Schoenfield’s take: Rays just miss perfection, but can they reach October?

MLB

There have been 13 combined no-hitters in MLB history, including the Los Angeles Angels‘ emotional tearjerker on Friday night. On Sunday, the Tampa Bay Rays nearly threw the first combined perfect game in MLB history.

Ryne Stanek started and retired the first six Baltimore Orioles. Ryan Yarbrough came on and retired the next 18 in a row and when Joey Wendle made a nice play for the final out of the eighth inning, it felt like the Rays would finish it off. The baseball gods weren’t smiling on this day, however, and Hanser Alberto led off the ninth with a routine ground ball to second base — except the Rays were in a shift with three infielders on the left side of the bag and Alberto’s grounder dribbled into right field to ruin the perfect game. It was just Alberto’s second hit against a shift this season that went to the right side of the field.

The Rays settled for a 4-1 victory and this game served as the exclamation point on how well the Stanek/Yarbrough combination has performed this season. Stanek has served as the Rays’ opener 26 times and has excelled in the role: 41 innings pitched, 28 hits, 11 runs, 13 walks and 46 strikeouts, just two home runs allowed, for a 1.98 ERA. The Rays are 17-9 when he starts and he has put up a zero 19 times. Maybe most impressive is that he’s not just a one-inning opener, as he has pitched two innings in 12 of his 26 starts, like he did on Sunday.

Yarbrough has followed Stanek to the mound eight times and the Rays are 6-2 in those games. Overall, he’s 8-3 with a 4.26 ERA between four starts and 11 relief appearances. Batters are hitting .223 against him with a .266 OBP. Among pitchers with at least 60 innings, he has allowed the 11th-lowest OBP in the majors — and that’s after an 8.10 ERA in April that landed him back in Triple-A for four starts.

One reason the Rays’ opener strategy has worked is that both players have complete acceptance and understanding of their roles. When I talked to Stanek and Yarbrough in spring training, they both told me that seeing Sergio Romo buy in last season — he was the first reliever Cash tried as an opener — was important, as Romo was a longtime veteran who once got the final out 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 breakout season in 2018 with a 2.98 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 66⅓ innings. Yarbrough, who grew up a Rays fan, is more of a finesse lefty who went 16-6 with a 3.91 ERA as a rookie. He’s perfectly suited for the bulk role as a guy who can go through the order two times:

First time or second time: .203 average, .561 OPS, 22 percent strikeout rate
Third time: .318 average, .979 OPS, 8 percent strikeout rate

What’s interesting is the Rays haven’t actually used the opener as much as they might have intended back in spring training. Cash opened the season with three set spots in his rotation with Blake Snell, Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow and even though Glasnow made just eight starts before landing on the injured list, outside of Stanek the Rays have used Hunter Wood twice and Andrew Kittredge once as openers.

Two things happened: the bullpen was throwing a lot of innings early in the season, and Yonny Chirinos pitched so well that he went from a bulk innings guy to a regular 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 as he rehabbed his forearm strain and is expected out until the end of August (putting his season in jeopardy).

The bigger question about the Rays: Is there enough here to catch the Yankees? Or is settling to be the best non-division winner in the American League as good as it will get in 2019? The Rays are six games back of the New York Yankees — a 4-9 head-to-head mark against the Bombers hasn’t helped — but they begin their biggest series in years on Monday, as they head to Yankee Stadium for four games. They also play the Boston Red Sox six times by Aug. 1, so these next two-plus weeks will tell us a lot about the staying power of the Rays.

Three important factors:

• They need 2018 Cy Young winner Blake Snell to get on a roll like last season. Hard to believe, but he has been the Rays’ worst starter with a 4.70 ERA. His peripherals are much better than that, but peripherals don’t win ballgames. He has to avoid the blowup starts that mean he has averaged just 5.0 innings on the dot per start. He’s better than that. He starts Monday with a chance to set the tone for the series.

• Offensive consistency. The Rays are averaging 4.72 runs per game, ninth in the American League and well below the 5.64 of the Red Sox (going into Sunday night) and 5.63 of the Yankees. They’re 4-9 against the Yankees because they’ve averaged just 3.0 runs per game in those 13 contests. They could use another power bat as their home run rate is better only than those of the Orioles and three teams at the bottom of the AL Central.

Maybe Nate Lowe will help. The rookie first baseman, back for a second stint in the majors, homered three times over the weekend and had more hits on Sunday. Yes, that came against the Orioles, but he also homered in two of the final three games before the All-Star break against the Yankees.

• Back of the bullpen. The Rays were 19-9 at the end of April as Jose Alvarado and Diego Castillo looked like the best one-two relief combo in the majors, with gifs of Alvarado throwing 100-mph fastballs moving like Wiffleballs sweeping across Twitter. Alvarado spent most of June on the injured list, then dropped to 0-5 with that brutal loss to the Orioles on July 3 when he gave up six runs in the ninth. He’s back on the IL with an oblique strain. Castillo, meanwhile, just returned from the IL. Others, such as Emilio Pagan and Colin Poche, have stepped up, but the Rays’ pen needs to rediscover that April mojo.

Even if the Rays just earn an American League wild card, this isn’t a team you want to face in October, especially if Snell finds his lights-out stuff again and starts the wild-card game. Morton could win the Cy Young Award the way he’s pitching, so maybe he starts the wild-card game. And then there’s the silent weapon of the Ryne/Ryan combo.

Of course, getting there is no sure thing either, with the A’s, Indians, Red Sox and Rangers breathing down their necks. So far, the opener and everything else has worked for the Rays’ first 95 games. Will it all continue to work for the full 162?

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