BALTIMORE -- When the Rays first kick-started the opener strategy, the club sought to use the analytics at its disposal to maximize production from its pitching staff and bullpen, one of the Majors’ best. The forward-thinking front office and manager Kevin Cash weren’t looking to necessarily flip the game on its head, but rather just try to throw an opposing offense off balance from the first pitch.
Pundits laughed and skeptics balked, but now teams across MLB are employing the strategy themselves. On Friday, the Angels showcased the leaps and bounds the opener has taken, riding the tactic for a combined no-hitter against the Mariners in an emotional game in Anaheim.
That was step one in validation of the once-radical tactic. Could a perfect game be possible?
The Rays nearly did it -- the first combined perfect game in Major League Baseball history -- in a 4-1 win Sunday afternoon at Camden Yards. Ryne Stanek and Ryan Yarbrough combined for eight perfect innings before Orioles infielder Hanser Alberto led off the ninth with a single to beat the shift -- advanced managing undone by advanced managing.
“Never,” Cash said about potentially not utilizing the shift there, after chuckling at the irony of the moment. “We got outs because of it leading up for us to be in that position.”
The feat was almost -- so very almost -- done by opener Stanek and bulk pitcher Yarbrough, close friends, locker mates, almost namesakes. The pair featured in the Rays’ first opener of the season back on April 1.
Sunday probably eradicated any thought that the tactic might be a fad left in 2018.
“It would have been pretty sweet to finish it off like that,” Stanek said. “If you’re the first to do something in baseball, you did something.”
Stanek struck out the first two batters he faced and retired the next four before Yarbrough -- who was recalled from Triple-A Durham just Saturday night -- came in simply hoping to balance out a season that has been Jekyll and Hyde-esque for the 27-year-old southpaw, as Cash said pregame Sunday.
That was always the plan -- to give him a short time at Durham to reset and come back up for Sunday’s game. And Yarbrough said there was nothing particularly special about his pregame throwing, or morning mood, that put the thought in his head that he was about to throw the best outing of his career
“Lately I feel like I’m in that sync or rhythm where everything has been going really well,” he said.
“Every time he’s come back up, it seems like he’s found a way to improve or get himself in a good rhythm,” Cash added.
That belief reared its head Sunday.
Yarbrough and his 4.55 ERA put pedal to the metal in relief of Stanek, needing 76 pitches to retire 18 Orioles in a row before Alberto and Stevie Wilkerson put together back-to-back singles to end his day.
“Felt pretty good about the pitch, and he just snuck it through the right side,” Yarbrough said. “Not a big deal, but just smile about it afterward and it was like, ‘Man, that would have been a cool moment.’”
Yarbrough said he didn’t truly realize the path he was pitching on until fans started yelling to him during his warmup pitches ahead of the ninth. Stanek realized just a tad sooner. He was getting in his usual post-outing workouts and treatment when he heard TVs in the clubhouse mention the ongoing perfecto.
“And I thought, ‘Uh, I should probably get out there,’” Stanek laughed.
He came back out to witness his friend pick up where he left off. Stanek and Yarbrough -- with their distinctive deliveries, throwing from opposite sides of the mound -- kept the Orioles off balance and again combined for a harmonious one-two punch.
Cash liked Stanek’s fearlessness to attack the zone after pitching on extended rest thanks to the All-Star break. For Yarbrough, it was his pitches cutting in on righties that made him so unhittable.
“The extreme contrast and styles definitely puts a lot more strain on somebody’s lineup just because of everything that we do that’s so different,” Stanek said. “I feel like today was just a good mix between the two.”
Cash said the ninth was Yarbrough’s to lose until the hits came, and he was forced to ensure the modest 4-0 margin wasn’t suddenly thrust into danger.
After losing it, Yarbrough refocused to strike out Chance Sisco, and in came Oliver Drake, who conceded a run, and Emilio Pagan to close out the victory -- one powered by homers from Austin Meadows and Michael Brosseau -- that may have been a little less validating by the final out.
But in the grand scheme, it was still a victory that gave the Rays three of four in the weekend series to keep pace with the Yankees -- the next name on the Tampa Bay schedule -- in the American League East chase.
“It hurts a little bit knowing it had never been done before,” said catcher Mike Zunino, who caught James Paxton’s no-hitter as a member of the Mariners last year. “But it’s something that we’re going to be talking about for a long time.”
Something that, given its novelty as almost the first ever, will perhaps be remembered more than your run-of-the-mill lost perfect game.
“We got close,” Cash said. “Let’s go see if we can do it again next time.”