Five Takeaways from Game 1 of Spring Training

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.

Other Notes

-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.

From Pinstripes to Devil Rays: My Journey with the Tampa Bay Rays

I used to be a New York Yankees fan, but allow me to explain myself. 

I grew up about a half hour outside of New York City. My parents both used to work there, and my dad was actually born in the Bronx. Needless to say, both of my parents have been Yankees fans for some time.

You can imagine how that went for me, young, impressionable seven-year-old girl in 2009, surrounded by Yankees fans. Even the principal of my elementary school was a huge fan. She hung logos and pinstripes around the school and even made a big announcement when the Yankees won the World Series that year. It was all very exciting for seven-year-old me.

My parents took me to a game against the Baltimore Orioles that year at Camden Yards. I sort of knew what was happening. I played Little League softball, so that was about the extent of my knowledge. We ended up leaving pretty early in the game due to boredom, despite the fact that the Yankees were pitching a no-hitter.

Not too long after, I found myself hooked on the team. Once I find something I like, I get hung up on it for a while, and the Yankees were no exception. Mark Teixera was my favorite player and I got a big poster of Derek Jeter for Christmas that hung in my room until we moved. I was enjoying my time as a Yankees fan, though it was short lived.

As I just mentioned, we moved when I was pretty young. We went down to New Jersey and we’ve been there ever since. Of course, I switched schools, and my new school had a theater program. Needless to say, my Yankees days were done.

So, how did I become a Rays fan then? Well, fast forward about ten years or so to April 2019. I was a senior in high school still trying to figure out where I was going to college, and I didn’t have much time left. Theater had just about taken over my life at this point, and baseball was something I would only casually acknowledge. I was still involved in the baseball world, as I played softball, but I wasn’t very good. I’d ask my parents about the MLB from time to time, but I could only maybe name four MLB teams.

One of the schools on my list was The University of Tampa. It was the only school in Florida I applied to, and after we toured back in November 2018, it shot up to the top of my list.

We stayed in the Indian Shores for spring break that year. On April 20, 2019, my Mom said to my Dad and me, “The Tampa Bay Rays are playing in St. Pete’s tonight. Anybody interested in going?” I kid you not, my response was, “What sport do they play?” I think I asked another three or four times before we got there.

They were playing the Boston Red Sox that night, and being raised a Yankees fan, it wasn’t hard to root against them. I wore my brand new UT shirt and cheered for the Rays though at first, I was admittedly more interested in the stingray tank than anything happening on the field. That is, until I noticed the center fielder.

I was a little more interested in the stingrays than the actual game my first time around!

I couldn’t pronounce his last name. My mom said it was Kevin Kiermaier. And before any of you ask, no, he didn’t catch my eye because he’s handsome (although that is a fair judgement). He was dancing in center field. Not a care in the world. He started spinning his glove on his finger when the action died down. I don’t know how many frog jumps he did, but I was loving it.

He stopped dancing when the ball suddenly shot out his way and he argued with the umpire that a fan interfered. I got pretty heated when they ruled it a home run despite it obviously being fan interference. He didn’t dance anymore after that.

I was more interested in the game from that point on. They set the record for most triples at a home game that night. I picked up on more of the players’ names. By the end of the night, I knew Ji-Man Choi, Brandon Lowe, Austin Meadows, Yandy Diaz, Ryne Stanek and Kiermaier. All in all, I was off to a good start.

The next night, we had the game on at the condo and Tyler Glasnow was pitching. You could say I was glued to the screen until we went out for dinner. I kept checking the score on my phone while we were out, and I got pretty frustrated when they took Glasnow out after five innings since I didn’t know how the Rays (and baseball) worked at the time. I can’t remember how the rest of the game went, but I was hooked.

My mom bought me a Kiermaier shirt the next day, and I made my decision to go to The University of Tampa by the end of the week. Did the Rays have something to do with it? Possibly. I’m not quite sure myself.

Back in New Jersey, it’s virtually impossible to watch Rays games, so you would think I’d lose interest, right? Well, Twitter’s an amazing place (sometimes) and I’d get all of the updates from there. It was almost better this way; skip the boring parts of the game and just watch the highlights. 

