ST. PETERSBURG – Denard Span first felt the emotions of the day when he ran on to the Tropicana Field turf for the start of the Rays' Thursday season-opener.
"It was crazy,'' Span said. "I didn't shed a tear, but I got a little emotional. Just how my life started here, how my career has taken me all over the place, and to be here opening day in front of my hometown, it was just a surreal feeling. A moment that I'll never forget.''
For a few hours anyway. The Tampa-raised outfielder playing the first true home game of his 10-year major-league career would fight those tears again.
His team had whittled a four-run eight-inning deficit to two. Span was batting with the bases loaded, two outs, the count full against Carson Smith, a hard throwing Boston reliever he'd never seen before. Span laced a ball toward the right-field corner, unsure whether it would land safely.
"My heart started racing and I could hear the roar of the crowd,'' Span said. "If I could have cried, I would have cried. But I was running, so I couldn't have done that.''
By the time he stopped at third base, the three runs pushed the Rays from behind to ahead, and on the way to a thrilling and unexpected 6-4 victory.
Somehow, Span's best moment was to come. As he finished his on-field interviews, his teammates gathered in the clubhouse for their usual victory celebration that was new to Span — lights off, disco ball spinning, music blaring, claps and cheers roaring. Actually, several said, it was more pumped up than usual because of Span.
"Everybody greeted me with a bunch of energy, bunch of love,'' Span said. "In my 9 1/2 , 10 years that was probably the best post-game celebration of any team I've been on. Just a fun time.''
Consider the circumstances.
Span was only with the Rays because the Giants insisted they take him, and the $13 million ($9 million salary, $4 million 2019 option buyout) guaranteed, in order to complete the December trade for Evan Longoria.
He was only still on the roster because they opted during spring training to instead trade Corey Dickerson, and was still so concerned about jinxing things he refused to even look at the Rays schedule.
He was only in the lineup against tough lefty Chris Sale because of manager Kevin Cash being deferential to his veteran status and sentimental to his homecoming.
Consider the logistics.
Span woke up in the south Tampa home he, his wife Anne and soon-to-be 6-month-old son D.J. moved into during spring training. He drove his own car over the Gandy bridge to the Trop, 30 minutes tops. His mom and more than a dozen other friends and family were in the stands.
"Driving over was like the best feeling ever,'' he said. "I don't know, it's crazy, I'm not used to being in Tampa, in Florida, in late March, April. I feel like I'm in legion ball or something. It doesn't feel like I'm playing major-league baseball right now. It's like I'm playing semi-pro or something.''
Consider the significance.
Span, 34, has done a lot in the game. He has been in the playoffs with each of his previous teams, the Twins, Nationals and Giants. Has had a 29-game hitting streak. Has been a Gold Glove finalist and a top 20 finisher in the NL MVP voting.
And Thursday may have been the best moment of his career.
"That's tough. That's hard to say,'' he said. "Given the magnitude of (it being) my first game here, my son's first game watching me play, playing in front of my hometown, it probably would be. Probably would.''
And yet, because this is baseball, and especially Rays baseball, it could have instead been a totally different story. In the second inning, Span and center fielder Kevin Kiermaier both broke for a liner hit between them. Cash and other Rays absolved both of blame, but Span acknowledged that he wasn't yet fully comfortable judging how much ground Kiermaier can cover.
The misplay, or the non-play, resulted in a two-run inside-the-park homer for Eduardo Nunez, extending to 3-0 a Boston lead that would grow to 4-0 during Rays starter Chris Archer's six-plus innings before the sellout crowd of 31,042. The Rays meanwhile had managed just one hit going into the eighth, shut down as usual by Sale.
The eighth-inning rally started benignly. Daniel Robertson drew a walk off Joe Kelly. Matt Duffy — who made for a good story himself in his first game since September 2016 — scored him with a one-out double. Kiermaier walked. Carlos Gomez did the same to load the bases.
Cash pinch-hit lefty Brad Miller. First-year Boston manager Alex Cora had his only lefty, Bobby Poyner, warming, but didn't dare bring him in for his first appearance above Double-A and instead went to Smith — and not Craig Kimbrel for a four-out save. Miller added to the parade of quality at-bats and drew another walk to force in a run.
Wilson Ramos went down swinging for the second out.
In the stands, D.J. Span woke up in Anne's arms after an innings-long nap and joined the cheering fan club. "We were all bouncing and screaming,'' Anne said.
Span got down quickly 1-2, took a couple sliders to make the count full. The Sox stayed shifted, with Mookie Betts toward the gap. Span fouled off one pitch, then delivered on the next pulling a sinker into the corner.
After Alex Colome closed the deal, capping the Rays' first comeback from a four-run deficit since June 14, 2016, Span was mobbed by his teammates, then by reporters.
He wanted to get back in the car and drove home, but he had one more thing he wanted to do — a photo on the field with D.J. and Anne.
"For the archives,'' Span said.
It was that kind of day.
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays