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Rays 5, Astros 2: Stanek and Nuno outduel an ace

The Buffalo does the rest.

MLB: Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Verlander vs. the Rays’ depleted pitching staff throwing an opener/headliner-bullpen day combo was always going to be a mismatch. I mean, it’s 2018, people. You can’t just roll a starter our there and expect him to compete.

Over five innings, Verlander gave up five runs on nine hits, while striking out eight and walking one. Opposite him, Ryne Stanek and Vidal Nuno, working the opener/headliner combination, lasted 6.2 innings, giving up two runs (one unearned) on four hits, with six strikeouts and no walks.

I’m going to give you those lines in table form, for easy comparison. Then I’ll take the tongue out of my cheek. Promise.

Starter vs. Opener/Headliner

Pitcher Innings Runs Earned Runs Hits Walks Strikeouts
Pitcher Innings Runs Earned Runs Hits Walks Strikeouts
Verlander 5.0 5 5 9 1 8
Stanek/Nuno 5.2 2 1 5 0 6

Okay, so pitching Vidal Nuno for 4.2 innings against an ace like Verlander is nobody’s idea of a plan A, but for the second time in two recaps, I find myself having to give Nuno props. With Wilmer Font now on the disabled list with a lat strain, and Chris Archer, Jacob Faria, and Yonny Chirinos not yet returned from their injuries (not to mention the starting pitchers sidelined for the whole season), the Rays are entering a string of games where it’s going to be hard for them to scrape together the innings.

An opener/headliner combination covers innings the same way a starting pitcher does, only in a different order. But for that to work, you actually need that starter type. If you don’t have one, it’s a bullpen day. There’s some number of bullpen days per start that is sustainable, but there’s also a number of bullpen days per start that’s not.

Nuno, to this point, has been the innings mop on the tail end of Rays bullpen days. Today he stepped up and pitched as a headliner.

How did Nuno do it? By commanding his slider to all parts of the plate, and throwing almost nothing else. Of his 68 pitches, 44 were sliders, 13 were changeups, and only nine were fastballs.

Some nice defense behind him, most notably from Kevin Kiermaier and Matt Duffy, didn’t hurt.

It also didn’t hurt that the Rays jumped on Verlander early.

The first three batters of the game reached for the Rays, with Kiermaier being grazed on the shin by a wild pitch, Duffy flipping a line drive the other way for a single (as he does), and Jake Bauers striking a liner into the alley (cut off for a single).

With the bases loaded, now finding himself in a zero-out bind, Verlander challenged Wilson Ramos with a 3-1 fastball up in the zone on the inner third. It was one of those “here’s my pitch big man, I don’t think you can square it up” offerings. Wilson Ramos, All-Star catcher, can square up a fastball just fine, and he did, pulling it on a line against the wall in left field for a two-RBI double. Missed the grand slam by a degree or two of launch angle. The Rays tagged on a third run with a sacrifice fly from Wendle before Verlander was able to get out of the inning.

The Rays added another pair of runs on in the second inning, in much the same fashion (only less dramaticly) when Kiermaier and Duffy got aboard with infield singles, Bauers walked, and Ramos drove two runners in with a groundball up the middle.

The Buffalo had himself a day.

The only blemish on the day for Rays pitchers came in the sixth inning when, with one out, George Springer hit a grounder directly to shortstop that Adeiny Hechavarria uncharictaristically flubbed. Following that, Nuno tried to jam Alex Bregman with an 0-2 slider in on his hands, and didn’t get it far enough in on his hands. Bregman homered.

But by that time Stanek and Nuno had taken the game deep enough for the back end of the Rays bullpen to take over, and Jose Alvarado, Chaz Roe, and Sergio Romo came in and slammed the door.

Some other notes:

  • Joey Wendle made a nice sliding grab on a bloop fly in left field. It’s great to see him looking like a legitimate outfielder. That versatility will play.
  • During the broadcast, Brian Anderson said he would love to see the number of full counts per plate appearance for Jake Bauers, and how that compares to the league. We can do that. Bauers has reached a full count in 20% of his plate appearances. Discarding all batters with fewer than 50 total PAs, that puts him 37th in the league. Some interesting former and current Rays above Bauers: Jose Lobaton at #2; Sean Rodriguez at #11; Matt Joyce at #23; and Kevein Kiermaier at #26. Dead last on the list, at #414, is Will Myers. Click here to see the full list. Stats are collected via the FanGraphs splits tool.
  • .500