For a game that prides itself on tradition and history, baseball sure does change a lot. And, you know, change is often good.
The first inning is the toughest inning for any pitcher to navigate. Not only does it take pitchers some time to settle in and find a rhythm/release point, they also must face their opponent’s best hitters. That’s even truer in more recent years, as teams have started moving their best hitters up from the traditional 4-hole to the first and second spot in the order.
Through Wednesday, major league teams scored 816 runs in the first inning — 36 more than the next highest inning. What inning was that, you ask? The sixth, which makes sense, as that is usually when a lineup gets to see a tiring starter for the third time.
So manager Kevin Cash and the Rays adapted by having one of their relievers — most notably Sergio Romo — handle the first inning. And now we’ve got a lot to talk about.
Baltimore Orioles -105 at Tampa Bay Rays -105 | O/U: 8
Kevin Gausman (3-3, 3.48 ERA) vs. Sergio Romo (1-1, 4.66 ERA)
1:10 p.m. ET
Lo Duca’s Take: The most interesting news in the past couple of weeks has been Cash and the Rays experimenting with “an opener.” Basically, they are taking career relievers, most notably Romo, and having him throw the first inning. Last week, Romo became the first pitcher since Steve McCatty of the A’s in 1980 to start on consecutive days after pitching at least one inning in the first game.
The reason that Cash selected last weekend’s series with the Angels to unveil this new experiment is that the Halos boast a righty-heavy lineup. And honestly, I know some guys aren’t thrilled about it, but I have no problem with this plan — in fact, I kind of like it. I’ve said this over and over — your job as a manager is to put your players in a position to succeed. And this is a good example of that. For example, against the Angels you basically guarantee he will only face righties. And no matter what righty Romo faces, he’s in a position to succeed because of his slider. No manager would waste a bench spot that early to pinch-hit a lefty. Cash takes his borderline B-relievers and puts them in spots to succeed, while handcuffing the other manager.
Another benefit is that if Romo, or any other opener, can get two innings, it really takes the pressure off the pitcher who comes in next. He will only need to piece together four innings before handing the ball off to the heart of the bullpen. That could mean that pitcher would only have to turn over the lineup two times. That’s a huge benefit, as we know that almost every pitcher’s numbers deteriorate when he faces a lineup a third time.
Is it the wave of the future? I don’t know. But until it doesn’t succeed, it’s pretty genius. I always talk about wanting to see a guy multiple times to get your rhythm. Well, at least once, maybe two days a week, the Rays have a monkey wrench for you. — Paul Lo Duca
Oh No, Romo: At least old Sergio will be nice and rested for his second start of the series. That’s because his first start only lasted two-thirds of an inning and 14 pitches before Ryan Yarbrough was called on to face Chris Davis, who was sporting a .490 OPS at the time of his at-bat. Yarbrough ended up going seven strong, as he took care of business against Davis with men on second and third, and allowed just one run in the game. This sort of mirrored what he did in Romo’s first start against the Angels last week: 6.1 innings, one run, four hits, one walk, four strikeouts.
Since Yarbrough won’t be around to eat up innings in this start, Tampa may have more of a true bullpen game going depending on what happens in Ryne Stanek’s Saturday start. Personally, I’d rather wager on the Rays when I know one guy is available for the bulk of the innings, because more things have to go right when you’re relying on five guys or so. — Mark Gallant
Control Station: Setting a precedent for what Romo is attempting to do isn’t easy. Prior to Friday’s game, Romo had faced 115 batters in the first six innings of a game and owned an 0.88 ERA, allowing just three earned runs, all via solo shots. Those 115 opposing batters hit just .130, with an OPS and slugging below .500 and .300, respectively. Something to watch out for in the inning or two of work from Romo is his control. In his two starts against the Angels, he threw 46 pitches, 23 strikes and 23 balls. — Evan Abrams
The Gas Man: In Kevin Gausman’s 100 career starts, the under has cashed by an average of 0.7 runs per outing. That makes him the fifth-most profitable under pitcher in all of baseball over that span (70-43-3 to the under). When Gausman faces a divisional opponent, the under is 40-16-2, cashing by an average of 1.3 runs per game, which makes him the most profitable under pitcher for his career in divisional games (+22.5 units). — Evan Abrams
Observe and Report: The most successful bettors out there are on a never-ending quest to add knowledge each and every day. Continuing to learn should be the primary daily goal for bettors — even more than winning or losing. It sounds cheesy, but that should ultimately also help you win more over the long run. Personally, I’m sitting out this game and this entire series, really. However, I will continue to monitor how the betting markets handle the Rays’ new plan. I imagine it certainly can’t be easy to price Rays totals this year, especially with the lack of data and historical precedent. — Michael Leboff