ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — There’s no secret to the success of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Strong pitching, sparkling defense and timely hitting have served them well for years and have the budget-minded club off a fast start this season.
“It’s awesome,” Kevin Kiermaier said Monday night after homering and driving in four runs in a 7-1 victory over the Colorado Rockies.
“We sit here and we talk in spring training about how good we can be,” Kiermaier added. “This is the start we wanted to get to.”
Employing the opener strategy that has been an integral part of the team’s success since it began using relievers to fill in for traditional starting pitchers last May, the Rays won for the fourth straight time since a season-opening loss to Houston — matching the best five-game start in franchise history.
Opener Ryne Stanek got it started before a crowd of 10,860, with Ryan Yarbrough (1-0) following and allowing one run and three hits over 4 2/3 innings. Relievers Wilmer Font, Jalen Beeks, Jose Alvarado and Diego Castillo finished up.
“It starts with the pitching,” Kiermaier said. “It’s not a surprise to me. They gave us a taste last year of what they can do collectively as a unit. ... It’s fun playing behind these guys.”
The Rays are 4-1 for the first time since 2012, allowing just 10 runs — the fewest through five games in club history. The bullpen has a 0.43 ERA, limiting opponents to one earned run in 21 innings.
With the fast start, Tampa Bay matched its win total from the first 17 games of last season, when the Rays rebounded from early struggles to finish with 90 wins — most among non-playoff teams.
“We are playing some really good baseball and having a lot of fun out there,” Yarbrough said.
Brandon Lowe hit a two-run homer in the fourth and Kiermaier added a three-run shot in the sixth to inflict most of the damage against Colorado starter Chad Bettis (0-1), who allowed six runs and seven hits in 5 2/3 innings.
Nolan Arenado’s RBI double in the sixth snapped a 17-inning scoreless streak for the Rockies, who’ve dropped three straight after winning the first two games of the season at Miami.
“We can’t seem to get anything going,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “We can’t string any hits together, and when that happens you’re not going to score.”
Yarbrough led major league rookies with 16 victories last season, 14 of them out of the bullpen — the most by a reliever since Toronto’s Mark Eichhorn and Roger McDowell of the New York Mets had 14 in 1986.
It was the most wins by a lefty reliever since Detroit’s John Hiller won 17 in 1974, and Yarbrough also led AL rookies in innings pitched and strikeouts.
The Rays used an opener 55 times in 2018, going 32-23 in those games in which a reliever started and typically faced between three and nine batters.
Stanek thrived in the role, making 29 starts — just two fewer than club leader and AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell.
The 27-year-old reliever allowed one hit — Arenado’s two-out single — and struck out three in one inning Monday night.
Yarbrough was sharp, too, until running into trouble in the sixth, when he hit Charlie Blackmon with a pitch and gave up a one-out single to David Dahl before being replaced by Font. The next batter, Arenado, doubled down the left field line to trim Colorado’s deficit to 3-1.
The Rockies had not scored since the sixth inning of Saturday’s 7-3 loss at Miami. The Marlins shut them out 3-0 on Sunday.
“We know we haven’t performed the way we want to. ... But we’ve only played five games,” Rockies shortstop Trevor Story said. “We’re 2-3, and I’m sure we’ve had worst starts than that. There’s no panic here. We’re very confident. We know just a couple big hits, that will turn us around.”
Rockies: INF Daniel Murphy was placed on the 10-day injured list with a left index finger fracture that occurred Saturday. Black had no pregame update on Murphy, who was scheduled to see a hand specialist Monday. ... Black said RHP Jon Gray, who left his start Sunday with right calf cramps, is fine.
Rays: INF Joey Wendle went on the 10-day IL with a strained left hamstring. Hurt on Sunday, Wendle said it’s hard to know how long he’ll be out until he gets back to working out at full speed.
Black said the Rockies feel pretty good about their five starters and their ability to get into the sixth or seventh inning and that there would not be any advantage to starting someone out of the bullpen over a member of the rotation.
“I think if you have those types of pitchers and personnel that it sets up for and maybe you’re not as deep in your rotation, then it makes sense to have a situation like what the Rays do,” Black said.
It’s a matchup of opening day starters Tuesday night, when Rockies LHP Kyle Freeland (1-0, 1.29 ERA) faces Snell (0-1, 7.50). Freeland has a nine-game winning streak dating to last Aug. 6.