On the day he irrevocably altered the game of baseball, Sergio Romo woke up around 10 a.m. in an Anaheim hotel room. Though the analogy may have been imperfect, Romo likened that morning's wake-up call to the 588 calls to the bullpen that bore his name in the years leading to that moment. It was time to get loose, time to get ready.
Except, in this instance, he had about nine hours to do so.
It was May 19, 2018. Romo's Rays were in town to play the Angels that night. And in that interminable wait between first waking moment and first pitch, the veteran Romo, who had already seen and experienced so much in baseball, including winning three World Series and closing out one of them, felt a new nervousness, an unfamiliar anxiousness. He was 35 and about to make his first Major League start.
And more significantly, Romo and the Rays were about to shake up baseball.
"What I love most about baseball," Romo said months later, "is you never know what's going to happen next. And this just adds another option and another example of why I love this game."
We entered 2018 expecting the game to be transformed by a 23-year-old phenom who, like Babe Ruth a century earlier, was a true two-way talent. And to be sure, the Shohei Ohtani experience was exceptional enough to earn him the American League Rookie of the Year Award.
But we leave 2018 with Ohtani recovering from Tommy John surgery, and the big question remains as to whether an athlete will actually ever be capable of All-Star-caliber output for an extended period of time on both the pitching and hitting spectrums in a sport that demands so much from the body and the brain.
Where baseball was truly, unquestionably altered in 2018 was in the Rays' progressive use of "The Opener." Not the bullpen games that had long been employed by teams in times of desperation, but an approach in which a reliever attempts to get the initial outs of the game in a matchup that makes particular sense for him, before handing the ball over to a long man who would ordinarily be a starter.
On May 19, Romo opened the door to a brand-new baseball world.
. . . . .
MLB had a few flirtations with the opener prior to the Romo game, mostly as a matter of October trickery.
In Game 7 of the 1924 World Series, for example, Washington Senators manager Bucky Harris had right-hander Curly Ogden start and face two batters before handing the ball to lefty George Mogridge. It was a ruse aimed at getting New York Giants skipper John McGraw to bat Bill Terry, who struggled against southpaws, in the heart of the order, before unleashing the lefty on him. And it paid off in a 4-3 win.
Pirates manager Jim Leyland summoned the ghosts of the 1924 World Series when he surprisingly gave right-handed reliever Ted Power the Game 6 start in the 1990 National League Championship Series to get Lou Piniella to employ the left-handed-hitting portion of his platoon-heavy lineup, before bringing in the left-handed Zane Smith in the third. Alas, the Bucs lost that one, 2-1.
Probably the closest comparison to what the Rays were trying to do came in the 1993 regular season, on a last-place Oakland A's team with a lousy rotation that compelled manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan to experiment with three-man pitching platoons in which no "starter" would go beyond 50 pitches.
That exercise lasted all of six games.
With those examples few and far between, traditional starting and relieving roles survived many seasons, and there was no reason to think the 2018 campaign would be any different. That said, there were two teams that went into the year with unorthodox rotation plans. Because of the Angels' addition of Ohtani, with whom they wanted to adhere to something similar to his schedule in his native Japan, the Halos envisioned an expanded starting group.
"The Angels were talking about a six-man rotation," Romo said. "Well, OK, cool. But you've got to have six guys who are healthy. There just aren't many teams with six starters, I'm sorry. [The sixth guy] is always going to be a bullpen guy. You're not going to have six genuine starters, because then you're going to be short a guy in the 'pen or on the bench."
Thanks to injuries to Ohtani and a slew of others over the course of the year, the six-man model didn't really work out.
But the Rays, who were short-handed in their rotation both as a matter of calculated transactions and unforeseen injuries, entered '18 with a four-man group backed by routine bullpen days -- a model that arguably made more sense in the modern game.
What the Rays introduced on that Saturday night in May, however, was a bold step beyond a bullpen day. And it felt sustainable. It was announced in advance, it came in an era in which analytical insight has infiltrated every element of the game and it came on a team that has, as a function of market and division realities, never been afraid to disavow baseball dogma.
Most importantly, it worked.
. . . . .
The plan for May 19 was for the right-handed Romo to get the starting assignment against an Angels lineup stacked with righties at the top, and then left-hander Ryan Yarbrough would take over after an inning or two.
"They told me about it legitimately like two days before it happened," Romo said. "They said, 'If you don't get in today, you're probably going to start.' I wasn't afraid of it, and what allowed me to buy into it was them saying, 'Can you just do what you do really well, but in the first?' I thought, 'OK, that's fun.'"
And that's exactly what Romo did.
Romo opened the outing with a slider, just as he might have in a relief appearance. And he breezed through three batters. Zack Cozart? Punchout. Michael Trout? Punchout. Justin Upton? Punchout.
In the second, in came Yarbrough, who pitched effectively over the next 6 1/3 innings before handing it back to the bullpen, and the Rays won, 5-3.
That went so well that Rays manager Kevin Cash turned back to Romo for another start the next day. This time, Romo pitched a scoreless first and left with a runner aboard and one out in the second. The Rays went on to lose that game, which was a more "traditional" bullpen game (and in which Ohtani dominated for 7 2/3 innings), but a new standard had been set thanks to the cooperation and consummation from a veteran player respected in the Rays' clubhouse.
"What if I knew that I wasn't going to be the only one asked to do this?" Romo said. "What if I understood that part of the reason they asked me first was to maybe get the younger guys to say, 'Hey look, he bought into it. He's supposed to be the veteran on our team, and he had no problem doing that.' Yeah, I did see that and understand it. In a sense, I knew I wouldn't be the only one."
