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How the 'Big A' helped inspire Jake Faria's big league dream, and first kiss

TORONTO, ON - JUNE 13: Jacob Faria #34 of the Tampa Bay Rays delivers a pitch in the first inning during MLB game action against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre on June 13, 2017 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) 700011206
TORONTO, ON - JUNE 13: Jacob Faria #34 of the Tampa Bay Rays delivers a pitch in the first inning during MLB game action against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre on June 13, 2017 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) 700011206
Published Jul. 15, 2017

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Jake Faria had never been on the field at Angel Stadium before Friday's game, and the Rays rookie right-hander could not have felt more at home.

The "Big A" has a big place in Faria's life.

Take the third exit north on Interstate 5 and that's where he grew up. It's where he saw his first big-league game at the age of 8 or 9. Where he became a huge fan, starting with Angels slugger Vlad Guerrero, then to ace Jered Weaver. Where his big-league dream took flight.

Where he developed the relationship with Jessica Soto — from high school pals to being engaged and emerging on social media as one of game's cutest young couples.

And that's where he was Friday night, leading the playoff-contending Rays out of the All-Star break, and playing a big role in their 2-1, 10-inning win, leaving him a 2.00 ERA and a sterling 4-0 record — unbeaten since the engagement. Close to 200 relatives, friends, family acquaintances, former teammates and coaches were in the stands.

"It's been pretty cool," Faria said.

• • •

Dave Faria split season tickets with another Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy so he could bring Jake and his older brother Matt to 35-40 games a year. While Dave would sit up in Section 347 near the rightfield foul pole, the boys would be down at field level before the games, chasing autographs.

"We'd always go down and get David Eckstein to sign baseballs and stuff, and one day he didn't come out, he was hurt or something," Faria said. "So we're first in line and thinking, 'Where is he?' and then Vladdy comes out.

"We had baseballs, but I'm like, 'He's signing my hat.' As soon as we got back to our seats, my dad took that hat, put it in a bag and it's never been worn again. It's hanging up in our living room."

There's another interesting souvenir there, too. For Christmas, when Jake was playing at Gahr High, his dad bought him one of those photos showing lockers from the Angels clubhouse. The one next to Weaver's had FARIA photoshopped in.

"I was thinking, that would be really cool if it happened," Faria said.

• • •

Jake and Jessica were at that awkward stage as high school seniors where, when he wasn't playing baseball and she wasn't playing softball, they talked a lot and hung out a bunch, but they weren't sure where they were headed.

"We went to an Angels-Yankees game and when it was over, we walked to her (family's) apartment and I was going to leave and I was just going to give her a little kiss on the forehead," Faria said.

"And she's like, 'When am I going to get a real one?' She called me out. And I was like, 'Okay, I don't know how this works … ' "

They have been together ever since. Jake was selected by the Rays in the 10th round of the 2011 draft. Jessica watched him progress through the minors, slowly at first. She worked near home, most recently running kindergarten and first-grade classes at an after-school program in Newport Beach. They're eyeing a November 2018 wedding date.

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As she posted on Twitter the other day: "Hey, @JDFaria34 and I actually had our first kiss after an Angels game and now he's pitching against them. … Waiting for someone to pinch me."

• • •

Faria did some sly reconnaissance work during seemingly innocent time-killing trips to malls with Soto, so when he decided in May it was time to make things official, he had a pretty good idea when he walked into the Bailey's Fine Jewelry store in Raleigh, N.C. He picked out a good one — white gold, cushion-cut halo with diamonds on the band — then stored it in his golf bag so she wouldn't find it. He popped the question May 22 — their sixth anniversary of going together — on an off day in Durham.

Faria made two more starts at Triple A, a no-decision at Pawtucket and a win over Rochester, before getting the unexpected callup to the majors. What was supposed to be a one-start cameo — a 6⅓-inning outing and a win over the White Sox — turned into more when Matt Andriese went back on the disabled list. Faria is now undefeated (4-0) through seven big-league starts.

The ring is, apparently, the thing.

"I just think it's a funny coincidence that he's gone 5-0 since we got engaged," Jessica said. "I think it just adds to all the excitement going on within this past month. I know he's capable of being successful just because I've seen it in the past, especially in the 2015 season going 17-4 (between Class A Charlotte and Double-A Montgomery). But we're definitely having some fun with it and the 'Power of the ring.' "

• • •

Faria, 23, had his eye on the schedule last September, with no idea when or if he would be promoted but well aware where the Rays resumed play after the All-Star break. Still, he figured the team would go with its three veterans and he would get to visit while preparing to start in Oakland. Then pitching coach Jim Hickey told him he was working the opener.

"My dad is making such a big deal out of it," Faria said. "For me, it's just another start. The adrenaline for me every game is pumping. It's there. This one, I don't think will be any different. I'll just hear a lot more people yelling."

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @ TBTimes_Rays.