with no days off is unheard of. There should be no asterisks with this one.

If it does happen to be the Tampa Bay Rays, there will be plenty of league GMs scratching their heads. The secret sauce: stay "low key and under the radar" as Kevin Kiermaier, the only Ray with any semblance of tenure, put it in the postgame show last night.

Not lost in the shuffle of their current run is how their 96-win roster from 2019 lost solid contributors. Promising two-way star Brendan McKay was also shut down for the year (before it began) due to August shoulder surgery. Tommy Pham, Avisail Garcia, Matt Duffy, Eric Sogard, and Emilio Pagan all left via trade or free agency. And somehow the Rays got better.

The last departure on that list might very well be the one that freed up a spot for Fairbanks to have his moment in the sun Saturday night. A February trade sent the 20-save man to San Diego and brought back lead-off hitter Manuel Margot. The move left the door ajar for anyone willing to kick it in and take the closer's job.

Ironically, Fairbanks was the last man to do so this season, but the most trusted when the spotlight was brightest. Entering the expanded playoff, he was one of the only pitchers in that Rays 'pen that hadn't recorded a save in 2020. This stat omission clearly made Fairbanks the perfect candidate to shut down the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series; proof there is no reasoning with Cash's logic sometimes. Fairbanks was up to the scope-of-work modification. And in closing out that game, he became the 13th pitcher to log a save this season for Tampa Bay a new MLB record. Very Tampa Bay. Very 2020.

With his four-out save that finally slammed the door on the Houston Astros in Game 7 of the ALCS, Pete's postseason ERA has dwindled to 2.16. Even more astounding, he now has a save in each of the three rounds the Rays have advanced. This is remarkable because Fairbanks had never even been presented with three save opportunities in an entire season at any point of his career. A converted starter back with the 2016 Hickory Crawdads, his high-water mark for SVO was two in Low-A, two in High-A, zero in Double-A, two in Triple-A, and two in the Bigs (both 11-inning affairs).

I am clearly pulling for Fairbanks to raise the Commissioner’s Trophy in the coming weeks, especially since the series is in Arlington. Sure, it's not the same Globe Life as his MLB debut, but the location is still full-circle symbolic. Hell, at the rate Kevin Cash plays closer roulette based on matchup and feel, my guy might just record a save in each series in the first (and hopefully only) Major League Baseball playoff bracket with four full rounds.

He's honestly got an equal shot of starting ("opening") Game 4 opposite Julio Urias. You just never know with Cash and these Rays. It would only be his third career MLB start, yet second time squaring off against one of the game's elites. On September 21, the pitching matchup was officially listed as "Fairbanks vs. deGrom." While the Mets' ace did strike out 14 batters in seven innings of work, the Rays somehow did enough to win 2-1. That's indicative of how life is going for both franchises these days.

Now that he's recorded the final out of the ALCS, I'm hoping he pairs his infamous "Ballgame Jesus" pose with a more exuberant drop to the knees in the World Series. Gimme Rays in 6, Fairbanks in the ninth, and a neutral-site dogpile for the ages. Feels like there's something to these St. Louisans bringing Tampa, Florida sports glory in 2020.

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