Wednesday was a busy day for the Rays front office. First, they traded starter Nathan Eovaldi to the rival Red Sox. Then, they traded versatile righty Matt Andriese to the Diamondbacks. As I write this, Wednesday still has another few hours to go, so it’s possible they have even more in store, something you’ll have heard about by the time this post is published. Though the Rays are still incredibly north of .500, they’re not really in the hunt, so they’re shifting their priorities to the future. The nearer-term future, but the future nevertheless.
In the middle of the Rays’ busy Wednesday, there was a baseball game. It was a baseball game Eovaldi was scheduled to start. Based on that fact alone, the game was out of the ordinary, but it got stranger still. The Rays, of course, are the team that brought you the opener. They’re the team that used a catcher to protect a late lead. They’re the team that played a pitcher at first base. And now they’re also the team that played a pitcher at third base. These weren’t emergency circumstances the Rays were playing under. It was the same strategy as it was before, with Jose Alvarado. This time, it was Sergio Romo’s turn to head to a corner.
Alvarado is a lefty. When Kevin Cash moved him to first, the idea was to keep him in the game, but protect him from a righty. As you can imagine, this case was the same and the opposite. Romo is a righty. When Kevin Cash moved him to third, the idea was to keep him in the game, but protect him from a lefty. You understand the strategy, because the strategy isn’t new. Pitchers have sometimes occupied other positions. Besides Alvarado, we saw Joe Maddon play both Brian Duensing and Steve Cishek in the outfield. The twist here is the third-base part. That part is especially uncommon.
Romo entered in the eighth inning with the Rays up 3-1. While a sac fly narrowed the score to 3-2, he retired both Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres. The score remained 3-2 going into the ninth, and the Yankees had Greg Bird lined up to lead off. Bird’s a lefty, but Miguel Andujar was due next, and he’s a righty. Cash, then, made his decision. In came southpaw Jonny Venters, to try to get Bird out. Romo slid to the hot corner, so he’d be able to come back in and pitch.
This is Sergio Romo preparing to play the infield:
And, facing Bird, the Rays’ infield aligned in a shift:
That’s Romo, in the circle, if you needed the help. When Alvarado played first base, one factor was that Anthony Rendon was up, and he’s a fly-ball hitter who seldom hits a grounder or liner the other way. The same could be said of Bird, whose 2018 spray chart can be seen below:
It’s not that Bird can’t go the other way, but, when he goes the other way, he generally hits the ball in the air. A ball in the air would become the responsibility of the outfield. Usually, when pitchers move to temporarily play another position, they go to the grass, because pitchers have some kind of fly-ball-catching experience. Many of them like to shag in batting practice. And there’s just this sense that you could hide a bad defender in an outfield corner if you want. Playing the infield is just more complicated, and the ball gets on you faster. That may well be true, but balls in the air usually get sprayed. It’s the low batted balls that tend to stay to the pull side. One could make a very convincing argument playing Romo at third against Bird left the Rays minimally exposed.
Still, there was a chance. Bird could hit something off the end of the bat, or he could stay with a pitch away. And then there’s always the other possibility. Sometimes, an opportunistic lefty will try to bunt against the shift. Much like, oh, I don’t know, Greg Bird did against the Rays in the second inning on Wednesday.
Bird had already bunted once. The Rays were practically daring him to try it again. At the same time, maybe it wouldn’t be such a good idea after all. Not only was Romo guarding against the bunt, based on his positioning, but he also has his own experience fielding bunts from the mound. Pitchers have to deal with bunts in play all the time, frequently to the third-base side of the infield. The only difference for Romo would be that he’d have to charge in from further away, but pitchers charge bunts sometimes. Handling a bunt might be the one thing third-base Romo would be good at. I imagine he’d be less good against a hard shot to his side.
Bird never even flashed an attempt. He took the first pitch for a strike. He swung through the second pitch for another strike. Romo then got to participate in his own defensive shift:
Romo moved over, as the two-strike count almost nullified the chance of a bunt. Bird took a ball in the dirt, and then he put the ball in play. Somewhat predictably, he bounced a pull-side grounder.
Venters left the game, and Romo returned to the mound. Adeiny Hechavarria came in to play shortstop. Romo survived his adventure, and he became just the ninth pitcher in recorded baseball history to both pitch and play third base in the same game. Or should I say eighth pitcher — Dick Selma did it twice in April 1970. But this hadn’t happened in the majors since August 6, 1971, when Bill Wilson temporarily played third so that Joe Hoerner could pitch to Willie Stargell. Wilson’s manager was Frank Lucchesi, and he put a pitcher at third base three times in two years. There’s been nothing since. Romo was the first in almost a half-century.
Romo most looked like an infielder when he got Andujar to put the ball on the ground. His one chance to look like a third baseman came after he was a pitcher again:
That left Romo to face a switch-hitting Aaron Hicks, who reached on an error on a would-be double play. Righty Austin Romine popped out, which brought up lefty Brett Gardner. This lefty, Romo retired on what should’ve been ball four:
And so concluded the Rays’ narrow victory. In the eighth inning, Romo earned a hold, and in the ninth inning, Romo earned a save. Granted, that then took the hold away, because the rules are stupid, but the stats are also stupid, so it doesn’t really matter. Said Romo afterward:
“I go back to about 20 years ago, to junior college, I played a little third base,” Romo said. “Pretty interesting. The manager walks up to you and goes, ‘Hey, you’re going to third base.’ Just kind of looked at him, and said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Just go to third base, we’ll let you know after that.’ … I was thinking, ‘Who’s batting? Bird’s up. So chest out, just knock it down, you’ve got a shot.'”
Romo called Wednesday afternoon’s game a “very, very fun game.”
Whenever I’ve thought about baseball becoming more experimental, I’ve usually assumed it would require entire-league buy-in. The Rays, however, offer evidence a team can do it on its own. Whether it’s a reflection of Cash, of the front office, or of the players themselves, the Rays are playing their own brand of baseball, and they seem to be enjoying it. At the very least, they seem to be willing participants. I don’t know exactly how smart it is to do something like play Sergio Romo at third base. I don’t know if that’s mathematically worth it. But we’re allowed to celebrate open-mindedness for its own sake. It can be a rare trait in this world. Certainly in this league.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.