BALTIMORE — Sitting in the visitors’ dugout at Camden Yards before Friday’s game, Rays manager Kevin Cash needed only a little prodding to go back to the launch of one of baseball’s biggest innovations in recent history, just four years ago this past week.
“Everybody thought it was so thought out,” Cash recalled. “I was sitting right there, (reliever Sergio) Romo walks out, I said, ‘Hey, do you want to start?’ He said, ‘F--k, yeah!’ And, honest to God, that’s how it happened.”
From such simple talk and colorful terms, the opener was born, officially delivered into the baseball world in Anaheim, California, a few days later on May 19, 2018.
The right-handed Romo did indeed start against the primarily right-handed-hitting Angels, striking out the first three before giving way to lefty Ryan Yarbrough, who stepped into a role not yet known as the bulk-inning guy, and still in need of less clumsy moniker. (Bulker? Bulkster? Featured pitcher?)
To double down on the concept, the Rays started Romo again the next night, though he didn’t do as well, walking two while getting four outs.
Cash wasn’t actually telling the whole story.
Rays officials, from principal owner Stuart Sternberg on down, had been talking for years — well before Cash’s 2015 hiring — about the ways to redistribute innings and maximize opportunities to win games.
Circumstances aligned and conversations advanced to the point where the Rays were ready to try it during that May 2018 road trip.
And there they were on Friday at Camden Yards, a day past the fourth anniversary, using it for roughly the 137th time in regular-season and postseason play, with an 84-53 record. (Exact totals can be tricky given the ambiguity of classifying some bullpen days vs. opener games, the rulings in the hands of baseball communications manager Craig Vanderkam.)
Further validation comes from just about every other team trying the opener at some point, or at least giving it strong consideration.
“We’ve had lots of conversations about the opener,” Cash said. “I’m not surprised that it has stuck around. And I still think there are times it gives us the best chance to win on that given night.”
The Rays have learned more about how best to use it as they have gone along, such as being more adaptive to the score and game situation, and not always going directly from the opener to the designated bulk-inning pitcher.
Also, Cash said, realizing that while it was designed to create a softer entry point for the bulk-inning pitcher, coming in against the bottom third of the order, it also has helped some of the pitchers used as openers since their assignment is now clear.
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Reaction around baseball was quite interesting.
“When they first started doing it, I’d probably say that it was maybe surprise more than anything. Intrigue. It was very unconventional,” said Corey Kluber, a traditional starter who was coming off his second Cy Young award with Cleveland at the time.
“But I think that when you dive into the reasons for it and things like that, then maybe it becomes a little bit less surprising or eye raising. … Obviously that requires having guys in the bullpen that are able to handle those different situations, and that sort of stuff, but the results speak for themselves. I think the record is pretty astounding when it’s employed.”
Brooks Raley was pitching in Korea at the time, and specifically when Ryne Stanek evolved into the primary opener role that year and the next, remembers thinking, “Oh, the Rays are stepping out there.”
Noting the great top starters Tampa Bay had over the years, Raley said he figured it was a plan “to maximize its roster” and “an interesting concept at the time for a fourth and fifth starter.” It allows the pitcher in the bulk role to potentially begin going through the lineup an occasionally dangerous third time since he started facing the bottom of the order.
Mike Zunino, who was catching in Seattle and used to playing in a traditional environment, admits now, “I was probably as skeptical as anybody coming from a very old-school mindset, where starters go five or six (innings) then you go to your bullpen guys and everybody has roles.”
Getting traded to the Rays for the 2019 season and getting an extensive tutorial changed his view.
“You start to realize if we’re leveraging innings out and we’re looking at the best guys in their lineup, why not insert those (openers) against the top half, get off to a good start and let those other guys settle it for the bulk half,” Zunino said.
“The ingenuity of it I probably never would have understood until I got here.”
Given Wander Franco’s ongoing leg issues and extended slump, would the Rays get to a point where it would be better for him to shut down for a brief injured list stint? Should they? … Team officials made a pretty good audible to get Isaac Paredes to the Trop on Monday after learning of Brandon Lowe’s injury. They had the Triple-A Durham bus, which was on a seven-hour ride to Jacksonville, drop him off at the Savannah airport to catch a flight to Tampa. … Shane McClanahan was fifth in the AL Cy Young award race in an mlb.com poll of 70 staffers, behind Justin Verlander, Kevin Gausman, Nestor Cortes and Alek Manoah. … Large crowds are expected for next weekend’s games against the Yankees. ... First base coach Chris Prieto no longer travels with the portable keyboard he had as a player, but has been known to sit down at a hotel piano for stress relief, playing “whatever comes to my mind,” such as movie themes. And it’s always by ear since he doesn’t read music. … The Marlins make a two-game stop at the Trop with a couple of familiar faces, though long-time Rays infielder Joey Wendle is currently on their injured list with a hamstring strain. … Baseball America’s latest mock draft has the Rays taking Indianapolis high school right-hander Andrew Dutkanych with the No. 29 pick.
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