The New York Yankees bullpen had themselves an unscheduled night off on Monday. Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka stepped onto the mound to face off against the Tampa Bay Rays with a 5.79 ERA black cloud over his head at the beginning of the night, and ended up walking away with the seventh shutout of his career.
With their 3-0 win, the Yankees went up a game and a half on the AL East and all the kudos should be aimed at Tanaka (well, and Cameron Maybin and DJ LeMahieu who backed up Tanaka with timely homers).
While the game was in itself thrilling, the real story of the night was how a starter who has been struggling with a less-than-stellar ERA for his past three games, managed to stuff and fluff a team that is known for using an “opener” strategy, a pitching strategy they started during the 2018 season and decided to stick with this year.
It started out as a 2018 experiment when the then-Rays pitcher Sergio Romo faced off against the Los Angeles Angels and struck out the side on a Saturday evening before taking to the field again on Sunday afternoon to strike out three batters in 1 1/3 innings. The closer suddenly added another role to his resume: Opener.
The league was then transfixed with the idea, split between those clubs who applaud it and those who give it the side-eye.
“Oh, we’re going to do it,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said during Winter Meetings back in December when asked if club will be keeping up with the strategy this current season since it helped them nab 90 wins last year. “I’m very confident that we’re going to be doing it definitely twice and potentially three times through the rotation at the start of the season.”
The Rays have certainly succeeded in shaking up the league by standing by their pitching experiment, but none of that weighed on the mind of Tanaka, who showed up their AL East competition by tossing only 111 pitches in nine innings (striking out 10 batters, a new season-high) on Monday night.
“It makes it even better, to go be able to go nine innings,” the starting pitcher said via an interpreter following his win. “Also, the fact we’re facing the Rays, who are up there with us [in the AL East].”
Tanaka would be a prime candidate for being in an Opener situation, too. Just charting his ERA through innings 1-6 — 1.80, 2.40 1.80, 3.60, 6.23, 5.84 — shows just how much help pairing him with a guy who could throw the first 1-2 innings would keep Tanaka and his stuff in a game late. Or, he could just pitch keep pitching shutouts.
Does this shutout count as Tampa Bay’s semi annual “Fall Victim to a No-Hitter”? Probably not. Tanaka shutout the Rays last July, too. That no hitter threat still looms.
There are plenty of good reasons why a team would use an opener. The strategy works. Fans should embrace it. It’s personnel-dependent, after all. Sometimes, teams just don’t have five quality starters. But for those that do, there are plenty of good reasons why a an old fashioned one-pitcher shutout is a far more satisfying experience.