It is not as though Zack Littell doubted his ability. Yet, after finishing the 2022 season with the Giants’ Triple-A affiliate in Sacramento, signing a minor-league deal with the Rangers in February, being dealt to the Red Sox the first week of May only to be designated for assignment five days later, he had little reason to think he would be a starting pitcher for a team pursuing a division title.
“If you had told me at the beginning of the year that I would be in a rotation, especially a rotation like this, in September playing extremely meaningful baseball, it would have been a stretch at the very least,” said the 27-year-old Tampa Bay righthander.
That is exactly what has happened to Littell, who threw 86 pitches in a team season-high eight innings (four hits, one run) of a hard-luck 1-0 loss to Seattle on Thursday night.
Claimed off waivers by the Rays on May 12 after being cast aside by Boston, Littell has become a fixture in a rotation that since early April lost Jeffrey Springs (Tommy John surgery), Drew Rasmussen (hybrid internal brace procedure) and Shane McClanahan (Tommy John surgery). He is 3-3 with a 3.86 ERA in eight starts since joining the rotation at the end of June.
Littell was primarily a starter in the minors, and a very good one as highlighted by an eye-opening 19-1 with a 2.12 ERA in 2017 with two organizations. He entered this season with four starts as a big leaguer, though each as an opener, in 144 appearances since debuting with the Twins in 2018. Frankly, he missed starting.
“One of those little things I kind of missed was getting to work into a little bit of a groove and a rhythm,” said Littell, whose longest outing prior to Thursday was six innings on three occasions. “Maybe if you don’t have your best stuff right away, you have time to find it. It’s not like that out of the bullpen.”
The Rays have a history of acquiring pitchers who have spent much, if not all, of their careers under the radar and turning them into valuable members of the staff, if only for an abbreviated period of time. The organization also values versatility. Littell, whose only full season in the major was 2021 with the Giants, was aware of all that. However, it was a case of first things first upon joining with the club.
“It’s always in the back of your head that, sure, I would like to start again,” said the North Carolinian, who Seattle selected in the 11th round in 2013. “At the same time, the boat that I have been in, where I kind have bounced around and been an up-and-down (between the majors and minors) as a reliever, it’s more about keeping my job. Whatever keeps me on the team has kind of always been my mindset.”
Littell, who had a pair of relief appearances with the Red Sox before he was waived, debuted with the Rays on May 16 at Citi Field against the Mets. Shortly thereafter he was on the injured list with right shoulder fatigue. Following a rehab assignment, he was back in the Rays’ bullpen, often working multiple innings and twice getting stretched out as an opener. He made his first true start as a big leaguer July 30 at Houston and gave the Rays five strong innings in picking up the win.
“I forgot how much I enjoyed (starting),” he said. “It’s been nice because I had four or five years of consistently relieving. I wasn’t really thinking about starting. It was never really an option. No team approached me and asked if I was interested in starting.”
Rays manager Kevin Cash inquired and has been impressed with how the 6-foot-4 Littell pounds the strike zone. He has walked only four batters in 46 2/3 innings as a starter and has issued just six walks in 68 innings – with 54 strikeouts — as a member of the Rays.
“He’s an elite strike thrower,” said Cash. “He gives himself a chance and lets the defense play behind him. I actually think (he could strike out more batters). He is one of the rare guys that we would almost say, on two-strike counts, let’s get the ball out of the zone more.”
Cash has also been impressed with Littell’s handling of the increased workload that has come with joining the rotation.
“He has really maintained his stuff, and that’s encouraging because when you add innings and pitches, generally speaking, you expect to see some kind of a dip and we have not seen that with Zack,” the skipper noted.
Not only has Littell enjoyed starting, but he is having a good time on a team seeking to clinch a fifth straight playoff appearance.
“Winning obviously helps, but when you have a good group of guys you like being around, it makes showing up every day a lot more enjoyable,” he said. “From a baseball standpoint, it has been a lot of fun being on a team that is good as well as with an organization that is good at developing arms.”