During my AP European History class, two guys at my table were talking about the Red Sox and the series they’d just played against the Rays. My teacher (who was a huge Yankees fan) joined in on the conversation. I vaguely remember one of the guys saying something about the Rays. I can’t remember if it was negative or not, but I looked at them and went, “You know, I’m a Rays fan.” My teacher bursted out laughing. He said, “I don’t think I’ve ever met a Rays fan in my life!” That was the first time I declared that I was a fan.

After that, I learned the roster and refreshed myself on the game. I started telling more people I was a fan. I’d talk about baseball to anybody who would listen, which got me in trouble a few times. Even when my dad’s friend told him to disown me for no longer being a Yankees fan, my excitement for the team grew. (For anyone wondering, no, my dad did not disown me. In fact, both of my parents are now Rays fans!)

It was smooth sailing from then on. I went to two more regular season games, fan fest, two spring training games, and countless watch parties before the 2020 season was cut short. I cried on my couch when the Rays lost the World Series. I somehow grew on Rays’ Twitter and have made so many friends within the community in such a short amount of time. I’m the resident Rays’ fan for my family and friends, who all got me Rays’ merch for my birthday. 

My first Spring Training game at Steinbrenner Field.

If you told me two years ago that this is where I would be today, I probably would’ve laughed at you. It’s crazy to think how I ended up here. In the face of all the confusion, frustration, and disappointment I feel from this team over and over again, I remain a fan. But why? Because this team has heart. They’re the underdogs. This team is disrespected over and over again by MLB, ESPN, and even their owner on occasion. All of the odds are stacked against them, but they consistently overcome all of the obstacles in their way, and it’s quite frankly incredible to watch. The energy this team has is unmatched by any other team in baseball, and not to mention, they’re simply just fun to watch.

The Tampa Bay Rays have heart. It’s what keeps me with the team. It’s what makes me want to be a fan. My heart has been broken by this team before, due to trades and losses and what-not, but I keep coming back. And I think I’ll stick around for a while, if you’ll all let this northerner join the fun.

Rays Inbox: How Do the Rays’ Prospects Help Them this season?

How big of a role do you expect guys like McClanahan and McKay to have next season? @tsutsugofanclub via Twitter

Brendan McKay’s health is still unknown after he missed all of 2020 due to season ending surgery. It is still unclear whether the young lefthander will be ready for opening day. However, when he does return, you can expect the former fourth overall pick to slot right into the rotation. He could be used behind an opener right when he comes back to build his arm up but eventually, he will be expected to start due to a lot of uncertainties in the back of the rotation.

Shane McClanahan is one of those uncertainties, due to him not pitching above double-A, with one exception. He made his Major League Debut in the playoffs and struggled mightily with command out of the bullpen. Ultimately, it might be wisest to send him back down for more fine tuning, but with his clock already started and a very unreliable back of the rotation, they may keep him up to eat innings.

Top Pitching Prospect Shane McClanahan (Photo: MLBlog)

Is Patiño going to be an automatic insert into the rotation or is he going to have to beat out the rest of our guys like Fleming and McKay? How does this change if we acquire another starter? – @bri_gonzalez3 via Twitter

Luis Patino, acquired in the Blake Snell trade, seems like a direct replacement of Snell. However, there is no doubt he will have to earn his spot, especially with so many young arms vying to be in the rotation. He will for sure have to compete with the likes of Josh Fleming, Brent Honeywell, and McClanahan.

Patino will eventually be a part of this Rays rotation, but there is a possibility he gets beat out and gets sent down. Obviously with the acquisitions of Rich Hill, Collin McHugh, and Chris Archer, the amount of spots for Patino to compete for has slimmed down significantly, but he still has the opportunity to win a bulk role.

What prospects (besides Wander, McKay, and McClanahan) do you think will make the biggest impact on the team? – @taylorlandau via Twitter

Vidal Brujan is the obvious selection; he could slot in at second base with Brandon Lowe shifting to first base, or he could platoon with Lowe. Another possibility is Brujan could play some outfield, but the Rays are already clogged there so it would be interesting to see how they could find him playing time. Between his high contact ability (which the Rays badly need) and burner speed, he could wreak havoc.

However, don’t sleep on Brent Honeywell. He has been highly touted for years but has struggled to stay on the field. He finally seems ready to take the next step and compete for a big-league rotation spot. It wouldn’t be all that surprising to see him have a great rookie season.

