Opening day; encouraging a familiar opponent

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – When you play another team nearly 20 times during the season, there is more than a fair base of knowledge. Despite a change in the major league schedule over recent years, teams now engage division opponents 12 times a season.

Still, there is enough wisdom and experience to declare, “we really know these guys.”

That’s the refrain surrounding the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays, rivals in the American League East division, and forecast to claw each other for division honors. To open the 2024 season, the Jays and Rays square off in a four-game set this weekend at Tropicana Field.

Despite the nature of the schedule, players tend to float through that revolving door and exhibit a sense of uncertainty. That prompted Rays’ starter Zack Littell, who will start the third game of this opening series, to offer, “I really haven’t faced them very often.”

To the field managers, whose longevity remains one benchmark of a division rivalry, the uniforms are familiar, and so are most of the players

“Preparation is a little easier because we know them and how they deploy their roster,” said Toronto manager John Schneider. “It comes down to executing what you trying to do. It’s that easy. Between their pitching and the power potential, they’re a pretty good team.”

If there is a certain sense of awareness, the managers like pitching matchups for opening day on Thursday afternoon. Both Kevin Cash of the Rays and Schneider laud their starters, but caution the key barometer is execution.

A pair of righties are scheduled to duel. Schneider selected Jose Berrios, who went 10-11 and a 3.65 ERA in 32 starts a year ago, Given the Rays’ preponderance for a lethal right-handed hitting line-up, Schneider indicates he likes the match-up.

“(The Rays) try and grasp platoon advantages and many of their hitters are right-handed,” he added. “(Berrios) is one of the best in baseball when it comes to neutralizing right-handed hitters. I think he matches-up great. He had a great camp and ended up, work-load wise, in a very good place.”

The Rays will counter with Zach Eflin, who is coming off a 16-8 season, 3.50 ERA for 31 starts. A former first-round pick of the Padres in 2012, and later traded to the Dodgers, who, in turn, dealt him to the Phillies in the off-season of 2014-15. Eflin, who will be 30 years-old on April 8, signed a three-year, $40 million deal with Tampa Bay at the start of last season. That represented the largest free agent signing in franchise history.

“I like to think Zach matches up against anybody,” Cash said before Tuesday’s spring finale against Detroit in Tropicana Field. “Toronto has a lot of righties in there and really good righties. So, that creates challenges. I like we have the opportunity to hand the ball to Zach.”

While the Rays averaged 5.2 runs a game last season and second best in the American League, this team makes offensive adjustments. Guided by a savvy and intelligent Cash, the offense is always looking for ways to counteract the opposition.

A case in point transpired during one of the final games of the spring.

On March 24, the Rays faced veteran Detroit right-hander Jack Flaherty during a game in Lakeland. In the first inning, Flaherty exhibited a wide range of breaking pitches, struck out the side, and that included getting Randy Arozarena looking.

By the second inning, the Rays made adjustments and waited on Flaherty’s secondary pitches. That resulted in Harold Ramirez reaching on an error by shortstop Javier Baez. That was followed with a double by Amed Rosario and a two-run single off the bat of Jose Siri.

Though one pre-season game was destined for no significance, this illustrated the Rays’ collective ability to adjust. Foreshadowing the offensive capabilities of this team, intelligence, and acumen merely add to an already lethal arsenal.

And, yes, this team will score.

Finis … The Rays ended their spring schedule with a 3-3 tie against Detroit before 5,925 Tuesday afternoon in Tropicana Field. For the Grapefruit League season, Tampa Bay finished with an 11-16-3 record.

Despite home runs from Yandy Diaz and Brandon Lowe, the Rays fell behind late in this game. That’s when Chris Myers drilled a three-run homer off Jake Odorizzi, who missed the entire 2023 season because of arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder. Odorizzi signed a minor-league deal with the Rays in mid-March.

After tying the game in the bottom of the eight on a wild pitch from Tigers’ reliever Brandan White, the Rays had an opportunity to win. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Richie Palacios doubled down the right field line, but Colton Ledbetter grounded to short and this one ended deadlocked.

Afterward, Rays’ manager Kevin Cash put the recently-concluded spring training camp in perspective.

“I think we found some things out about us,” he said. “We talked before camp started about some new faces which we like. We’re happy with those guys but we had some injuries. Unfortunately, that may have delayed what we had our opening day roster to be. However, I feel we have enough depth and excited to get going.”

Opening day sell-out …for the 18th consecutive season, the Rays have sold out their opener. That does not include the 2020 season which was, because of the pandemic, played without fans. As a promotion, the first 20,000 fans will receive a schedule magnet and tickets remain for the remainder of the homestand. The Rays open at home with four against the Jays and then three with the defending World Series champion Texas Rangers.

Next …  After throwing 88 pitches and going six shutout innings against Detroit Tuesday, right-hander Ryan Pepiot declared himself for the season. Penciled in as number five in the rotation, he is slated to open that three-game set against the Rangers in Tropicana Field this Monday night.

“I’m excited to get going,” he said. “We have a great group of guys here. The strength of the clubhouse is that everyone picks each other up and a fun clubhouse to come to work every day.”

Related Articles

Back to top button