Ryne Stanek has started 27 of Tampa Bay’s 106 games, a workload that would allow him to reach 40 starts on the season. Nobody has done that since Charlie Hough of the 1987 Texas Rangers.
The last non-knuckleballer to hit that mark was Steve Rogers, who started 40 games for the Montreal Expos in 1977.
Now it gets interesting.
Stanek also has pitched in relief 14 times, a pace that would give him 21 before the season ends.
Only Hall of Famer Ed Walsh of the 1912 White Sox has ever accomplished that feat. He started 41 games and relieved 21 times, going 27-17 with 10 saves over 393 innings.
But here’s the catch: Stanek is an “opener” and has yet to pitch more than two innings in a game this season. His job sometimes ends before all the fans are in their seats.
“It’s pretty wild,” said the 27-year-old righthander of his unusual role. “But for me, and for us and what we’re doing, it seems pretty normal.”
The innovative Rays conceived of the opener last season as a way to give their young starting pitchers an easier transition into the big leagues. The idea was to have a reliever handle the first 3-6 batters before the next pitcher goes three or four innings.
It has worked well. The Rays have a 3.66 earned run average since the start of last season. The Yankees are at 3.89 and the Red Sox 4.11.
For a player like Stanek, having such unusual statistics is amusing.
“I could probably lead the league in starts, which is ridiculous,” he said. “It’s funny to think I could do that.”
Stanek grew up dreaming of being a bona fide starter. He started in high school in suburban Kansas City and then for three seasons at the University of Arkansas.
The Rays took Stanek with the 29th overall pick of the 2013 draft. Stanek struggled in the minors and transitioned to the bullpen in 2016, the Rays seeking to find the best use of his 98-mile-per hour fastball and 90-m.p.h. slider.
Stanek made his major league debut in 2017, being used as a conventional reliever. He made his first start on May 26, 2018, and retired all five batters he faced.
“It’s pretty cool. I feel like I’m an odd guy anyway and from the get-go it felt like a strange thing we were doing,” said Stanek, who was named after Cubs All-Star Ryne Sandberg despite coming from a family of Cardinals fans. “But it’s been successful, doing something weird.”
Baseball tradition dictates that the starting pitcher cannot be spoken to before games so he can focus. But Stanek, who has a beard and long hair, doesn’t abide by such formality.
“I don’t change,” he said. “I had a start in New York this season and I did an interview on MLB Network before the game. Why not? I told them I would.”
His preparation is like any relief appearance with perhaps a few more throws if the plan is for him to cover two innings.
“There’s no hurry, which is nice,” Stanek said. “When you’re a reliever, you have that urgency. But it’s tougher sometimes because you’re facing the best dudes on every team. You have to be ready. I like it because you can just go right after them. Sometimes as a reliever you come in with somebody on base and you have to be careful.”
The most unusual aspect of the job is that Stanek is often done with his work when the game still has seven or eight more innings left to go.
He’ll go into the clubhouse and do some shoulder exercises before taking a shower and watching the rest of the game in the dugout.
“I’m checked out mentally and everybody else is into it,” he said. “I just watch the game and hang out. It’s definitely different.”
Stanek, who is on the injured list with a sore right hip, has a 3.40 ERA and 1.15 WHIP this season with 61 strikeouts over 55⅔ innings. His fastball has touched 101 m.p.h. this season.
“The power certainly helps,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “When you feature 97-100 right out of the gate, not too many starting pitchers can do that.
“For Ryne, there has been a sense to establish the strike zone right away and dominate those first two innings. But it’s also a development thing. It’s not quite as high intensity as it might be later in games.”
Red Sox left fielder Andrew Benintendi was a freshman at Arkansas the season after Stanek was drafted, and he heard stories about him.
“He’s always thrown hard,” Benintendi said. “But now he’s refining it and he’s tough. When the game starts and you’re facing a guy like that, it’s a challenge right away.”