How do you believe the Rays will manage their large influx of middle-infield prospects? – @p0wkan via Twitter

This question has been looming for many years and the middle infield is still clogged. The fact of the matter is only so many guys can make the big-league club and play infield. The obvious solution is to package some in a deal that could get Tampa Bay a guy who could put them over the top.

The other is to trade players on the current roster, such as Kevin Kiermaier, to clear room for prospects like the versatile Brujan or prospect Josh Lowe in the outfield. Another player the Rays could trade is Willy Adames; however, he still has four more years left on his contract and is a main piece of the core. It would be surprising if they dealt him now but then again, fans shouldn’t put anything past the Rays when it comes to dealing core players.

The most likely thing to happen is Tampa Bay trades away more expendable players such as Yandy Diaz and Joey Wendle to clear room for their best prospects, then trade away the ones who don’t fit the roster construction. Whatever happens, having too many middle infield prospects is a problem every team would sign up for.

Rays Top Prospect, SS Wander Franco (Photo: MLBlog)

How do you think the Rays will perform in 2021? Will they be World Series contenders again? – @asinghhh01 via Twitter

Rays’ fans won’t want to hear this, but as it stands now, Tampa Bay looks like a second wild card team at best. My concerns are the overwhelming question marks at starting pitching, the amount of so many young unproven players, and the veterans who are coming off injury riddled seasons. With these challenges, it’s asking a lot of them to win the A.L. East.

It will all hinge on the starting rotation and the young pitching prospects in addition to the health of the veterans like Hill and Archer. In all honesty, the Rays look like a team that will exit in the division series, and that’s being generous. This season has bridge year written all over it, but it will set Tampa Bay up for immense success until Tropicana Field’s lease runs out in 2027. Regardless of what happens, it will be fun to watch a full 162 game season again, hopefully filled with many memories.

How I Became a Rays Fan

Pure pandemonium. That was the scene at Tropicana Field on Oct. 7, 2013. It was Game 3 of the American League Division Series between the Boston Red Sox and my then second favorite team, the Tampa Bay Rays. Everything would change after that night.

Let me take you back a little. I was born near South Bend, Indiana, the home of the University of Notre Dame but more importantly, about two hours outside Chicago. The Northwest part of Indiana was big time Cubs territory, and I was born right into it. My Dad has lived up there his entire life and was a rabid Cubs fan, and ironically enough, also a Yankees fan. I only lived in South Bend for the first few years of my life, but the love for Chicago sports was always within me.

I moved to Tampa, Florida in 2007, when the Rays were still called the Devil Rays. The next year they changed their name, went on a magical run, and the rest is history. However, I was only five during that improbable run. My only memory of that year was the final out when the Rays’ magical season came to an end. Due to my infancy, I really wasn’t old enough to attach onto the team like most did. They were my second team, but I was very much a casual fan. In fact, I really don’t remember any season of Rays baseball during their peak from 2008 to 2013, except for that core’s final hurrah in 2013.    

Heading into that year, I was still very much a Cubs fan at heart, but it had been a mighty struggle for the lovable losers during my short lifetime. I was desperately wanting to root for a winner. I really hadn’t been paying attention to the Rays as much as I should have but in 2013, they certainly got my attention.

While the Cubs were dragging and their season pretty much over by July, the Rays were playing very good ball down the stretch. The Cubs were more old fashioned, especially in the National League with no DH. However, the Rays were a fun, eccentric group to watch and when 7 p.m. rolled around my eyes were glued to the T.V. The voices of Dewayne Staats and Brian Anderson, who I would come to adore, resonated throughout my living room night in and night out.

Me and my Grandmother celebrating a Game 4 victory in the 2019 ALDS at Tropicana Field.

The Rays had shifts, weird and funky lineups, and a group of electric young players led by their mad scientist, A.K.A. manager Joe Maddon. They didn’t just beat their opponents, they outsmarted them, and boy did they outsmart a lot of teams that season.

The roster was stacked starting with the franchise icon Evan Longoria, who was always a thrill to watch, especially in his prime. They had a crazy amount of defense in the outfield, so much so that a young prospect who was renowned for his stellar glove didn’t get a chance to play until a Game 163 tiebreaker against the Texas Rangers. His name was Kevin Kiermaier, you may have heard of him.

