On Sunday afternoon, just after 1:05 P.M. local time, Rays baseball had returned as Chris Ellis slung the first pitch in for a ball (which turned out to be a trend that would continue for the rest of the day, more on that later). However, there was something different about this Rays game; something that had been missing for most of last season: fans.
Even with only a little under 1,200 people in attendance for the Grapefruit league opener, it was surreal walking into a ballpark and seeing fans. Despite wearing masks, getting food and catching up with friends at the yard felt like the old normal. It was one step of many to get back to normalcy, but to a baseball fan, it felt like an enormous leap.
Once the weirdness of the lack of fans and wearing a mask passed. It felt like any other Spring Training game, and boy was it nice to sit back and watch a ballgame again. The matchup featured two great teams: the Tampa Bay Rays and the Atlanta Braves. Here were my five takeaways from game one of spring training.
Meadows resurgence incoming?
One of the big question marks involving the Rays’ offense is which Austin Meadows will Tampa Bay be getting. Will it be the 2019 All-Star version that blasted 33 homers, or the 2020 version that struggled just to hit .200?
Well on Sunday he certainly looked like the Meadows of 2019, smashing a two-run home run and laying off tough breaking balls in the dirt, something he struggled with last season. It’s only game one, and there’s plenty of baseball to be played, but if “Meads” can return to form, it would be a huge boost for the Rays’ lineup.
Randy picking up right where he left off.
Another big question looming over Tampa Bay was, “Is Randy Arozarena really that good?” Well, maybe not that good, but he certainly looked to put the “Flukearena” storyline to bed, lacing a single in his first at bat. His next at bat didn’t bring the same results but was still hit relatively hard right at the Atlanta shortstop.
It would be unreasonable to expect Arozarena to keep producing at the level he did in his ridiculous postseason, but if the Rays can get half that over a full season, they would certainly be pleased. If he could do that, it would significantly help Tampa Bay defend its American League crown.
Have a day Tristan Gray!
Gray, who is not ranked in the MLB Pipeline’s Rays’ Top 30 Prospects list, had quite the clutch showing in the Spring Opener. Taking over at first base for Brosseau, who also had a day of his own, Gray made his two at bats count.
In his first, in a 5-5 game, he tripled home two to make it a 7-5 lead. Then in his next at-bat, which would be the final at bat of the game, he hit a two-run walk off homer to secure a 9-7 victory. Gray isn’t expected to contribute at the big-league level this season, but it’s always nice to see a guy have a career day, even if it’s in spring training.
Pitchers’ command struggles.
It’s very common and understandable for pitchers to not be sharp in game one of spring, and this Grapefruit Opener was no different. The Rays mostly went with guys trying to earn spots on the pitching side as they paraded out non-roster invitees Chris Ellis, Hunter Strickland, Andrew Kittredge, Stetson Allie, Joey Krehbiel, Yacksel Rios, and Jeffrey Springs, who after being acquired from Boston, was put on the 40-man roster.
Most struggled with command as Ellis and Strickland walked two, and Springs and Allie both walked one. Ellis was able to work out of his jam striking out two, but Strickland was not as fortunate, giving up an earned run. Springs only walked one, but struggled to get ahead in counts with his fastball/slider combo leading to two hits and two earned runs. Rios suffered the same fate, failing to locate his hard fastball leading to a game tying two-run homerun. Despite these pitchers struggling, one pitcher stood out.
Joey Krehbiel is dirty.
You may not know his name but start learning it. Krehbiel doesn’t throw hard, sitting low to mid 90’s. He is mostly a fastball/changeup guy, but boy is that changeup filthy. The righty, only one of two Rays’ pitchers to not surrender a run in the game, struck out the side, all on changeups, in quite the spring debut. As a guy trying to earn a spot in that bullpen, he certainly made an impression and he is someone to keep an eye on as spring progresses.
-Wander Franco made an appearance, playing shortstop while striking out and grounding out in his two at bats.
-Mike Brosseau continued his reign against left-handed pitching, this time against Sean Newcomb for a solo homerun.
-Rays’ Prospects Kevin Padlo and Vidal Brujan (#50 overall) both went one for two on Sunday as Padlo doubled and Brujan beat out an infield single. Both are candidates to make an impact at the big league level this season.