The Red Sox have not used an opener. But several other teams have, including the Yankees eight times with Chad Green. They have won all eight of those games.
The Yankees usually use an opener out of need, not by design.
“It’s certainly something that’s been pretty successful for us,” manager Aaron Boone said. “Something that could always be in play for us down the road.”
Green has allowed three runs over 11⅔ innings as a starter and struck out 19 with only three walks.
“More often than not, depending on how we’ve used him in the previous days, he’s a guy who can give us a couple of innings,” Boone said. “He’s a little more flexible. We feel good about him going through a lineup.”
The Milwaukee Brewers got a bit carried away with the concept in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series last year. Manager Craig Counsell started Wade Miley then pulled him after one batter.
It didn’t affect the game all that much. But it showed the influence the Rays have had.
“I see other teams trying it. I don’t know if I like that necessarily. But for us it made sense and I believe it has helped us,” Cash said. “You have to be open to new things.”
As for Stanek, having an unusual place in baseball history is appealing.
“It’s funny to think I’m doing something nobody else has,” he said. “I wouldn’t have guessed that when I was a rookie. I just wanted to pitch.”
MANAGING HIS POLITICS
Cora comfortable addressing issues
Unlike the NBA and NFL, Major League Baseball is a largely apolitical sport. It’s a rare player who speaks up on the issues of the day.
There are different reasons for that. That 29 percent of rosters are made up of foreign-born players plays a role. Plus many players from the United States come to the sport directly out of high school and aren’t educated about politics beyond the basics.
So it has been interesting to see Alex Cora wade into the political arena over the last few months, first by declining a visit to the White House in May and lately with the support for the throngs of protesters who successfully convinced Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rossello to announce his resignation following a scandal.
In recent days, Cora has worn T-shirts with political messages [in Spanish] to his pregame and postgame meetings with the media.
It’s nothing radical. One of the shirts on Thursday read, “We are not afraid” and had an image of the Puerto Rican flag.
Cora only comments about the issues in Puerto Rico when asked. He doesn’t volunteer it.
Regardless of what you may personally believe, it’s hard to fault Cora for how he represents himself. He expresses his opinion without it getting in the way of his job. But at the same time, it’s in a way that is meaningful to the people of Puerto Rico.
Being the manager of the Red Sox is only one segment of his life. Cora also has a family, including three children, and an understanding of his platform. People in Puerto Rico watch what he says and does in a far different way than people watch Terry Francona or Aaron Boone.
You may not want politics mixed in with sports, but that utopia ended long ago. Cora has found a good balance.
A few other observations on the Red Sox:
■ Dave Dombrowski has said the Sox do not have a lot of needs as the trade deadline approaches. Considering they entered the weekend seventh in the American League with a 4.64 earned run average, that’s a stretch.
It’s more a lack of opportunity than a lack of needs. The Sox are locked into Chris Sale, David Price, and Eduardo Rodriguez for three rotation spots and have to give Andrew Cashner more than a few games to show what he can do.
Rick Porcello has not pitched well but did pull it together against the Yankees on Thursday.
Ideally the Red Sox would trade for a quality starter — pause here to bang the drum for Noah Syndergaard — but giving up the prospects that would take is not worth it unless you truly believe they’re one starter away from winning the World Series again.
A more realistic move would be to trade for a quality setup man. A lot is being asked of Brandon Workman and Matt Barnes and they need more help than what apparently will be cautious use of Nathan Eovaldi.
Scott Oberg of the Rockies would be a great pickup. Colorado has collapsed and could become a seller. Oberg, a Tewksbury native, is coming up on his second year of arbitration.
The Rockies, 44-40 on June 30, went into the weekend 48-55 and will be in sell mode.
■ That the trade market is moving slowly was not a surprise to several executives we polled. “More teams became either cautious buyers this month or at least decided not to sell,” one said. “There’s not much traction.”
Another said the lack of impactful hitters on the market essentially left teams dickering about pitchers.
