Opposite dugout: Rays throwing starters, not “openers,” at Nationals

rays-logo.jpgManager: Kevin Cash (4th season)

Record: 37-40

Last 10 games: 5-5

Who to watch: 3B Matt Duffy (.318 with 23 RBIs), C Wilson Ramos (.289 with 9 HR, 36 RBIs), 2B Joey Wendel (.262), 1B C.J. Cron (16 HR, 38 RBIs), LHP Blake Snell (9-4, 2.48 ERA),

Season series vs. Nationals: First meeting (3-1 in 2015)

Pitching probables:

June 25: LHP Gio Gonzalez (6-4) vs. LHP Blake Snell (9-4), 7:10 p.m., MASN2
June 26 RHP Max Scherzer (10-3) vs. RHP Nathan Eovaldi (1-3), 12:10 p.m., MASN

Inside the Rays:

The most exciting thing to happen this season involving the Rays is the newfangled approach they have to not having enough starting pitchers. The Rays have been filling their rotation with what manager Kevin Cash calls “openers” - relief pitchers who start, working an inning or two against the best hitters in the opposition’s lineup, then turn the game over to another pitcher that can give them multiple innings. Some have railed against the unorthodox maneuver, calling it against the unwritten rules of baseball. Others think Cash is downright crazy, but let him wallow in his madness because the Rays aren’t going to be confused with contenders. Well, the strategy has been more than effective: Tampa Bay’s 3.07 team ERA is the best in baseball since May 19, which is when they started using openers. Other teams are now looking hard at solving rotation problems by going to the bullpen from the get-go (the Mets started ex-Nationals reliever Jerry Blevins on Sunday, the first start of his major league career). But whether the Rays live or die with the weird plan, it really doesn’t matter. The nonwaiver trade deadline is approaching in five weeks and they’ll be selling off more assets to restock a process that’s already begun. It doesn’t matter that the Rays swept the American League East-leading Yankees over the weekend and are sniffing .500 again. Change seems to be the only constant in Tampa Bay.

It figures the Nationals would get actual starting pitchers for their two-game series at The Trop, including the Rays’ winningest pitcher. Lefty Blake Snell gets the nod in Monday’s opener, and his 9-4 record and 2.48 ERA have him pointed toward the American League All-Star team. Snell has won five of his last six decisions and worked at least six innings in five of seven starts. He’s a much better pitcher in St. Petersburg, Fla., going 12-8 with a 2.65 ERA in 27 career starts, and has never faced the Nationals. In eight interleague starts, he’s 3-2 with a 2.33 ERA. Righty Nathan Eovaldi will start Tuesday afternoon’s getaway matinee, and his season started late because of a trip to the disabled list for surgery to remove loose bodies from his throwing elbow (at least he didn’t need a third Tommy John surgery). Eovaldi threw six no-hit innings in his season debut at Oakland on May 30, but has gone 0-3 with a 6.17 ERA in four starts since. He’s worked at least five innings in every start this year, but has yielded eight homers in his last 23 innings. Eovaldi has made 10 career starts against the Nats, going 2-5 with a 5.30 ERA.

The Rays don’t have a lot of starpower on offense. Ex-Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos has turned in a nice season in his walk year, hitting .289 with nine homers and 36 RBIs . Third baseman Matt Duffy is hitting .318, the best average on the team by far, and first baseman C.J. Cron leads the Rays with 16 homers and 38 RBIs. Center fielder Kevin Kiermaier’s return to the roster last week was a boost; he’d been on the sidelines since mid-April after surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb. Mallex Smith played center and has managed to steal 14 bases. Keep an eye on shortstop Willy Adames, a top prospect who was recalled from Triple-A Durham last week.

The Rays traded closer Alex Colomé to the Mariners earlier this month, getting a head start on the midseason swap meet. Righty Sergio Romo is getting most of the save opportunities now - at least when he’s not starting games, which has happened five times - and has five saves in nine tries.

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