WITH THE calendar flipping to October, we are weeks away from learning whether the World Series will stretch to seven games for a third straight season and which aces will join Justin Verlander, Madison Bumgarner and all the rest in postseason lore. Yet it's not too early to conclude that the most important game of the 2018 season, as far as baseball's history and future are concerned, was played on a cool May night in Anaheim between two teams—the Angels and the Rays—that would miss the playoffs. At first glance, little stands out in the box score of the Rays' 5--3 win, until you reach the first pitcher listed for the Rays: Sergio Romo. The 35-year-old sidearming righthander had pitched in 588 games but had never before started. He struck out Zack Cozart, Mike Trout and Justin Upton, then gave way to rookie Ryan Yarbrough (above). Romo started the next day, too, and faced six batters (again whiffing Trout and Upton) before exiting in the second. Out of injury-induced desperation and Tampa Bay's dearth of experienced starters, "the opener" was born.
The idea is cleverer than the circumstances of its deployment might suggest. Whether out of fatigue or hitter familiarity, pitchers struggle their third time through the order. Relief aces, meanwhile, go days without pitching if their teams don't play close games. Or they may enter close games to overpower bottom-third hitters after the contest has already turned on better hitters' at bats against the gassed starter. Using an opener, though, guaranteed that Romo would face the Angels' best hitters, with the game's outcome still up for grabs, and it also meant that if the Rays wanted six innings out of their "starter," he would face the weaker seventh-, eighth- and ninth-place hitters for a third time before having to do the same with Trout.
For all its simplicity the opener is nonetheless radical, presenting the biggest change to the role of the starting pitcher since the advent of the five-man rotation. Already this year the opener has made its way, with varying degrees of success, to the Angels, A's, Brewers, Dodgers, Rangers, Twins and Yankees. There's even a chance that the opener will be used by a playoff team in October. But the approach will remain connected to the Rays, who this season used an opener 55 times, posted an AL-low first-inning ERA and ended the season with exactly two pitchers on their roster who had made more than 20 big league starts before 2018—reliever Vidal Nuño and Cy Young candidate Blake Snell. The Rays finished the season with 90 wins—their best showing in five years—and as 2018's most consequential baseball team, no matter who is eventually crowned champion.
BY THE NUMBERS
Rays' ERA since May 19, the day they first used the opener, third best in baseball.
Complete games in MLB this season, the fewest of all time.
THEY SAID IT
YANKEES GREAT REGGIE JACKSON, after Bleacher Report writer Joon Lee introduced himself with his first name.
SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE
BECAUSE VIOLENT PROGRAMMING CAN'T AIR WHEN CHILDREN MIGHT BE WATCHING, AN MMA EVENT THAT STARTED AT 6 A.M. LOCAL TIME IN THE U.K. WAS PREEMPTED BY PEPPA PIG.