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Rays’ Josh Fleming set for debut, but family will have to watch from a distance

Notebook | The 24-year-old left-hander will make his first major-league start Sunday against the Blue Jays at the Trop.
Tampa Bay Rays' Josh Fleming warms up during the third inning of a spring training game against the New York Yankees on Feb. 27, 2020, in Tampa.
Tampa Bay Rays' Josh Fleming warms up during the third inning of a spring training game against the New York Yankees on Feb. 27, 2020, in Tampa. [ FRANK FRANKLIN II | AP ]
Published Aug. 23, 2020
Updated Aug. 23, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — When Rays left-hander Josh Fleming makes his major-league debut Sunday against the Blue Jays at Tropicana Field, he will be surrounded by family.

Sort of.

His parents, Mark and Lori, traveled from Columbia, Ill., to the Tampa Bay area on Saturday. His fiancee, Katie, is expected on Sunday after attending her sister’s wedding.

But due to COVID-19 safety restrictions — no fans permitted — none of his family will be allowed into the Trop. Instead, they will watch at a restaurant, maybe back at the hotel. The game, on Fox Sports Sun, also will be shown nationally on TBS.

“It’s unfortunate (that family can’t watch live), but we’re doing the right thing,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We saw (pitcher) Ryan Thompson’s dad fly across the country to sit at a bar and be 6 feet away from him when he might’ve seen him at the parking lot. I’m assuming Josh will be similar like that with his family.

“Hopefully they enjoy themselves, travel safe and he can put on a good performance. Certainly controlling his anxiety will be a factor. I think that’s fair for anybody making a debut.”

Fleming, who was working at the team’s alternate training site in Port Charlotte, was named most valuable player last season at Double-A Montgomery (where he was 11-4, 3.31 ERA). Cash said the 24-year-old is described as a “superior competitor who does the little things right on the mound.” He’s also a popular teammate. When minor-league coordinator Michael Johns announced the ascension, the room erupted with cheers and Fleming was mobbed.

“I was actually speechless,” said Fleming, who will be the 11th different starting pitcher used by the Rays this season. “He (Johns) asked me to say something, but I couldn’t talk. We have the best staff in the league. To be able to hop in and start with them is very, very cool to me.

“I really don’t think it has hit me yet. Come first pitch, I’m going to be pretty amped up. But I’m not going to let my emotions get to me. I’m just going to go out there and throw.”

Fleming, a fifth-round pick in 2017 out of NCAA Division III Webster University, is the first player from his St. Louis-based school to make the majors. Webster was his only offer out of high school. He was 150 pounds as a Webster freshman, but his devotion to weights and nutrition increased the weight to 190 that summer. Meanwhile, his velocity went from the mid-80s to low-90s to become a prospect.

What’s a Gorlock?

Fleming’s college team is the Webster Gorlocks (taken from the campus cross streets of Gore and Lockwood). What’s a Gorlock? According to the university, it’s a mythical creature designed by students and staff through a school contest. It has “the paws of a speeding cheetah, the horns of a fierce buffalo and the face of a dependable Saint Bernard.” It’s meant to embody

“the highest standards of speed, agility and stamina in an atmosphere of fairness and good conduct.”

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“I don’t know where they came up with those three animals to make it, but it’s a very unique name,” Fleming said.

Lineup change: Yandy scratched

Third baseman Yandy Diaz, the Rays’ hottest hitter, was a late scratch Saturday. Diaz had a ball ricochet and hit his face while working in the batting cage. He complained of dizziness. The team described the move as precautionary.

Injuries mounting

Reliever Chaz Roe (elbow) was placed on the 10-day injured list, where seven Rays pitchers currently reside. The team selected left-hander Sean Gilmartin from the Port Charlotte alternate training site, while right-hander Yonny Chirinos (torn right UCL) was transferred to the 45-day IL.

“It came out of nowhere,’' Cash said of Roe’s injury. “He threw back-to-back nights in New York. When we landed (back home), everything was fine. He woke up the next morning complaining of a sore elbow. We’re actually receiving pretty good news that, structurally, everything is fine. So hopefully it will be a short stint.”

Cash also has received positive reports on reliever Oliver Drake (right biceps tendinitis) and starter Charlie Morton (right shoulder inflammation), who are working back into form. Morton said he isn’t certain of a timetable for his return.

“It’s really hard to tell where I am unless I really step on it (with increased intensity),” Morton said. “It’s kind of a Catch-22. You need to step on it to get a good idea of where you are, but really getting after it with higher intensity puts you a little more at risk. We’re getting to that point of the season where you really don’t want any setbacks. It’s a little bit of aggression, a little bit of pumping the brakes. I’m just trying to be smart.”

Renfroe’s catch

The Rays were still buzzing over Friday night’s ninth-inning catch by Hunter Renfroe, who ran down Vladimir Guerrero Jr.‘s sinking liner near the rightfield corner. Renfroe, with full momentum, leaped over the short fence by the rightfield foul pole and slammed into a concrete wall next to the stands. He reported only a sore right forearm.

“I had to decide whether to fall over the wall or jump and take the consequences later,” Renfroe said. “There (are) consequences when you run full speed into a brick wall. I wasn’t planning on doing anything like that. You had to take what you’re given and try not to kill yourself. I did what I had to do to survive.”

Cash said he was more impressed by Renfroe’s leap than the catch. “He looked like he was at the NFL combine,” Cash said.

Renfroe said he probably could’ve walked on at Mississippi State, where he played baseball, but didn’t see himself as a football player. Renfroe said he got football looks from UAB and South Alabama coming out of tiny Copiah (Miss.) Academy, where he played quarterback, running back, receiver, safety and linebacker.