The expectation is for a flurry of deals over the final 48 hours. Dombrowski will pull his top scouts off the road as the deadline approaches on Wednesday so deals can be discussed in person.
■ Through 105 games, Rodriguez led the Sox in wins (12) and his 123 innings and 126 strikeouts were second only to Sale. The patience the Red Sox have long had with Rodriguez, which wasn’t always easy, has paid off.
“It feels good because I know the people here believed in me,” Rodriguez said. “But I still feel like I can be even better.”
Rodriguez has started only one playoff game in his career. But if the Sox get into a postseason series, he’s their No. 3 starter at this point.
■ Baseball America moved the Red Sox from 30th to 22nd in it latest minor league talent rankings. Infielder Triston Casas (74th), righthander Bryan Mata (88th), and third baseman Bobby Dalbec (95th) are in its top 100 with outfielder Jarren Duran on the verge of that.
The rankings do not reflect players in the big leagues, so players such as Rafael Devers (age 22), Darwinzon Hernandez (22), and Michael Chavis (23) are not included.
The talent level dipped with some of the trades Dombrowski made but is now starting to build back up.
The Sox did it the right way, using prospects as trades to build a World Series champion and retaining a strong group of their young players.
Lavarnway keeps the dream alive
Ryan Lavarnway, who started the season in Triple A with the Yankees, was released on July 18 and signed with the Reds a few hours later. He started against the Cardinals a day later and went 3 for 4 with two home runs and six RBIs.
Lavarnway was drafted by the Red Sox in 2008 and spent seven years with the organization, never quite becoming a starter. He has been with nine organizations since, still chasing his dreams at age 31.
Lavarnway’s two-homer game was his first since Game 161 of the 2011 season when he connected twice against Baltimore to help the collapsing Sox temporarily stave off elimination.
Jalen Beeks has been worth 0.9 WAR for the Rays since he was traded for Nathan Eovaldi last season. He also hit 96.1 m.p.h on the radar gun against the Red Sox on Monday at Tropicana Field. The 26-year-old lefthander is 10-1 with a 3.99 ERA for Tampa Bay and could prove to be a steal in that trade. Eovaldi, by the way, has been worth minus-0.2 WAR for the Sox in the regular season . . . When the Cubs signed Craig Kimbrel on June 7, they also hired Adam Thomas to be the closer’s physical therapist. Thomas was on the Red Sox medical staff for three seasons but didn’t have his contract renewed last fall . . . Here’s a great nugget unearthed by Andrew Baggarly of The Athletic. Armando Benitez played with every new member of the Hall of Fame. He was with Harold Baines (1994-98 Orioles), Roy Halladay (2008 Blue Jays), Edgar Martinez (2003 Mariners), Mike Mussina (1994-98 Orioles), Mariano Rivera (Yankees 2003), and Lee Smith (1994 Orioles). Mussina may not have the greatest memories of Benitez, who blew the save for what would have been Mussina’s 20th win in 1996 . . . The Angels were 4-0 against the Dodgers, their first season sweep of the interleague series in 23 years. The Angels are on the edges of the wild-card race thanks in part to a 13-game stretch from July 3-23 that saw Mike Trout hit 11 home runs and drive in 23 runs . . . The Athletics and Giants are doing so well that Oakland will open the outfield seats on Mount Davis for the Aug. 24 game between the teams . . . Happy 90th birthday, Ted Lepcio. The infielder played for the Red Sox from 1952-59. He hit only .247 for the Sox but had 53 home runs. Lepcio played at Seton Hall and for the summer league Augusta Millionaires in Maine before signing with the Sox. Lepcio made his major league debut Opening Day in 1952 and hit eighth in a lineup that included Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, and Walt Dropo. His roommate was Jimmy Piersall, who batted sixth. Lepcio went on to play for the Tigers, Phillies, White Sox, and Twins before retiring from baseball and going into a career in the trucking industry. He is a longtime resident of Dedham.