SAN DIEGO – Manager Kevin Cash and the Tampa Bay Rays introduced the concept of an opener to modern baseball two years ago.
With a chance to close out their AL Division Series against the Yankees on Thursday night, they were bitten by their own creation.
They'll try again Friday night, and they'll start with towering Tyler Glasnow on two days of rest.
The Rays fell behind in the second inning of Game 4 and never caught up after rookie opener Ryan Thompson gave up two hits, three walks and two runs over 1 2/3 innings in just his second career start. Tampa Bay couldn't come back in a 5-1 loss in San Diego, its homer-happy lineup limited to just three hits by a sublime collective pitching performance from the Yankees.
But just as New York almost certainly regretted using an opener in Game 2 when Deivi García and J.A. Happ both got tagged, the Rays are probably wishing they had simply allowed Ryan Yarbrough to start instead of opening with Thompson, a 28-year-old right-handed reliever appearing in his third career playoff game.
“With their lineup being stacked so heavily right-handed, we wanted to get as much as possible out of him,” Cash said. “I know the strike-throwing kind of eluded him.”
The Rays announced after that Glasnow — who struck out 10 Yankees on Tuesday — would start again Friday, and he's expected to face New York's Game 1 starter Gerrit Cole in a rematch of last year's ALDS Game 5 between Houston and Tampa Bay. Cole pitched eight innings of one-run ball for the Astros in a 5-1 victory, while Glasnow was pulled after eight outs and four runs.
Glasnow threw 93 pitches in Game 2, getting the victory after tossing four-run ball over five innings. It's unclear how long his leash will be Friday, but an abbreviated outing is likely.
“I haven’t really talked about innings or anything like that,” Glasnow said. “I just know I’m starting tomorrow, but I feel good about it. I’m excited. ... As far as health goes, I feel good. I’m ready to go. I was in the 'pen today. I was ready to come out today.”
With a chance to advance to the ALCS for only the second time in franchise history and the first since 2008, Tampa Bay stumbled from the start in Game 4 at Petco Park.
DJ LeMahieu led off the game with a single for New York before Thompson got the next three batters. But Tampa Bay stuck with Thompson in the second inning, and the Yankees pounced.
Luke Voit led off the second with his first homer of the postseason, and Thompson then walked the bases loaded. Brett Gardner battled for his walk in a nine-pitch at-bat, but Gleyber Torres and Gio Urshela faced only nine combined pitches while drawing their walks.
“Even with the bases loaded, we thought he was the best option to get a ball on the ground,” Cash said. “The pitch count just got so high there, so we went to Yarbs. We were going to try to get him one time through the order.”
Thompson struck out Kyle Higashioka, but LeMahieu drove in Gardner easily with a long sacrifice fly. Cash pulled Thompson for Yarbrough, who quelled the threat and pitched smoothly into the sixth inning before Torres' two-run homer put the Rays firmly ahead.
Yarbrough is used to waiting around for an opener before he hits the mound, so it might not have affected him as much as it did Happ two days ago.
“Generalized, I think it was kind of the point that if (Thompson) had a quick (first) inning, we were going to let him go back out there,” Yarbrough said. “I was just staying ready, and whenever they called my name, I was good to go.”
A two-run deficit didn't seem like much against Tampa Bay's powerful lineup, but New York's four pitchers were all tremendously effective.
Yarbrough covered five efficient innings, which could help the Rays in Game 5. While Yankees relievers Chad Green, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman each threw more than 20 pitches, Tampa Bay only used Thompson, Yarbrough and Aaron Slegers. The rest of the Rays' deep, fearsome bullpen should be rested for the series finale.
“Those guys, similar to our guys, are going to be ready to go,” Cash said. “Everybody is going to want the ball, but if we can tack on a bit of pitches the day before, maybe that works in our favor.”
Tampa Bay introduced the concept of using a reliever to start games in 2018 to offset a string of rotation injuries, and teams across baseball followed its lead. Cash exploited the opportunity to match his high-leverage relievers against the top of an opponent's lineup, and his starters proved able to adjust to arriving late to the mound.
Yet Cash has been reluctant to use an opener in the playoffs: He had done it only once before in Tampa Bay's 11 previous combined playoff games in 2019 and 2020.
Diego Castillo handled the assignment splendidly in Game 4 of last year's division series against Houston, getting three strikeouts while allowing one hit and one walk in 1 2/3 innings before giving way to Yarbrough in the Rays' 4-1 victory.
The Rays used an opener seven times in this year's 60-game regular season, going 6-1 when employing the scheme.
Nobody knows how long Glasnow will go in the finale, but the Yankees are ready for anything.
“I’m sure (Glasnow) will be an opener thing for them, and I’m sure they’ll bring in (Blake) Snell, too, and then all their other guys in the bullpen,” Voit said. “(Glasnow) has obviously got his heater, but he’s got one of the best curveballs in the game, too. We’ve seen him enough. We’ve got a good game plan against him, and we’ve just got to get the runs in early.”
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