RHP Ryan Garton's promotion to the majors, regardless of how long it lasts, was noteworthy for several reasons.
He was, as a 34th rounder in 2012, the lowest-round pick drafted by the Rays to play for them in the majors since RHP Chad Gaudin, a 34th-round selection in 2001.
He was the 14th Tampa Bay area native, and second born in Clearwater, to play for them.
And, most interesting of all, he was the first product of their somewhat secret pitching program designed to increase velocity via training with weighted balls.
The premise of the 2-year-old program is to take pitchers whose velocity needs a boost and put them on a concentrated pre-spring arm-strengthening regimen that includes throwing balls weighted from 7 ounces (two more than standard) up to 32 as hard as they can from specified distances.
There are private pitching instructors and facilities around the country, and all over the Internet, advocating the use of weighted ball training. The Rays front office asked minor-league pitching coordinator Dewey Robinson in summer 2014 to develop a program they could tailor, implement and control. A handful of other major-league teams are similarly experimenting.
The most interesting element seems to be the pitchers throwing the heavy balls, sometimes with a running start, into screens or against a wall. Robinson, though reticent to share details for proprietary reasons, said that was an "elementary" description and there is "much more to it."
Garton impressed with two solid pro seasons at short-season Hudson Valley and Class A Bowling Green, but when he got to advanced Class A Charlotte in 2014 his velocity dropped several mph to the 86-89 range. That made him a potential candidate to be released, thus an obvious choice for the new camp.
"We knew it would be very difficult for him to compete at Double A, so he was a prime candidate to come into our program," Robinson said. "He was the one guy that we really targeted and thought if it could help anybody, it can really help Ryan."
The plan, Robinson said, was to get Garton up to the major-league average of 90-93 mph and in the process sharpen his cutter/slider and curveball.
Garton, having exceeded his initial expectations after signing as "a roster filler" after his senior season at Florida Atlantic, figured he had nothing to lose and accepted the invite, with a commitment to give it his all.
"Me being in the situation I was at, I've got to take every advantage I can of what they are going to offer me," Garton said. "That turned around my career. My velocity spiked. I got back to where I was in Hudson Valley. My curveball got sharper, my cutter was sharper."
Participating in the program kept Garton in extended spring training in Port Charlotte for the first month of the 2015 season, but when he got to Double-A Montgomery in May, he saw the results. Continuing with the weighted ball program on a lesser, maintenance level during the season, he had an impressive enough year to earn an invitation to major-league camp this spring. And he moved from suspect to prospect.
"I was there just to strictly throw the ball as hard as I can and build velocity," Garton said. "Now it's to try and maintain it. And I've done pretty well."
He went back to the camp this offseason, showed well in the spring and got off to a good-enough start at Triple-A Durham that when the Rays needed bullpen help last week, all the hard work he put in paid off.
And when Garton, 26, made his debut at the Trop on Thursday, his first pitch, per mlb.com data, was clocked at 92 mph. His next was 93.
Robinson, watching on a computer screen in Bowling Green, may have been the happiest person outside of the Garton family, knowing there was validation to what seemed to some like a radical plan.
"He's the poster child for our program now," Robinson said. "As we go forward, it'll be a lot easier for me to say, Look, go talk to Ryan, you don't need to hear it from me."
The program, which includes a half-dozen others having various degrees of success in the minors, is still evolving and not for everyone. At this point, it seems more targeted for pitchers who might not otherwise make it, as opposed to top prospects.
"You know us, we're always looking for an edge," big-league pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "And this is another innovative, kind of out-of-the-box-way of possibly improving a guy."
• Former Yankees great Derek Jeter told CNBC last week his "ultimate goal" remains to own a big-league team. Given his retirement to Tampa, the Rays are often a target of speculation for him, though his home-state Tigers could make sense. If he were willing to accept a Rays minority role initially, would his involvement help them get a stadium?
• The Rays have a half-dozen likely available candidates for the No. 13 pick in the June 9 draft. In the latest mocks, Baseball America has them taking SoCal prep OF Blake Rutherford, mlb.com Mississippi State RHP Dakota Hudson.
With 1B James Loney, after hitting .342 for San Diego's Triple-A team, going to the Mets, he joins C Rene Rivera (who also was released in spring training) and SS Asdrubal Cabrera (who left as a free agent) in New York. … INF Tim Beckham's demotion wasn't necessarily the end of his stay with the Rays, but it was a jolt that they preferred the more versatile Taylor Motter. … Today's game is the 10th straight different starting time for the Rays. … With rehab appearances for Charlotte, Montgomery and Durham, RHP Brad Boxberger could win four rings this year. … Former RHP Andy Sonnanstine and scout Lou Wieben will represent the Rays at the draft in MLB Network's New Jersey studios. … Hitting .278 with a .904 OPS, 20-year-old INF prospect Willy Adames, acquired in the David Price trade, could be playing his way into a promotion from Montgomery.
Got a minute? RHP Alex Colome
Best meal you can make? BBQ chicken grill and rice.
Band/singer you'd like to be on stage with? (Rapper) Rick Ross.
Favorite movie? The Avengers. I like the movies they make from comic books.
Dream vacation spot? Probably Madrid.
Celebrity crush? Jennifer Lopez or Shakira.