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Joe Maddon: The Rays’ ‘Opener’ strategy would never work for the Cubs

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The Tampa Bay Rays tried something different with pitchers this past weekend.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Last weekend, the Tampa Bay Rays tried something new with their pitching staff.

Instead of sending out the rotation starter who would ordinarily have taken his turn Saturday and Sunday, the Rays used reliever Sergio Romo in the first inning both days. Romo did his job, throwing a 1-2-3 inning Saturday (and striking out the side, three pretty good hitters, Zack Cozart, Mike Trout and Justin Upton) and getting four outs Sunday before being replaced.

Saturday, it worked well. Ryan Yarbrough threw 6⅓ innings and allowed just four hits and a run and the Rays won 5-3. Sunday, Matt Andriese got in trouble with wildness and the Rays were stymied by Shohei Ohtani and lost 5-2.

It should be noted that Yarbrough is a rookie, and perhaps the Rays want to bring him along slowly. But perhaps more importantly, could this strategy work for other teams, including the Cubs? Romo is a veteran reliever who had a very good year for the Rays in 2017, though his numbers are not as good this year. Often, the three first hitters in a team’s lineup are guys who can create runs in the first inning, as Cozart, Trout and Upton have done for the Angels this year (those three have been the most common first-inning combination for them). The Angels have scored 27 runs in the first inning, third-most for them, but across all of major-league baseball, teams have scored 808 first-inning runs so far this year, the most of any inning.

So would this work for the Cubs? Joe Maddon says there were reasons the Rays did this:

“That was done out of necessity,” Maddon said Tuesday afternoon. “If you don’t have enough starters that you like, you may choose to do something on a day, maybe two days. To see that becoming a part of the norm, I doubt it. If you want to do it that way, you would really have to nurture that in the minor leagues for a long time. I think you’re going to wear out bullpen dudes if you’re going to do something like that.”

The Cubs’ bullpen is already somewhat overworked. And there’s another factor at work, particularly with veteran starters (which wasn’t the case for the Rays):

Maddon also mentioned the conversations that managers would need to have with their veteran starters, who are used to preparing a certain way.

”Plus I don’t want to tell Jon Lester, ‘You’re coming in the second,’” Maddon said with a smile. “I don’t want to say, ‘You’ll be in there in the second inning, don’t worry about it.’

”And definitely don’t want to tell [former Cub] John Lackey that. That would be my worst nightmare right there. ‘John, I was thinking about something. What do you think, brother?’”

So in the end, this is a strategy that might work for certain teams that have pitching staffs structured in certain ways. And the Rays weren’t really expected to contend this year, so they can presumably experiment a little with things like this.

But the Cubs rotation starters are all veterans and have their routines down pretty well. I can’t see this kind of thing catching on with a team like that, or any team in contention.