ST. PETERSBURG — With all that's been said, tweeted, ranted and written on these pages and elsewhere about the Rays' odd, unorthodox, weird and some days downright wacky pitching plan, this might be the craziest thing yet:
Like, really well.
After shutting out the mighty Yankees 4-0 on Saturday, the Rays — literally redefining roles in using openers, relieving starters and consecutive bullpen days since going all in on this plan May 19 — have since posted the best ERA in the majors, 2.98.
And to back that up, they're second in the American League to the Yankees over that same stretch in batting average allowed, .212, and in walk and hits per inning, 1.15.
"A lot of good things,'' manager Kevin Cash said. "A lot of things to like from the pitching staff. It's amazing every day how much buy-in we get. We know we're doing some unique things, and some questionable things people scratch their heads at. But these pitchers do a tremendous job of buying in.''
Also, of getting outs.
With a resurrected Wilmer Font leading the way Saturday by working into the sixth, picking up his first big-league win, and four relievers (including Ryne Stanek, who opened Friday's game) teaming behind him, the Rays dealt the Yankees just their second shutout of the season. (And first with a DH in their lineup as the other was under NL rules.)
Coupled with Friday's 2-1 win, they are the first team to hold the Yankees — who are leading the majors in runs and homers — to less than five in consecutive games.
It's the Yankees' first back to back losses since May 22-23; they haven't lost three in a row yet.
"When it works it's fun,'' Cash said.
Obviously, the sample size is still relatively small. Other pitchers are doing well in traditional roles. The Rays are still learning, and adjusting as they go, such as, for example, deciding to use only one pitcher as an opener, tasked with getting three-six outs, and lining up at least one of the relieving starters, Ryan Yarbrough, to work on a regular schedule.
But when you look at how the Rays are doing it, especially with the staggering string of injuries to starters that have left them with, for now, essentially a two-man rotation, and the somewhat revolving cast of interchangeable parts, 23 pitchers overall (plus two position players) and 13 starters, and with closer Alex Colome traded, it's actually pretty impressive.
"I don't think we're necessarily looking to get credit,'' Cash said. "We probably don't want to get bashed either for it. Every decision that we make, there's a lot of thought that goes into it. It's not throwing something up against the wall. This is an opportunity that presented with having so many young pitchers, and it's nice to see when it plays out and when we have success. It's allowed us to stay in a lot of ballgames.''
And win some, too.
Font is emerging in bold type (sorry) as a key part of the story. Acquired off the scrap heap after going 0-2, 12.71 in 10 games and allowing 10 homers in 17 innings for the Dodgers and A's, Font has been a headliner (sorry, again) for the Rays, posting a 1.63 ERA over eight appearances.
One key was the Rays moving him back to the third base side of the rubber, where he was successful at Triple A last year (and from which he said the Dodgers inexplicably shifted him this spring). "I was comfortable there and in my first bullpen (with Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder) felt great and everything has gone well after that,'' Font said.
Another is his growing confidence, evidenced among other ways by how he challenged some of Yankees sluggers and by how he used his splitter to keep them off balance. "He had some awkward-looking swings from some good hitters,'' Cash said.
The Rays took an early lead, thanks mostly to rookies Jake Bauers and Willy Adames, part of the core they hope allows them to eventually compete evenly with the Yankees and other AL powers.
The game hung in the balance in the sixth, a 3-0 lead imperiled with two Yankees on, Font out and Jonny Venters having given up a hit. With Giancarlo Stanton at the plate, Cash summoned Stanek, who opened Friday's game and was in line to do so again Sunday. Pitching with increased confidence of his own, Stanek did that job, too, striking out Stanton with a 98 mph fastball, then bridging the seventh so Chaz Roe and Sergio Romo could finish.
"Everybody is throwing the ball really well, been healthy and been able, basically, to pass the baton to the next guy,'' Stanek said. "Nobody is playing selfish. It's whatever is best for the team, and everybody has kind of embraced that. We've done pretty well.''
As surprising as it seems, you can say that again.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]