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Yankees 13, Rays 5: Yankees Beat Rays With a Taste of Their Own Medicine

On the one-year anniversary of the Tampa Bay Rays’ first use of a so-called opener, the Yankees copied the concept, having Chad Green, a reliever, start the game before handing off to another reliever, Nestor Cortes Jr.

The concept did not exactly work to perfection for the Yankees, with Green and Cortes combining to allow five runs over five and two-thirds innings. But holding their own without the help of a traditional starter, Green and Cortes kept things tied at 5-5 before the Yankees’ bats exploded for a seven-run sixth inning.

The end result was a 13-5 victory, with the Yankees, who have won two series against Tampa Bay over the last week, claiming a half-game lead in the American League East.

For the Yankees, the adoption of the strategy, which Tampa Bay initiated with Sergio Romo on May 19, 2018, came as a result of an injury to James Paxton, who said he would need at least one more bullpen session before returning to a game.

The Yankees’ execution on Sunday was only “O.K.” in the pitching coach Larry Rothschild’s assessment. But Rothschild said he had seen the concept’s potential because the staff’s number of elite relievers matched Tampa Bay’s. Last year, the Rays allowed the fewest first-inning runs in the A.L. and, after introducing the opener, ranked third in the majors with a 3.50 E.R.A., reducing the 4.43 it had to that point by nearly a run.

“What they did last year was brilliant, and the results were pretty amazing,” Rothschild said. “You have to have the arms to do that.”

He added, “We have the arms, too.”

The idea is that having an elite reliever start the game helps mitigate damage in the first inning while reducing the long man’s exposure in the sixth — traditionally, the two highest-scoring innings across each season. That has changed somewhat this season, in part because of the opener’s influence.

The first inning traditionally provides that offensive bounty because a manager can stack his best hitters at the top of the batting order, while some starting pitchers need time to settle. More runs were scored, on average in first innings than any other inning in 41 of the last 45 seasons, dating to 1974, the start of Baseball Reference’s complete play-by-play data. Through a quarter of the 2019 season, first innings rank fourth for runs, trailing third, fourth and sixth innings.

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Thairo Estrada delivered a three-run double as a pinch-hitter in a huge sixth inning that broke things open for the Yankees. CreditWendell Cruz/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

The sixth is usually the next highest-scoring inning, marking the convergence of a tiring starter or a long reliever with the heart of the opponent’s order batting for the third time.

Rays Manager Kevin Cash publicly described the rationale behind the opener simply as “a way for us to win games.” But what was born out of necessity for the small-market club worked for and has been mimicked by nearly half the league, including the moneyed elite. The Tigers, the Rangers, the Pirates and the Yankees all deployed openers for the first time this week.

“It’s probably something that every team is going to look at as a viable option,” Rothschild said.

The success of the opener, the Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder theorized, generated some awareness and “maybe changed how a lot of traditional starting pitchers approached the first inning.”

Added Cash, “I know we’ve asked our pitchers, ‘Don’t conserve anything — just go out there and, when it’s time for you to come out, we’ll come get you out.’”

No matter their methods, the Rays and the Yankees have been two of the stingiest in first innings, yielding the third and fourth fewest runs in the majors this season. Green threw a scoreless first on Sunday, shutting down a Tampa Bay lineup that has been baseball’s most productive in those innings this season. Kendrys Morales’s run-scoring single for the Yankees plated the only first-inning run of the series.

The results, though, have varied greatly for Yankees starters. Masahiro Tanaka, Domingo German and C. C. Sabathia have collectively allowed just two first-inning runs in 25 starts this season. But J. A. Happ has allowed a combined seven runs in the first innings of his nine starts, and Paxton has given up six first-inning runs in seven starts.

Both Happ and Paxton lent credence to the notion that starting pitchers need time. Happ said he had usually “gotten better as the game went on.” Paxton’s average fastball velocity rises by nearly two miles per hour over the course of a start, but he said that was “not on purpose.”

Finding timing has not been an issue for Tampa Bay’s Ryan Stanek. Since May 19, 2018, the king of openers has started 41 times — a quarter of all Rays games in that span — allowing only 10 runs in those opening frames. That’s good for a 2.23 E.R.A. in first innings, half of his 4.48 in all other innings. Stanek, though, says his preparation remained essentially the same.

“I feel like not as much changes as people think,” said Stanek, who on Sunday was wearing a custom T-shirt in Rays colors featuring a can opener and a soup tin bearing the label “Openers are humans too.”

Source: NYT

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