Friday, September 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rough start for Rays' Archer sets tone in opener

ST. PETERSBURG — Opening days always start with so much promise.

"It's like a holiday," Rays pitcher Drew Smyly said Sunday.

"It's purely optimism," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "It's purely excitement for the prospects of the season."

"There's plenty of excitement in this building," manager Kevin Cash said, "and in this clubhouse."

The bunting was on display. Commissioner Rob Manfred was in attendance. Norm from Cheers threw out the first pitch. ESPN was here to televise it.

Best of all, Rays ace Chris Archer was on the mound.

Yep, everything was great.

Then the game started. And Archer — the ace of the staff, the face of the franchise — had trouble getting out of the first inning.

Definitely not the start the Rays wanted. From themselves. And especially from their best pitcher.

"I think it's pretty obvious that in the first inning I was a little off," Archer said.

That poor start bled into a 5-3 loss. With the exception of a few — well, a few thousand — Blue Jays fans, the sellout crowd of 31,042 went home disappointed. Perhaps the 9,000 and change who go to tonight's game will be a little more entertained.

One game. One loss. For the Rays. Archer, too.

So, to be clear, here's how not to start a game and a season: With one out, give up a single. Then a walk. Then throw a wild pitch. Then give up another single. Then walk another hitter. Before the Rays picked up a bat in 2016, they were down 2-0. They and Archer were lucky it wasn't four- or five-zip.

What went wrong?

"Pitch execution," Archer said. "Starts with the heater."

Archer, who has one of the most electric fastballs in the game, couldn't throw his fastball for a strike.

"He just wasn't locating his fastball," Cash said. "His fastball was a little up in the zone. He was falling behind."

Not exactly the game plan when facing, perhaps, the best offense in baseball, a lineup that gets off the plane swinging from its heels and that puts up crooked numbers like it's playing men's slow-pitch softball. The Jays' attack was to jump on Archer right out of the box.

"In baseball, the elite pitchers, you have to get to them early," Blue Jays shortstop Troy Tulo­witzki said. "And Archer is that way. He was a little wild."

Maybe Archer was a little too amped for opening day? You know, the fans and the buzz and Norm and all?

"I treat every single game the same, whether it's Game 1, 15 or Game 34," Archer said. "My mentality is the same every game. It's definitely nice to have the fan support and everything from opening day. But it's the same to me. Regardless, (that) first inning is disappointing, whether it was Day 1 or Day 162. I'm not going to ever be satisfied with that."

It's never a good sign when your pitching coach has to make a trip to the mound in the first inning of the season. Then again, whatever pitching coach Jim Hickey had to say worked.

"It's top secret, man," Archer said. "I can't let you know what he said. But, it definitely made a difference."

It sure did. Archer ended up finding his groove, striking out 12 and allowing an unearned run over the next four innings.

"Twelve punchouts against that lineup, that's phenomenal," catcher Hank Conger said. "It was very encouraging to see him finish strong like that. Really, the first inning was the only trouble he had as far as command and feel for everything. But he was outstanding as far as getting us through five."

Too little, too late.

Actually, make that too many, too early — as in too many pitches over a short period of time. That long first inning led to a short outing. Archer left after five innings because he had already thrown 107 pitches.

"I always want to go more than five innings," he said. "But I understand that you can't be perfect every inning, every game. I was happy with how I bounced back, how the team fought until the end."

Still, it was a loss. Not that it's a big deal. Sunday's opener is just one game. There's 161 more to go. Judging a baseball season after one game is like predicting a football game after the opening kickoff.

But the concerns you had about this club were on full display Sunday.

The new and supposedly improved offense managed only four hits and one run through the first eight innings before scoring two in the ninth to make the final a little interesting.

The decision to sacrifice James Loney's glove at first base for Logan Morrison's bat proved somewhat costly as Morrison butchered two liners at first, including one error that led to a costly unearned run.

And the bullpen, while overall solid, did give up a gut-punch two-run homer to Tulowitzki in the eighth that turned a tight 3-1 game into an out-of-reach 5-1 deficit.

Oddly enough, the one concern you probably didn't have was with Archer.

"He's a good pitcher," Tulo­witzki said. "I think he'll obviously get better as the season goes. He's one of the best."

Unfortunately for the Rays, he wasn't the best for one inning Sunday.

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