The Rays talked a good game about not treating Tuesday's historic meeting with the Cuban National team as anything more than another spring exhibition. • Until they took the field in front of the frenzied festival-style crowd at packed Estadio Latinoamericano and saw how aggressive and inspired their opponents were. • Then they knew they were playing to win. • And they did, 4-1. • "Definitely you feel the energy and you feel they want to beat you on the other side," said James Loney, "and you just reciprocate that and go out and play hard." • Loney did his part, singling in the first run after Kevin Kiermaier showed the Cuban crowd how he does the hustle, stretching a single to the left of center into a double then coming around on Loney's ground ball to right, sliding in hard and popping up with a safe sign in case the Cuban umpire had any doubt.
Loney flexed some muscle in the fourth, hitting a two-run homer with two outs, and Steve Pearce singled in the final run in the seventh.
Matt Moore overcame his own nervousness to pitch six strong shutout innings, and the bullpen trio of Ryan Webb, Xavier Cedeno and Alex Colome teamed for the final nine outs, though Colome made it a tad interesting, giving the fans one last moment of hope.
"It was some kind of an experience, man," Moore said. "It was something that I'll definitely never forget."
Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred knew hours before the first pitch what the Rays were in for. He had wandered over by the Cuban dugout and, with the help of ESPN's Pedro Gomez as an incidental interpreter, started talking with some of the Cuban players then their manager.
"He seemed very intent on winning, let me tell you that," Manfred relayed.
The game was played without any heated tempers or issues, and what seemed like gamesmanship — the Cuban team not posting its lineup — may have been an MLB custom lost in translation.
Many of the Rays players — who exchanged jerseys with the Cuban players after the game — said it will be one of their most memorable experiences.
So did principal owner Stuart Sternberg.
"You have an aspiration for how you think this is all going to happen," he said, "and we couldn't have written a better script, from the final score backward."
Manager Kevin Cash said his reality check moment came when U.S. President Barack Obama was introduced and welcomed loudly by the crowd as he took his seat alongside Cuban president Raul Castro.
"You hear the ovations, and it hits you there for a minute," Cash said.
Cash said his priority was getting as many of the players in the game as he could — he used 20, plus four pitchers — and he hoped they had as much fun as he and the coaches did.
"Because you're probably not going to experience anything like this again," Cash said.
Moore started a playoff game on the road for the Rays as a 22-year-old rookie, so he didn't expect to be nervous. Even more so since he was using a rudimentary game plan given the lack of information on the Cuban hitters.
But his warmup was disrupted by a delay in the start, and his hope of timing it right that he would be able to meet Obama. Then once he took the mound, with the crowd of about 55,000 chanting and cheering and doing the wave quite heartily, and with Obama sitting in plain view behind home plate, Moore felt those big-game nerves.
"I would chalk it up to that," he said. "There definitely wasn't a lot of feel for what I was doing out there. It was kind of just trying to chuck it, and get them out. As the innings went on, probably after the second inning, I definitely felt like things dialed in a little bit better."
Not totally. In the sixth, after the Cubans made a late and somewhat lengthy switch to a pinch-hitter, Moore forgot there was a runner on first and threw his next pitch out of the windup.
"It's been a while since I've went out of the windup when I was supposed to be in the stretch," Moore said. "So that kind of lets you know a little bit what was going on in my mind."
Lost in all the pageantry and history was a baseball matter, as the Rays were faced with a situation they hope happens often during the first two months of the season, protecting a lead without closer Brad Boxberger, who will be sidelined potentially until early June after core muscle surgery.
Tuesday that meant using Webb in the seventh, Cedeno in the eighth then Colome. Cash was asked how much to read into that as a framework for what they are plotting for the regular season. He said not one bit.
As much of a disruption as the three-day trip will cause — and with further impact today as the Rays won't send their most representative team to Fort Myers to face the Twins — they seemed united that it was worth it.
Some players brought back cigars, rum and jewelry.
But it was clear as Cash stood on the field — his jersey headed to the Hall of Fame — what the best souvenir was.
"Ultimately," he said, "you want to come here and you want to win."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.