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Rays’ opener plan still starting debates with no relief in sight

Rays Tales | Dodgers ace Max Scherzer and manager Dave Roberts are among those who have had issues. Plus, rumblings on staff, awards, injuries.
Rays opener Collin McHugh delivers against the Boston Red Sox during the first inning of Game 4 of the American League Division Series earlier this month in Boston.
Rays opener Collin McHugh delivers against the Boston Red Sox during the first inning of Game 4 of the American League Division Series earlier this month in Boston. [ CHARLES KRUPA | Associated Press ]
Published Oct. 29, 2021|Updated Oct. 29, 2021

This postseason has brought us yet another debate about the merits of the opener pitching strategy, as several playoff teams resorted — with mixed results — to using the tactic first introduced by the Rays in May 2018.

Dodgers ace Max Scherzer was one of the loudest voices.

The three-time Cy Young Award winner said he could appreciate the strategy if his bosses told him that using an opener gave the team a better chance to win on his start day, and he understood the merits of maximizing every matchup in an elimination game.

“As players, all we want to do is win,” Scherzer said during the National League Championship Series the Dodgers lost to the Braves. “So if you tell us this is going to help us win, yeah, we’re all on board. Let’s go for it.”

But Scherzer made clear he is not a fan of teams using openers regularly.

“From a fan’s perspective and baseball as a whole, if you look at it more from the game outside and say, is this something that, do we want the game to go into, do we want to see this in the regular season, my answer is no,” he said.

“No, you don’t. You want to see starting pitchers. You want to see starting pitchers pitch deep. I think that’s best for the fans, best for the players, everybody involved. I think that’s how we all envisioned the games.”

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he needed some time to come around after first seeing the Rays use a reliever to work the first inning or two before switching to a pitcher scheduled to handle bulk innings.

“I hated it,” he said. “I hated it. It wasn’t baseball. I like to see the starters and starters go deep. But when you sit in this chair, you’re trying to win games. That’s the bottom line.”

And, thus, Roberts said, he came to understand and embrace the Rays’ plan.

“It doesn’t matter how appealing it is or what it is,” he said. “The goal is to prevent runs on the pitching side. And so, where they kind of got out ahead of it as far as finding their roster, their relievers, and matching them up best against an opposing offense, and where opposing managers have been late to the party as far as not wanting to swap guys out or construct a lineup a certain way to prevent that.

“And to be quite honest, the Rays kind of captured a marginal advantage for a few years. So the industry’s catching up.”

Not totally, as it still works for the Rays. Including their AL Division Series Game 4 loss to the Red Sox, the Rays have used an opener 130 times (in regular- and postseason play) and are 79-51 (.608). In all other games since the opener’s May 19, 2018, debut, they are 240-162 (.597).

Rays rumblings

Whatever level of interest the Mets or others may have had, baseball development vice president Peter Bendix is staying put. … With Bob Melvin’s stunningly surprising departure from Oakland to San Diego, bench coach Matt Quatraro would seem a good fit to manage an A’s team that operates in many ways like the Rays. … Related, Triple-A Durham manager Brady Williams would be a solid candidate for one of the many open big-league coaching jobs. … Chris Prieto, moving up from the minors to take over as the outfield, baserunning and first base coach, played only two games in the majors, in 2005 for the Angels. His promotion, with Ozzie Timmons shifting to focus on assistant hitting coach duties, is set to be announced but perhaps waiting to see if any staff (Quatraro? Timmons?) is hired elsewhere. … Minor-league hitting coordinator Greg Brown has had several interviews for big-league jobs elsewhere. ... Comparing notes after both had surgery 10 days apart to install braces to address elbow ligament issues, Rays manager Kevin Cash joked with reliever Nick Anderson about competing to resume throwing normally: “He said, ‘I’ll race you to 95 (mph).’ I said, ‘Nah, let’s keep it at 75.’” … Randy Arozarena being a finalist for a Gold Glove award in leftfield, chosen by AL managers and coaches plus a sabermetric component and playing-time minimums, is interesting given he’s the fourth-best defensive outfielder on the team. … As with the All-Star Game, always entertaining outfielder Brett Phillips was asked by Major League Baseball to work World Series Games 2 and 3 providing interviews and social media content. That included an appearance on MLB Network’s “Intentional Talk” where Phillips — sporting one of his Baseball is Fun T-shirts under a blazer and a trim of his “Joe Dirt mop” long hair — yukked it up with teammate Nelson Cruz. … Though Cruz was officially the Twins’ nominee, he was the first player with the Rays to win the Roberto Clemente Award. ... Decisions on players will start being made soon, with roster deadlines and free agency starting shortly after the World Series. … Was PETA serious in asking baseball officials to change “bullpen” — which it said references where “terrified bulls are kept before slaughter” — to “arm barn?”

Winter wonders

Rays minor-leaguers opening the Dominican winter ball season this week include catcher/outfielder Brett Sullivan and pitchers Alex Valverde, Cristofer Ogando and Jose Lopez with Escogido (with third base coach Rodney Linares managing, minor-league coach Brady North on staff); pitchers Joel Peguero, Angel Felipe and Neraldo Catalina for the Toros del Este. Among those slated to play later in the season: catcher Francisco Mejia (Estrellas), infielder/outfielder Vidal Brujan (Toros), infielder Mike Brosseau and catcher Rene Pinto (Escogido). Among other staff, catching coordinator Tomas Francisco is hitting coach for Aguilas and Florida Complex League hitting coach Manny Castillo with the Gigantes. … Infielder Jonathan Aranda, the Double-A Montgomery MVP, is playing in his native Mexico, for Obregon in the Pacific winter league.

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