There have been 13 combined games without hits in MLB history, including the emotional emotion of the Angels on Friday night. On Sunday, the Tampa Bay Rays almost launched the first perfect combined game in MLB history.
Ryne Stanek started and retired the first six Baltimore Orioles. Ryan Yarbrough entered and retired the next 18 games in a row, and when Joey Wendle made a good play for the final of the eighth inning, he felt as if the Rays had finished it. However, the baseball gods did not smile on this day, and Hanser Alberto came out of the ninth with a routine dirt ball to second base, except that the Rays were in a turn with three infielders on the left side of the bag and the wheel of Alberto. He dribbled in right field to ruin the perfect game. It was only Alberto's second hit against a turn this season that went to the right side of the field.
The Rays settled for a 4-1 victory and this game served as an exclamation point about how well the Stanek / Yarbrough combination has performed this season. Stanek has been the Rays' starter 26 times and has excelled on the paper: 41 pitches, 28 hits, 11 runs, 13 walks and 46 strikeouts, only two homers are allowed, for a 1.98 ERA. The Rays have a record of 17-9 when he starts and has put a zero 19 times. Perhaps the most impressive thing is that he is not just a ticket opener, since he has thrown two innings in 12 of his 26 starts, as he did on Sunday.
Yarbrough has followed Stanek to the mound eight times and the Rays are 6-2 in those games. In general, he is 8-3 with a 4.26 ERA between four starts and 11 relief appearances. Batters are batting .223 against him with a .266 OBP. Among pitchers with at least 60 innings, he has allowed the OBP 11th lowest in the majors, and that is after an 8.10 ERA in April that brought him back to Triple-A for four starts.
One of the reasons why the Rays' opening strategy has worked is that both players have complete acceptance and understanding of their roles. When I spoke with Stanek and Yarbrough in spring training, both told me that seeing Sergio Romo buying last season was the first reliever that Cash tried as a starter, it was important, since Romo was a veteran veteran who once won the End of a World Series.
Stanek and Yarbrough, meanwhile, were young guys still trying to find their place in the majors. Stanek had made 21 appearances in 2017, but had a great season in 2018 with a 2.98 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 66 innings. Yarbrough, who grew up as a fan of the Rays, is more of a left-hander who went 16-6 with a 3.91 ERA as a rookie. It fits perfectly for the massive role as a man who can place the order twice:
First or second time: .203 average, .561 OPS, strikeout rate of 22 percent
Third time: average of .318, .979 OPS, strikeout rate of 8 percent
What's interesting is that the Rays have not used the opener as much as they might have thought about spring training. Cash opened the season with three established positions in his rotation with Blake Snell, Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow and although Glasnow made just eight starts before landing on the disabled list, out of Stanek, the Rays have used Hunter Wood twice and Andrew Kittredge once as starters.
Two things happened: the bullpen was throwing many innings at the start of the season, and Yonny Chirinos pitched so well that he went from being a massive innings player to a regular player in the rotation. The addition of Brendan McKay, who has looked impressive in his first three starts, now gives Cash four regular starters to go with Stanek. Glasnow, who dominated before his injury, had a setback in rehabilitating the distension of his forearm and is expected to leave until the end of August (endangering his season).
The biggest question about the Rays: Is there enough here to catch the Yankees? Or is he content to be the best undivided winner in the American League as good as he will be in 2019? The Rays are six games behind the The New York Yankees – a 4-9 record against the Bombers has not helped – but they start their biggest series in years on Monday, as they head to Yankee Stadium for four games. They also play against the Boston Red Sox six times until August 1, so these next two weeks or more will tell us a lot about the staying power of the Rays.
Three important factors:
• They need the Cy Young winner at Blake Snell 2018 to get on a good run like last season. It's hard to believe, but he's been the Rays' worst starter with a 4.70 ERA. Their peripherals are much better than that, but peripherals do not win ball games. You have to avoid explosive starts, which means you have averaged only 5.0 entries punctually per point. He is better than that. Start on Monday with the opportunity to set the tone for the series.
• Offensive consistency. The Rays average 4.72 runs per game, ninth in the American League and well below the Red Sox 5.64 (going to Sunday night) and 5.63 for the Yankees. They are 4-9 against the Yankees because they have averaged only 3.0 runs per game in those 13 contests. They could use another power bat because their home runs are better only than the Orioles and three teams at the bottom of the AL Central.
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Maybe Nate Lowe will help. The rookie first baseman, who returned for the second time in the Major Leagues, hit a home run three times during the weekend and had more hits on Sunday. Yes, that was against the Orioles, but he also hit a home run in two of the last three games before the All-Star break against the Yankees.
• Behind the bullpen. The rays were 19-9 at the end of April as Jose Alvarado and Diego Castillo were seen as the best relay one-two combo in the Major Leagues, with Alvarado gifs throwing 100 mph fastballs moving like Wiffleballs across Twitter. Alvarado spent most of June on the disabled list, then dropped to 0-5 with that brutal loss to the Orioles on July 3 when he allowed six runs in the ninth. He is back in the IL with an oblique tension. Castillo, on the other hand, has just returned from the IL. Others, like Emilio Pagan and Colin Poche, have taken a step forward, but the Rays' pen needs to rediscover April's mojo.
Even if the Rays only win an American League wild card, this is not a team you want to face in October, especially if Snell finds his stuff off and the wild card game begins. Morton could win the Cy Young Award the way he's pitching, so maybe the The wild card game begins And then there's the silent weapon of the Ryne / Ryan combo.
Of course, getting there is not a sure thing either, since the A, the Indians, the Red Sox and the Rangers all wear their necks. So far, the first game and everything else has worked for the first 95 Rays games. Will the total of 162 continue to work?