HOUSTON — Well before the idea of using a reliever to open games, as the Rays did against the Astros Monday for the 12th time, and then bringing in a starter was even a gleam in the eyes of the current Rays staff, former manager Lou Piniella was plotting to do so.
It was July 2005, midway through Piniella's third — and it would turn out — final year of managing the woeful Devil Rays. Growing increasing frustrated watching his bullpen squander games repeatedly before he could get to All-Star closer Danys Baez, Piniella sat in the dugout in Chicago and unveiled his way outside the box idea.
"I've made up my mind, and that's what we're going to do," he said. "People are going to think I'm crazy, but we're just going to try it. …
"Starting tomorrow, I'll bring in whatever reliever I feel like starting the game with, and I'll bring my starter in in the third inning and we'll play nine innings of baseball that way. I'm serious. …
"I don't want to be an innovator, but we're just going to try it."
As intense as the reaction has been now to what the Rays are doing even in this age of advanced thinking and open-mindedness, you can imagine how radical Piniella's suggestion was viewed then.
The headline on deadspin.com was that Piniella "Officially Just Sets The Season On Fire.''
The Devil Rays, for a variety of reasons, never actually followed through and implemented the new plan.
But don't think Piniella, 74, doesn't see what the Rays are doing now and remember that he had the idea first.
"I was managing ahead of my time,'' he cracked Sunday in New York. "A couple years ahead.''
Piniella said he considered it then as a matter of necessity.
"Listen, when I was over there our starting pitching was not all that good,'' he said. "And neither was our bullpen. The rest of the team was fine. But after watching it for a while, I decided that was a possibility. I was basically more joking than anything else.
"But now they're starting to do it. Unbelievable.''
Whereas the Rays are doing it, and doing it so often, now because they feel it gives them a better chance to win rather than use their young inexperienced starters in traditional style, Piniella's motivation was slightly different.
His rotation was plenty deep, with a top four of Scott Kazmir, Mark Hendrickson, Casey Fossum and Doug Waechter, plus Hideo Nomo and the not-quite dynamic duo of Seth McClung and Dewon Brazelton.
So his idea was to use his undependable middle relievers in the less pressurized early innings, then have the starters work deep enough to get the ball to Baez in the ninth.
"He had different reasons,'' said Waechter, now a Rays TV analyst. "But that was the first thing I thought of when I heard about this. He was kind of foreshadowing what they're doing now.''
Now that Piniella has seen the plan in practice, he's actually not much of a fan. "Absolutely not,'' he said.
That's not surprising given his old-school philosophy of wanting to ride starters deep into games rather than pull them based on pre-arranged plans.
"If he's pitching well, let the hitters dictate when to take him out, not pitch counts or the rest of that stuff,'' he said. "I think they need to stretch these pitchers out a little longer. Six-seven innings, 115-120 pitches every five days for a big strapping young man, it's perfect. They're not going to get hurt. The amazing thing about it is the organizations that baby their pitchers the most are the ones that have the most on the disabled list.''
Piniella works as a senior adviser for the Reds, but spends most of his time at home in Tampa watching a lot of Rays games on TV and said he likes what he sees.
"They're doing fine,'' he said. "With the youth that they have, they're going to be inconsistent. They're going to have streaks when they get hot when things are going well and then they're going to go the other way. Consistency is going to be a problem for them.''
He praised the efforts of manager Kevin Cash, saying "he's a good young man and I think he does a real nice job with the team.''
And he said he still believes there are occasions for some of his old-school tantrums: "Once in a while you've got to let the players know what you're out here for is to win.''
So, is he due royalties on the opener plan?
"Nah,'' he said. "I don't think so.''
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays