Lou resorts to starting backward

WHITE SOX 6, RAYS 4: After latest flop in eighth, Piniella vows to open games with brief stints by relievers.

Published July 6, 2005

CHICAGO - With Lance Carter's implosion in Tuesday's 6-4 loss to the White Sox the latest debacle, manager Lou Piniella apparently felt there is no way any of the Devil Rays relievers can protect a lead in the eighth inning.

So he decided his next move is to try something that is totally different, potentially controversial and perhaps unprecedented.

Starting tonight, Piniella said he will use a reliever for the first two innings, then bring in his scheduled starter with the idea that he can pitch through the eighth before yielding to closer Danys Baez.

"I've made up my mind, and that's what we're going to do," Piniella said. "People are going to think I'm crazy, but we're just going to try it.

"Starting (tonight). I'll bring in whatever reliever I feel like starting the game with, and I'll bring my starter in in the third inning and we'll play nine innings of baseball that way. I'm serious."

Piniella first mentioned the idea last weekend, then dismissed it over concern for the starters' physical preparation.

But after watching Carter turn a hard-earned 4-3 lead into a frustrating 6-4 loss, giving up a three-run homer to Frank Thomas, as the Rays lost for the eighth time in a 34-game span after taking a lead into the eighth, his frustration got the best of him and led to the radical decision.

"I don't want to be an innovator," Piniella said, "but we're just going to try it."

Several players seemed skeptical Piniella would follow through - "We'll see if that happens," Tuesday starter Mark Hendrickson said - and pitching coach Chuck Hernandez politely declined to discuss it.

The plan presents some problems of its own: Piniella said he would decide each day which reliever would start and "keep the other manager guessing," which goes against baseball protocol of having an announced starter; the Rays could end up short pitchers if he uses one or two relievers early and a game goes extra innings; and starters who get rewarded financially for their number of starts, either through incentive clauses or in contract negotiations for the next season, may be troubled.

But right now, with no proven reliever on the staff to handle the assignment and the front office unlikely to acquire one, Piniella insists he is willing to risk any criticism or consequences - and perhaps make a point to his bosses in the process.

"We're going to try it and see what happens," he said.

Casey Fossum is scheduled to start tonight and said he had not been told any differently. But Fossum, who started the year in the bullpen, didn't dismiss the idea.

"Obviously, we've got to try something," he said.

The eighth inning has been something of a seasonlong problem. The Rays have lost 10 times (all in their past 47 games) after taking a lead into the eighth and have been outscored a mindboggling 90-27 in 84 games, including 52-10 on the road.

The eighth inning meltdowns, which have involved just about every reliever they've had, are a primary reason they have blown a major league-high 16 saves and have the worst bullpen ERA in the league.

The Rays worked hard to take the 4-3 lead into the eighth, rallying twice after the Sox had tied. The latest plan was to use Carter, their most experienced setup man, in the eighth, and minimize the potential for trouble by bring him in at the start of the inning.

The plan was executed the way the Rays wanted, but the problem was that Carter couldn't get anybody out.

He gave up a leadoff double to Scott Podsednik, a single to Tadahito Iguchi and then a towering three-run homer to Thomas.

"You saw it, what do we need to talk about it for?" Carter said. "He's paid to hit pitches that are terrible, and that was a bad pitch. He's hit a lot of home runs, and he got that one. If I could take it back I would, but I can't."