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Rays Tales: Happy birthday to a strategy that helped return Tampa Bay to contention

On May 19, 2018, the Rays used the opener for the first time. One year later, they are convinced their unorthodox pitching strategy works, and is here to stay. Plus rumblings.
Sergio Romo made history for the Rays when he opened the May 19, 2018, game in Anaheim.
Published May 18

NEW YORK – No cake or serenade is planned, but there’s an important birthday Sunday in Rays land:

The opener turns one.

It was May 19 last year when the first rolled out the unconventional pitching strategy that somewhat transformed the game, and a year later remains a primary topic of conversation, and some consternation.

“I didn’t think we’d be talking about it this much,’’ Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “It’s been crazy how many times that word has been used in these (interview) sessions. We’ve talked about it quite a bit. Probably we’ve exhausted it.

“It was a way for us to win games, helped us win games last year, and we’re continuing to do it. We’ve seen the benefits of it.’’

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In case you’re somehow not familiar, in the 68 times the Rays have done it in the 161 games since the debut, the concept is this: A reliever opens the game and works the first one-two innings then typically is replaced by a starter type who works the bulk of the innings, typically three-six.

Among those benefits are a matchup advantage for the initial and often hard-throwing reliever, a softer entry point for the second pitcher against the bottom of the order, more flexibility in changing pitchers later to create different looks for hitters, and making the best use of the arms they have available.

But ultimately, the reason it’s become so popular and widely used, with close to half the teams at least experimenting with it (though some still strongly opposed), and that the Rays keep doing it a year later is that it seems to work.

In those 68 games (including 13 this season), the Rays are 40-28 (.589) compared to 55-28 (.591) in the other games since, though wins and losses aren’t necessarily the best measure as many games, such as Friday’s, ultimately are decided in the final inning.

More telling, the Rays since the launch have a 3.32 team ERA that is best in the AL and second in the majors behind the Dodgers, and are even better in the first inning. Also, a .222 opponents average that ranks second in the majors, and a co-leading 19 shutouts.

“I know it kind of bucks tradition a little bit,’’ Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder said. “but if it gives us a better chance to win games — and that’s what we all believe — I think we’re all good with that.’’

Romo, who had made 588 appearances as a reliever, was proud to be the pioneer.

“It was fun for me, a nice little twist in my career, a nice little box to check,’’ Romo said. “I think the game has accepted it for the most part. It’s fun to see it have – honestly, I think it’s had a positive effect on the game. I’m thankful I got to be part of something like that.’’

And with his three World Series rings and the memorabilia the milestones of 600 big-league games and 100 saves, Romo has the lineup card and first-inning ending ball from his historical opening act, which he then repeated the next day.

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“Definitely a cool part of my career,’’ he said. “Cool story.’’

Though Romo was first, Ryne Stanek has become the primary opener, and something of the poster boy, doing it 29 times last year and 12 of the 13 this year.

He said it feels like it’s been around for longer than a year so didn’t think there was much need to mark the occasion.

“It’s kind of cool to see how it’s developed over the last year, but it’s become routine for us,’’ he said. “I don’t think it needs a cake. But it’s a cool little landmark for the people that for it and against it.’’

Rays officials spent 15 years talking about the unorthodox idea before making the bold move to implement in in Anaheim, noting it would take buy-in from the pitchers, complex planning and managing and, ultimately, good work on the mound. That the debate continues a year later shouldn’t be a surprise.

Happy birthday.

Short stops

* Andrew Friedman comes back to the Trop this week for the second time with the Dodgers, and while some may still resent his October 2014 departure (which also triggered Joe Maddon’s out clause), Friedman should be remembered and lauded for his role as head of baseball ops in transforming the Rays.

* If the Rays are serious about being interested in closer Craig Kimbrel, this could be an interesting juncture because the attached draft pick compensation is eliminated on June 2, which makes him more appealing to sign but also open the market to other teams. Principal owner Stuart Sternberg did say again Friday they are open to potentially significant additions.

Brandon Lowe's play so far has in him the American League Rookie of the Year conversation. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Rays rumblings

Sergio Romo joked so much about it during the two games against his new Marlins club, even about starting preliminary “negotiations” with Guillermo Heredia for his No. 54, that it sure seems he is serious about wanting to come back via trade. … Rays folks aren’t quite sure what’s behind Yankees lefty CC Sabathia’s repeated words and actions regarding hit batters. … Baseball America tabbed Brandon Lowe as the top candidate for AL Rookie of the Year honors to this point. … Kevin Kiermaier, somehow, did not make The Athletic’s 23-name long list of the best outfield arms which was based in part on a runs and extra bases prevention metric. … Three-time Dodgers Cy Young award winner Clayton Kershaw is slated for his first ever start at the Trop Tuesday. … Blake Snell spent part of Thursday filming a segment with MLB Network’s Lauren Shehadi going to a Nike lab to design custom cleats. … Expect Ryan Yarbrough to join the bulk inning/spot starter group later this week. … Guessing some will quibble with principal owner Stuart Sternberg saying the Rays are “doing everything we can” to increase attendance. … It was obvious during my visit to MLB Network last week that many of their analysts think highly of the Rays, and how they do things. … Dave Feaster’s Republic Bank is planning to give out Ryne Stanek bottle openers and other Rays-related items to customers opening checking accounts.

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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