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Cash on opener in 2019: 'We're going to do it'

Rays plan to make unique starting strategy part of DNA
MLB.com @RichardJustice

LAS VEGAS -- The use of the opener, which began as a great experiment in how to utilize pitchers, is now a core belief in the Rays organization's planning for 2019.

"I know we're going to do it," Rays manager Kevin Cash said Monday morning at the Winter Meetings. "We are convinced that different looks through an order, challenging lineups, gives us a good chance. We are confident that this is going to help us win games."

LAS VEGAS -- The use of the opener, which began as a great experiment in how to utilize pitchers, is now a core belief in the Rays organization's planning for 2019.

"I know we're going to do it," Rays manager Kevin Cash said Monday morning at the Winter Meetings. "We are convinced that different looks through an order, challenging lineups, gives us a good chance. We are confident that this is going to help us win games."

It did just that in 2018. After the Rays lost 13 of their first 17 games, they became one of the best teams in the Major Leagues and finished 90-72. Along the way, they changed baseball.

On May 19, beset by injuries, Cash started closer Sergio Romo against the Angels. He went just one inning. Lefty Ryan Yarbrough followed and allowed one earned run in 6 1/3 innings. Three relievers got the final five outs, and the Rays won, 5-3.

The next day, Cash started Romo again. He got the first four outs in a game that Tampa Bay lost, 5-2. In doing so, Romo allowed the second pitcher to face the heart of the Angels' lineup only twice, which is when most pitchers are the most effective.

Sure, some eyes rolled. In the end, though, other teams began trying it. Hitters, who normally prepare for one pitcher for the first five-plus innings, suddenly had to prepare for multiple pitchers.

"If we can do something better for the team and give different looks on a consistent basis," Cash said, "we found it was more challenging for the opposition, the lineup."

Video: TB@BOS: Castillo induces a flyout to end the 1st

In the beginning, injuries forced the Rays into the strategy. However, front offices had discussed such a strategy for years. Now, it will be a part of Tampa Bay's DNA. Whether that's true for other teams remains to be seen.

"I think it's going to come down to what clubs, organizations, feel the strength of their staff is, and how it's aligned," Cash said. "If they're a bunch of young guys that they can mix and match, they might go that way. If they're traditional, if they've got a bunch of guys that have logged innings and have a wealth of experience similar to maybe the Red Sox or the Astros, you're going to see them stay pat."

For instance, the Astros had five veteran starters lined up. They weren't about to change how they used Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole. For many other teams, the data says it will work.

"I'm very confident we're going to do it definitely two, potentially three times through the rotation to start the season," Cash said.

Cash's initial concerns about how his bullpen would handle the workload have mostly been answered. There's still pressure on some of his regular starters, including American League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, to not have short starts.

The 2018 Rays used 17 starting pitchers, which was the most in the Majors. Tampa Bay starters lasted three innings or fewer 71 times, the most in at least a century.

The Rays had a 3.50 team ERA after May 19 -- third best in the Majors -- and their 3.61 first-inning ERA was the best in the Majors. In a 28-game span from June 11 through July 12, they didn't allow a first-inning run.

"Now, ultimately, the players give you the buy-in," Cash said. "And we had success with it. They embraced it, enjoyed it and it's a big credit to them."

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

Tampa Bay Rays