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Rays use opener in prep for new Oct. format

Yarbrough rebounds with 5 2/3 strong innings as bulk pitcher
@juanctoribio
September 15, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG -- Over the last few seasons, the Rays became known as the team that innovated the opener strategy and found a lot of success doing it. Last season, the Rays went 26-17 in games started by an opener. Despite all the success over the last two seasons, the

ST. PETERSBURG -- Over the last few seasons, the Rays became known as the team that innovated the opener strategy and found a lot of success doing it. Last season, the Rays went 26-17 in games started by an opener.

Despite all the success over the last two seasons, the Rays entered the 2020 season with a five-man rotation and hadn’t utilized the strategy since Aug. 20. But in the 6-1 win over the Nationals on Tuesday at Tropicana Field, the Rays turned to their old friend in order to bring the magic number for a postseason berth down to just four with 12 games left in the regular season.

Box score

“I think we’ve put ourselves in a good situation to kind of see that finish line,” said Rays infielder Mike Brosseau, who was 2-for-4 on Tuesday. “We know we have to start playing our best ball going into the postseason. We obviously have to get there first and do our jobs to get in, but once we get in, start playing our best ball and roll through the playoffs.”

MLB standings

Before the game, manager Kevin Cash was asked why the club decided to start an opener as opposed to handing the ball to Ryan Yarbrough, who was scheduled to start had the Rays stayed with their original rotation. His response was simple: It gave the team the best chance to win.

With Yarbrough making his last start against the Nationals and allowing four runs in 2 2/3 innings, the Rays felt that starting John Curtiss would give them better matchups in the first two innings. That proved to be true as Curtiss was effective, tossing 1 1/3 scoreless frames before handing it off to Yarbrough against left-handed hitter Eric Thames.

Yarbrough went on to retire Thames and Luis García in the second inning and had a bounce-back performance, allowing just one run and striking out five over 5 2/3 innings. The Rays left-hander allowed just four hard-hit balls and kept the Washington offense off-balance throughout the night.

In the fifth, the Nats had two on with no outs, but Yarbrough got the first out on a sacrifice bunt and induced a groundout before Trea Turner popped out to first baseman Nate Lowe to end the threat. Yarbrough threw 86 pitches and his workload should be back to where it was before his groin injury.

“Really happy for Yarbrough and how he contributed to us winning,” Cash said. “He was still battling some things early on; it wasn’t easy for him by any stretch. He was battling some command a little bit, a lot of even counts. I think he gained a lot of confidence getting through the [fifth] inning right there. … Getting through that situation was big.”

With the win, the Rays are 4-0 when using an opener this season. They’ll use it again on Wednesday as Pete Fairbanks will get the start against the Nationals, with Josh Fleming scheduled to pitch behind him.

After Major League Baseball announced the postseason schedule on Tuesday, the Rays know they won’t have any off-days between games, which should give pitchers like Fleming and Yarbrough opportunities in October. Because of that, the Rays want to get their pitchers comfortable with the idea of pitching behind an opener again, in case that’s a strategy that gives Tampa Bay the best matchups during the postseason.

“It has been a little [while since following an opener], so I think that was kind of the thought process when they told me they were going to do it,” Yarbrough said. “Just kind of keep my body warm. Go out there as close to game time, get loose, get going and stay warm.”

The Rays have a bit of work to do before they clinch a second consecutive postseason berth, but with the possibility of clinching as early as Thursday, Tampa Bay is starting to see the finish line.

“I think we know if we do our job and keep doing what we know we can do, we’re going to be in a good situation come postseason time,” Brosseau said. “As long as we handle what’s on our plate and try to limit the distractions off the field, I think we’re going to be all right going forward.”

Juan Toribio covers the Rays for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @juanctoribio.