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11 Lessons from the Rays Opening Day victory over the Red Sox

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MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays
Miller, Kiermaier, and Gomez celebrate.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays came from behind for a dramatic win on Opening Day 2018. Here’s what we learned from the experience:

1. Kevin Kiermaier remains the best defensive outfielder in the game

The Rays had Kevin Kiermaier shaded toward right-center the vast majority of the game, but on the first pitch of Opening Day there was a ball to get in left-center, at the wall.

And go get it he did:

No outfielder had business reaching that baseball, but the Outlaw found a way — and to do so, he paid his dues with a scraped and bleeding forearm that was caught by a ziptie on the fence. By the end of the game his elbow was swelling, but KK was all grins. “It’s nothing new,” he told the media scrum. (Video link here)

2. One penalty of having three “center fielders” in the outfield is that each of them thinks he can make every play

Shortly after Kevin Kiermaier made that catch, an outfield blooper fell perfectly between the ranges of Kiermaier and eventual game hero Denard Span, and the near collision was enough to take your breath away — and if you’re so inclined, to hurl some insults:

Luckily no one was hurt, but there is a positive spin: The Rays are rolling with players in the outfield corners who have only ever known center field. There may be some learning opportunities and communication improvements to be made, but generally speaking, I like having an outfield where every player thinks he can make the play.

3. The Rays are going to win on their defense

Look, you already knew this, but the Rays will have to flash some leather to win games this season, and other than the Span/KK miscommunication, there were great defensive displays around the field on Opening Day.

That’s including a stellar D-Robbery of a possible Benintendi hit, and a heads up double play by Carlos Gomez to charge the ball, catch it at his shoe strings, and nab Bogaerts wandering too far off the base.

4. Don’t try to advance on Wilson Ramos

The Buffalo had his own webgem, and it was in a league of its own: while gathering an Austin Pruitt pitch in the dirt, Wilson Ramos paused and allowed Mookie Betts to advance a little farther than he should have.

That little hesitation encouraged Betts to take a traditional lead at first base — and that’s when Ramos pounced, unleashing a killer throw to first that caught Betts flatfooted. It was enough to strike fear in the hearts of future base runners that hope to run on Ramos.

5. Kevin Cash will call your bluff

The Red Sox had one left handed reliever available in the bullpen, Bobby Poyner, and he’s never pitched above the Double-A level. Once C.J. Cron’s spot in the line up came up, the southpaw stood up in the bullpen, but Cash clearly didn’t think the Red Sox would throw the rookie to the wolves on Opening Day — and he was right.

The left handed hitter Brad Miller became the pitch hitter, and earned an easy walk against the right handed reliever, a moment with two more lessons.

6. The Rays might believe CJ Cron has a serious platoon split

The moment where Brad Miller would indeed by put into the game, Kevin Cash had waited for what (to that point) was the highest leverage moment in the game: bases loaded, and one out.

Any pinch hitter faces a discount on his expected production when pinch hitting, but the Rays believed that introducing Brad Miller’s left handed bat was wiser than sticking with the already warm C.J. Cron, a decision surely guided by the Rays internal metrics.

If Cron, already in the game, cannot be trusted to hit a struggling right handed reliever, perhaps Cron will not be featured at first base year ‘round like we thought, instead making him the short side of a 1B platoon.

7. Other teams might fear Brad Miller

All of that is to say: the projections might be right. If you ask Steamer who the best hitter on the Rays will be this season, the answer is Brad Miller, who batted near .200 last season due to myriad injuries.

Well the spreadsheet might be on to something. Brad Miller got absolutely nothing to swing at, even as a pinch hitter:

Whether Carson Smith was on his A-Game or not, you don’t throw like that to a hitter unless you think he’s going to do some damage against you.

8. Stat savvy mangers do not follow the spreadsheet every time

Which raises another question: Why was the struggling Carson Smith still in the game?

Some were saying Red Sox manager Alex Cora must not be as analytically savvy as the media thought when he failed to bring closer Craig Kimbrel into the game with the bases loaded and the middle of the Rays line up available, but that’s not the full story.

As noted by Neil Solondz in the post game show, Kimbrel’s child has faced medical difficulties this off-season and, as a result, Kimbrel has not had a typical Spring. Cora claimed he was not prepared to give Kimbrel that high a leverage moment, but would have considered a “clean ninth” for his best reliever to ease back into action.

On the flip side sabermetricians could question some of Kevin Cash’s decisions. The eighth inning worked in the Rays’ favor eventually, but one has to wonder why both right handers Daniel Robertson and Rob Refsnyder were allowed to hit when lefty Joey Wendle was available on the bench.

Cash would eventually sub in Wendle the next time Robertson came to the plate, but why not earlier?

9. The multi-inning reliever thing might be an ok strategy

When it came to building a pitching staff this off-season, the Rays are playing the hand they’ve been dealt.

With several minor league starters ready to pitch in the majors, the Rays found it more prudent to introduce as many as they could on Opening Day.

As a consequence, the bullpen holds five long men among its nine relievers, and in relief of Chris Archer, none other than Austin Pruitt made his second consecutive Opening Day appearance.

Pitching to contact in front of the trustworthy Rays defense he delivered two scoreless innings with just two base runners, and was credited with the win. And to think: Pruitt had not made the Rays roster as of 24-hours ago, until the Rays learned Nathan Eovaldi needed an additional elbow surgery, at which time the Durham shuttle was reversed.

The Rays have four more long men available tomorrow, and Pruitt should be available again the day after for the first of what may be many “bullpen days.”

10. Alex Colome will continue being a roller coaster

Colome is an All-Star closer and last season led the majors in saves, but he did so consistently allowing a man on base. Colome made 47 appearnces in 2017, but allowed zero base runners in only 25 of them. The base runner trend continuedin 2018 when Colome allowed a double to Eduardo Nunez, putting him in scoring position, but El Caballo nailed the door shut.

In his 98 save opportunities since 2015, Colome has been credited with a blown save 14 times, or (easy math) about 14% of the time. He got a save in his 99th opportunity, but let’s not let that “BS%” creep any higher.

11. Denard Span has Belly Bumps!

Denard Span had an uncertain future when he was acquired by the Rays, but demonstrated a cool demeanor and steadying, veteran presence in camp. For whatever reason, his contract or his assets or a combination thereof, the Rays held on to the former center fielder and the Tampa native delivered for his hometown team.

“My heart was racing,” the typically quiet Span said after some raucous celebrating. “If I could have cried I would have cried, but my head was in the game.” Span spoke of how much it meant not only to succeed in front of his home crowd and family, but specifically his son “D.J.” who is six months old.

For Span, plating the winning runs on a bases clearing triple was just what the doctor ordered if he’s to shed the stigma of the Evan Longoria trade by which he was acquired, and his relief was palpable. Span, maybe for the first time since that trade, was at home.

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