Braves Spencer Strider Off To A Hot Start

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – Sports, the popular vernacular holds, is replete with common phrases and half-hearted truths.

Take baseball, for example.

One of the illusions fans, pundits, and team officials fall into is the convenient trap of creating an order for the starting rotation. Apparently, those with stellar numbers and league leadership in various categories are anointed with the term “ace of the pitching staff,” or “top of the rotation.”

That kind of characterization is a sham, several admit, and reserved for a pile of rubbish. Given the dynamics of starting pitching and the responsibility that goes with starting a major league game, there is no unique consideration for a pitcher who is regarded as above others.

“That kind of order is not important,” said Atlanta starter Spencer Strider, who went 20-5 in 2023 and finished fourth in the National League Cy Young Award balloting. “The game we’re playing right now is the most important, that game and that day. Whoever is pitching that day is our best guy. We will need more than one guy to win a playoff series. We will need more than two guys, probably. I’m confident that a dozen guys right now in our system can win games for us. Our player development department has proven that we will have more than we think. Whoever we roll out there for any given game will be our number one.”

Conversely, a work ethic that translates into productivity can easily place a player in a position of obligation. When Strider took to the mound for his first spring start against Tampa Bay on Feb. 24, he admitted this was as much a dive into the education of a pitcher as well as physical preparation for the protracted, grinding baseball season.

With his “out” pitch as an electric fastball and effective slider, Strider admitted working on a curve and depth of his fastball. In going two innings against the Rays, he threw 27 pitches, 18 for strikes, and recorded strike-outs on Jose Caballero (a 97 MPH fastball), Curtis Mead (a 98 MPH fastball), Jose Siri (a 99 MPH fastball) and Rene Pinto (a 98 MPH fastball).

With a group of starters that include veterans Charlie Morton and Chris Sale, Max Fried, rising Bryce Elder, Strider stands alone. Yet, this status as top-of-the-rotation, along with his rejection of such a characterization, is echoed by others.

“I have never looked at numbers or who the number one rotation guy might be,” said Tampa Bay starter Zack Eflin earlier this spring. “We all have the same exact job and that is to pitch deep in the game as well as put our team in the best situation to win. It’s our job to throw as many innings as we can throughout the year and to take the load off the bullpen so they’re fresh for October.”

The actual question of a top-of-the-rotation pecking order could be puzzling. That’s because Rays’ manager Kevin Cash might be called an innovator and his desire to start a pitcher other than a true starting pitcher. In recent years, Cash has developed the concept of “the opener” and a starter destined to produce a low pitch count and just a few innings. In that regard, there is no traditional structure to a rotation.

Still, the dynamics and accountability of a traditional starter are ever-present.

“No one in (the Tampa Bay) organization is really worried about a one-through five,” Eflin added. “It’s about going out and doing our job every fifth day.”

On the diamond … the Rays dropped their opening game of the spring Saturday and that was a 6-5 decision to Atlanta before 5,558 at Charlotte Sports Park. The game began on an ominous note. Rays’ starter Nathan Wiles, who was 8-3 and a 5.38 ERA between AA and AAA in 2023, was hammered on his first pitch of the game. Braves centerfielder Michael Harris II drilled that offering immediately over the right-field fence. From that point, the Braves added a three-spot in the second and later withstood a Rays comeback. … Despite homers from Jose Siri, Jake Mangum and Greg Jones, Rays’ manager Kevin Cash pointed to his team’s most impressive at-bat. That was a first-inning double down the rightfield line from first baseman Jonathan Aranda. The extra-base hit came against Spencer Strider considered one of the best arms in the game. “For me, that (double) was the highlight of the day,” Cash said. “I’ve been pretty adamant about the desire to see (Aranda) have a good camp. No better way to start than with that and facing the best, or one of the best in baseball.”

Roster move … to make room for infielder Amed Rosario signed this past week on the 40-man roster, the Rays moved pitcher Drew Rasmussen to the 60-day injured list. The right-hander is recovering from right elbow surgery and told reporters earlier this spring he has no timetable for a return to the mound.

Next … The Rays return to Charlotte Sports Park for two of their next three games, including Sunday against the Detroit Tigers and Tuesday taking on the New York Yankees.

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