They had Sam Fuld, known as Super Sam for his acrobatic catches, super utility player Ben Zobrist, who would get time in the outfield along with the underrated Matt Joyce, who seemed to deliver more times than not. They of course also had Rookie of the Year Wil Myers, who wasn’t the best with the glove, displayed by his missed fly ball in the ALDS in Boston, but had a fantastic bat.

The Rays’ pitching staff was dominate and every game was a must watch to see the likes of ace David Price, underrated starter Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, a young Chris Archer, and Jake Odorizzi. It seemed everyday each starting pitcher was trying to top the last Ray who stepped to the hill the previous game.

That rotation was incredible, and if opposing lineups weren’t frustrated enough, they had to deal with dominate closer Fernando Rodney and solid set up man Joel Peralta. The 2013 Rays were so unbelievably fun they were impossible to ignore, even for a Cubs fan (at the time) like me.

Overall, that Rays roster was one of my favorites, and much like today’s Rays, they didn’t lack the love for drama. So much so, they felt the need to play a Game 163 with the Rangers just to see who could move on to play the Indians in the Wild Card Game. I, now completely invested in this team after only watching them for a couple months, was on the edge of my seat.

The Rays were on the brink of elimination, but also on the brink of clinching their fourth postseason berth in six years. Pretty impressive for a team that had been in the basement for the first decade of its existence. When you’re in a must win scenario who else to turn to but the two pillars of the organization David Price, who threw a complete game to secure the win, and Evan Longoria, who hit a two-run home run to break the game open in the third inning.

The Rays would go on to win that game 5-2, and then go into Cleveland and beat them in the A.L. Wild Card Game 4-0 behind the dominant performance of Alex Cobb.  It was a pretty special couple of days, but nothing matched what I was about to witness in Game 3 of that ALDS against Boston. The Red Sox had won the A.L. East and held the best record in the American League. It was the year of the Boston Bombing, and behind the mantra of “Boston Strong” it was just their year.

After two tough losses on the road the Rays faced an elimination game down 2-0 in the series with Game 3 at the Trop. Knowing it could be the final game of their season and never having been to a playoff game, I begged my mom to go. She folded and we headed up to Tropicana Field that night. Little did we know what was in store for us.

Walking into the Trop, with all 35,000 fans in attendance it was insane. Admittedly there was more red in the stands than I would’ve liked, but it was still an incredible scene. The game didn’t start off great with the Red Sox jumping out to a 3-0 lead. However, the always clutch Longoria made sure the Rays wouldn’t go home quite yet with a booming three-run home run to tie it. The fans chanted “Longo! Longo!” and of course I joined in. Born was my love of Evan Longoria.

My favorite Rays polo with one of my favorite hats, “The 98ers,” made famous by Kevin Cash’s postgame statements after the Brosseau/Chapman fiasco.

In the bottom of the eighth, the Rays took the lead and with Rodney warming, it looked over. However, the Red Sox refused to lose as they tied it in the ninth. The energy that had been there since the first pitch started to fade when Koji Uehara ran in from the bullpen to pitch. He was arguably the most dominant bullpen arm in the game at the time.

With the first two outs recorded swiftly, Jose Lobaton, the backup catcher, stepped up to the plate. It seemed all hope was lost. Uehara got ahead 0-1, and then he made a mistake. He left his devastating split finger up enough where Lobaton could get to it. All that I heard was a loud crack and then the stadium went wild, followed by a somehow louder cheer from the Rays’ faithful when the ball cleared the right-center field wall and landed in the Rays tank.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kZaFglEkoUs

The Rays had lived another day behind the unlikeliest of sources. Rays fans were delighted beyond belief and absolutely beside themselves. On the way out all you could hear was the chants of “TAMPA” followed by a louder “BAY!”

I was hooked. From that day on I was forever a Rays diehard fan. Not only was it the underdog story we all love but it was the idea of the band of misfit toys ganging up to try to beat Goliath. I would never look back, I am now a Rays fan till death. From an Indiana boy raised to surely be a Cubs or Yankees fan, was turned to a diehard Rays fan who is now writing articles about his favorite team. I wouldn’t change a single thing, and it was all started by that pure pandemonium at Tropicana Field.