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Rays’ new pitching plan: Sergio Romo’s first career start

After 588 relief appearances, the Rays' Sergio Romo is thrilled about making his first major-league start. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Published May 19, 2018

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Your Rays are at it again.

In a plan being hailed as either genius or idiotic, and nary much in between, they are plotting to do yet something else different and unusual with their pitching for Saturday's game against the Angels.

In short, start reliever Sergio Romo to work the first and hopefully the second inning, then bring in rookie lefty Ryan Yarbrough to pitch the next four or five.

That may not at first seem that much further outside the box than the Rays have been in handling the bullpen days scheduled as part of their designed four- and for a while three-starter arrangement.

But this is different, primarily because it was keyboarded with a specific plan, a thought process Rays manager Kevin Cash termed "pretty obvious.''

The idea is for Romo, with his repertoire of sweeping breaking balls, to face the tough right-handed hitters typically stacked at the top of the Angels lineup, such as Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Justin Upton.

That part is a little different, Cash acknowledging that playing matchups in the first "is somewhat unheard of — up until today anyway.''

But the bigger deal is, in theory, orchestrating it for Yarbrough to come in with not only a completely different look and being set up to work deeper into the game.

Not just because he'll obviously be starting in the second or third, but — and this is really the whole key — that he'd be starting at the bottom of the order, so he can then get them through the sixth or seventh without the onerous task of facing those top-of-the order guys for a third time, when the numbers skew dramatically in favor of the hitters. In essence, pushing back that critical juncture an inning or two later, allowing Cash to then turn to his true high-leverage relievers.

"We value that third time through so much,'' Cash said. "We'll be able to make a decision if we want the left-hander to see the third through or not.''

There's certainly a lot that can go wrong, starting with Romo failing to get the six, or even three, quick outs they are banking on.

As child-like enthusiastic Romo was about the opportunity to start a big-league game after 588 relief appearances, as much as he rambled on about maybe breaking out a full windup and wanting to take the slow walk in from the bullpen like other starters with a towel on his shoulder, he knows there is an assignment.

"They're asking me to be me,'' Romo said. "The only thing that seems odd is it's the very first inning of the game, possibly going into the second.''

Also, Yarbrough, who has been bounced between relieving and starting but doesn't have the service time to complain, could falter, leaving them once again scrambling to cover innings.

By revealing the plan after Thursday's game, Cash obviously tipped off the Angels, or maybe tried to bait them to make a switch. With only two lefty hitters available (since Shohei Ohtani won't play the night before he pitches), there isn't much manager Mike Scioscia could do anyway. And if he wants to drop Trout, Pujols or Upton (who didn't start Friday after being hit by a pitch Thursday), Cash would be okay with that.

The Rays tried something similar in 2015, when they twice started reliever Steve Geltz, though those were in National League rules games with the added benefit of manipulating their batting order.

"We've kicked this idea around for quite some time,'' Cash said.

Reaction around the game, as well as the clubhouse, was diverse. Revolutionary, or revulsive? Well thought out, or way over thought?

One huge fan was MLB Network host Brian Kenny, who had written about the extreme benefits of using a reliever as "the opener" in his book Ahead of the Curve, and tweeted Friday the Rays were at "the vanguard of the revolution.''

"The opener is an easy way of getting a big boost without upsetting your whole ecosystem. That's what I think the brilliance of this move is,'' Kenny gushed over the phone, citing stats showing the first inning to be most pivotal. "It's something that's obvious, and you really have a better probability of success. …

"I think the Rays are playing it perfectly. They have a young left-hander who is going to be facing some very tough righthanders. Why not avoid that? You are going to use Sergio Romo probably in the seventh or eighth anyway, just use him in the first. … It's revolutionary, but it's that simple.''

Simple? Sure. But a good idea? That we'll have to wait and see.

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays

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