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The Rays best Opener is making history

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

The vibes around the Rays are hot right now. Their run prevention since Sergio Romo’s debut as a Rays Opener (poor Andrew Kittredge is just never going to get credit for those two early-season Opener outings) has been the best in baseball, and they are fresh off of taking eight of their last nine against three of the best teams in baseball (New York Yankees, Washington Nationals, and Houston Astros).

There are plenty of factors behind this recent spate of success (not to mention the fact that the baseball season is really long and teams gonna have hot stretches). One of the most compelling, and perhaps underappreciated, reasons for success, however, has been Rays righty Ryne Stanek and his stellar month of June.

The 26-year-old was drafted by the Rays late in the first round of the 2013 draft. He put up decent numbers each stop along the way in the minors, but he always struggled a bit to control his plus-plus heat — he walked 46 batters in 112.1 innings in High-A and Double-A in 2015 and then 48 in 102.2 Double-A and Triple-A innings in 2016. Also, there were always questions about whether he could fool anyone with his fastball, since it had little movement and given his lack of secondary offerings everyone knew it was coming. In 2017, he began to cut down on those walk totals a bit, and he was rewarded with four different stints at the major-league level, tallying 20.0 innings across those four stints, but his 5.85 ERA seemed to confirm the doubts. While Stanek struck out 29 over those 20.0 innings, he also walked 12, a bit concerning considering that control, or lack thereof, had long been the biggest bugaboo for Stanek.

So far in 2018, Stanek hasn’t necessarily cut all of that wildness out of his repertoire, but he appears to be harnessing it in the best way possible.

In the month of June, Stanek made 12 appearances, starting seven games, finishing off three, and appearing in the middle innings twice. It was the first time a pitcher started seven games and finished three different ones since Chris Short in 1968, and better yet, Stanek did it without allowing a single run the entire month.

That means Stanek is the first pitcher in over 100 years (!) to start seven games, finish off three more, while not allowing a single run all in the same month. As our own Adam Sanford pointed out, this is not the only history Stanek has made of late.

Over his 12 appearances in June, Stanek tossed 15.2 innings, striking out 19, allowing just five hits (.098 batting average against), while walking seven. Of the 12 opponents he faced, only one (Toronto) is not a likely playoff team (the Nationals trail the Braves and Phillies at the moment, but they’re still the odds-on favorite to win the division by season’s end) in 2018. He has brought his overall season ERA down to 1.78, and while that is over just a 25.1 inning sample (and is not entirely backed by his 3.31 FIP and 4.22 xFIP), the role he is filling right now is of the utmost importance. Ryan Yarbrough has done a great job throwing multiple quality innings, but Stanek’s ability to get through the top of major league orders and hand the ball over with a few zeros on the board should not be overlooked.

As Stanek told Neil Solondz on “This Week in Rays Baseball,” Stanek wasn’t asked whether he wanted this role (hey, no one said a baseball team is a democracy), but was simply told he’d be “opening.” When Solondz asked Stanek,

“Ryne, I’m kind of curious, tell me what you remember the first time you were asked to open a game and what you were thinking when you were asked to do it,”

Stanek responded,

“When Cash kind of approached me… it wasn’t really a question, it was like, Hey we’re going to have you open this game, and I was like, Oh. All right. That’s cool, that’s fine. In my time here, I just wanna go out there and pitch whenever they tell me to and just do my job. It’s been pretty interesting so far.”

That sort of open-minded acceptance of an admittedly funky and potentially game-changing experiment is exactly the type of mindset that is needed for an innovation like this to work. And work it has. Stanek now owns the record for consecutive starts in the modern era without allowing a run, as he extended the streak Adam noted previously, thanks to a shutout first inning against the Astros again on Saturday.

There’s been some sort of amusing chatter about whether Stanek should be talked about in the same breath as elite “starters” like Orel Hersheiser (and no, he shouldn’t), but let’s not forget that the Rays are truly making history before our eyes, and they couldn’t do this without enthusiastic buy-in from their pitchers. Stanek has been The Opener’s most successful participant, and as such he is inscribing his name into the history books.