Romo was not the only one.
The Rays made the opener an ordinary piece of their pitching plan, using it in 55 games (in addition to 23 "bullpen days," where only relievers pitched). Tampa Bay starters went three or fewer innings 71 times, the most by any team going back to at least 1908. And its relievers accounted for 56.2 percent of the team's total innings pitched, shattering the Major League record. With the unusual length he provided out of the 'pen, Yarbrough had the most wins as a reliever in a single season (14) by any pitcher in the last 30 years.
Around the game, opinions about the opener were in abundance, with quite a bit of existential hand-wringing of how a game that for so long has used probable pitching pairings as a means of marketing itself could survive a full-on revolution of relievers as starters. Even some rival managers who expressed understanding of the strategic value of the opener in one breath could question the concept in the next.
"When teams try to script games, the game can take you off script," then-Orioles manager Buck Showalter cautioned in a September conversation about the long-term viability of the opener. "Wait a minute, the left-handers just got three straight hits off a left-handed pitcher? Now you're in harm's way. What do you do? You've got to answer that question the night before. The game usually adjusts to things, so we'll see."
Showalter added that "necessity is the mother of invention," implying that the Rays wouldn't have to reimagine the rotation if they had five legitimate starters to begin with.
Fair points, all.
But did the Rays' opener strategy work?
Yes, it worked. Without a doubt.
A pitching staff that had posted a 4.43 ERA from Opening Day through May 18 (ninth best in the AL) put up a 3.50 mark from May 19 through the end of the season (second best in the AL), despite trading Chris Archer and Nathan Eovaldi in July. The Rays' 3.61 ERA in the first inning was the best in the AL, and their 28-game streak without allowing a first-inning run (from June 12 to July 12) was four shy of the longest in the live-ball era.
Little wonder the Rays' eventual AL Cy Young Award winner, Blake Snell, was among those in the clubhouse who were initially iffy on the arrangement but came around.
"At first, I thought it was dumb," Snell said on MLB.com's Morning Lineup podcast late in the year. "I didn't want to do it. I was happy I was a starter. I was definitely telling them if they were going to ask me to have an opener, I wasn't going to do that. But looking at how well it's worked and how the guys we have on this team make it work so well, I started to believe in it. I like it now. The Rays proved me wrong."
. . . . .
As MLB Network studio host Brian Kenny -- a notable advocate for the opener in his 2016 book, "Ahead of the Curve" -- tweeted on May 21, "Once there's no 'starter,' all things are possible. The construct collapses."
Overly dramatic? Perhaps. But not incorrect. Sometimes people just need a single push to gain the courage to challenge convention, and a Rays team with an impossible assignment in an AL East division with two behemoths in Boston and the Bronx was possibly the perfect team to do the pushing.
The Rays, who wound up winning 90 games with a stripped-down roster, made it OK for other clubs to adopt the idea. By year's end, the Twins, A's and Rangers had all used the opener (or as San Francisco Chronicle writer John Shea put it in a tweet, the A's tried to "Sergio Romo their way through" a game in early September) a handful of times. A few other clubs used it as a one-off.
But the real effect of the opener was most pronounced in the playoffs. The A's tried a variation of the theme -- a sort of hodgepodge opener/bullpen-day experience, in that Lou Trivino pitched three innings in relief of "starter" Liam Hendriks, who went one inning -- in the AL Wild Card Game against the Yankees. The Brewers, who went with the phrase "initial out-getter" as opposed to "opener," basically tried to bullpen their way to the World Series, reaching Game 7 of the NLCS.
That the results were mixed is beside the point in the big picture, because executives and managers from at least one-third of MLB teams -- including the Rays, Twins, A's, Brewers, Rangers, Pirates, Giants, Tigers, Blue Jays, Padres and Marlins -- have publicly expressed some level of openness to openers in the 2019 season.
"If we go in that direction," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington told reporters at the Winter Meetings, "it will take some conversations, it will take some explaining, it will take some buy-in, not only from those who are involved, but from those who are around it."
But those conversations will be a lot easier as a result of the Rays' example.
And it all points back to Romo's early embrace of the role.
Ironically, a guy in the late stages of a long career became the model of the modern pitcher. The Rays used Romo in every inning but the third in 2018 (he joked late in the season that he was going to go into a pregame pitchers meeting and demand he get the third inning that night). With the average start length continuing a decades-long downward trend, a reliever like Romo, employed at quite literally any point in the ballgame, is going to become more rule than exception.
"His contributions last year go beyond just what he did on the field," Rays vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom said. "I think they were really symbolized by his willingness and excitement, his eagerness to do what he did in Anaheim and really blaze a trail for a lot of our guys."
A year ago, you would have appeared insane to suggest that Romo -- not Ohtani -- would be the one to change baseball in 2018.
Hey, maybe that still sounds insane.
But look around. Listen to what other teams are saying about the opener. Observe the direction pitching roles are taking at a time when Snell won the Cy Young with only 180 2/3 innings pitched.
Things are changing. And someday, we're going to look back at Romo's performance on May 19, 2018, and say he ushered in quite possibly one of the biggest changes in baseball history.
"Let's see where it takes us," Romo said. "Do I think that it changes baseball completely? No. But I do think it makes it a little more fun. It's just another dang cool option. And if you've got guys who can do it and are willing to do it, why not?"
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.