Alex Cobb's second career missed Opening Day start created a bittersweet opportunity for rotation-mate Andrew Cashner, who assumed the Orioles' starting assignment for Thursday's season opener against the New York Yankees.
A right groin strain landed Cobb on the injured list Monday, and once he and the team agreed they shouldn't push his recovery just to start one game in March, the responsibility fell to Cashner. And it further altered the Orioles' pitching plans to include using the "opener" strategy Saturday, beginning with right-hander Nate Karns.
"I know everybody was looking forward for Alex to make the Opening Day start, and it's just unfortunate circumstance, but we're happy to give the ball to Andrew," manager Brandon Hyde said. "The rotation changes a little bit and we have all the confidence in Cash to go out and give us a good start Opening Day."
Cashner echoed that sentiment, saying it's "definitely a bummer" for Cobb, who also missed his Opening Day start in 2015 with the Tampa Bay Rays because of elbow soreness that eventually required Tommy John reconstruction surgery. He'll try to use his experience from starting the first game of the 2014 season with the San Diego Padres to his favor, and treat it like the beginning of any series.
"I always look forward to setting a tone in any series when we open it up," Cashner said. "For me, it's just continuing what I've been working on this spring. I think there's a different vibe in the room this year, for sure, so I think it's going to be a little more of a relaxed kind of atmosphere. I think you're going to see some guys play the way they're capable of playing."
With Cobb not in the rotation the first time through, the Orioles are forced to adopt an increasingly popular "opener" strategy in the second game, using Friday's off-day to rest whichever pitchers they need Thursday and deploy a parade of relievers.
Because the Yankees are mostly a right-handed-hitting lineup, that means Mike Wright, Miguel Castro and Jimmy Yacabonis could be primed for long outings behind Karns, whose longest appearance of the spring was two innings. Hyde said he separated Cashner and Dylan Bundy, who will start Sunday's matinee in New York, more to take advantage of the day off than to spread out the two relatively known quantities in the rotation.
"Our bullpen will be rested, and we're trying this out," Hyde said. "It's new for us, new for me. But to be able to have your bullpen rested before that game is key, so that's why we picked it that way."
Karns said he's still wrapping his head around the concept of the opener, as it's still "new to the game," but he knows there's value in the role if he grows into it.
"I know I’m not stretched out, so it’s not going to be, like, a fully anticipated start, but it’s something that people are starting to find value in, and if that’s the role I find myself in, I find myself in it," Karns said. "But at the end of the day, just coming in, throwing competitive innings and trying to get the ballclub a win is my ultimate goal.”
While both Wright and right-hander David Hess were stretched out as starters during spring training, Hyde said the fifth starter — presumably Wright — would be available out of the bullpen in the New York series. Hess would then be in line to pitch the series opener against the Toronto Blue Jays on Monday, and left-hander John Means could also provide some length in that series against a lineup in which a southpaw is more useful than he would be against the Yankees.
With so many pitchers who made starts last year back in the minors to continue their development, Cobb's injury, albeit not a significant one, forced the team into a unique position after planning for five starters the whole spring.
Karns, who began the spring as a rotation candidate but ultimately prepared for a bullpen role after his arm didn't recover from his first spring training start the way he wanted, is ready for anything. He hasn't pitched in a major league game since early 2017 because of shoulder and elbow injuries. But he has started and relieved over his major league career, so he’s taking his chance to be a solution to the Orioles' problems in stride.
“Right now, things are kind of a little different when it comes to some of the injuries at the end of camp, but that’s what we’re here for," Karns said. "Next guy steps up, and we’re going to go and see how much I can give out on Game 2 and just kind of go from there. But, pretty excited to go in there and follow Cashner after Game 1. when I get out there, same focus as any other start — try to keep the team in the game as long as possible and help my team win.”