ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays figured to have plenty of good vibes going into Friday’s home opener.
There was a highlights video and unveiling of the division and league championship banners in a salute to their 2020 success. Fans were back at Tropicana Field for the first time since October 2019. And, no matter what they said, or didn’t say, having the Yankees in the other dugout had them fired up.
A10-5 win over their rabid rivals provided all the pomp and circumstance they needed.another key player, reliever Pete Fairbanks, sidelined by injury, what mattered more was feeling good at the end of the day.
And a 10-5 win over their rabid rivals provided all the pomp and circumstance they needed.
“It was fun,” said Joey Wendle, who had the biggest of the Rays’ 13 hits. “We haven’t seen fans there in a long time. So to have the crowd there and have them getting into the game there like they were, especially towards the end, was just fun. Combine that with the banners and stuff like that at the beginning of the game, just kind of a special game. … Overall, one I think we’ll remember.”
Manager Kevin Cash is rarely the sentimental type, but he acknowledged that the cheering from the Rays’ fans, a distanced, full-capacity, 9,021, was heart-warming.
“The fans in the stands was big,” Cash said. “It just felt like we had a lot of people in here. They were loud. They were supportive. They were excited to come watch two good teams play. They were excited to support what maybe they missed out on last year. That really energized us.”
Cash said standing with his team along the first-base line watching the 2020 video compilation was touching.
“Looking at the film that our people put together upstairs, you revisit a lot of thoughts,” Cash said. “A lot of that happened so fast last year, we didn’t probably have the most time to appreciate it given the way the postseason schedule and bubble worked out. So some of those thoughts were cool to come back to you a little bit and think about.
“And you had to get over it pretty quick and know that we had a good team that we had to go try to compete against.”
Especially given how the Rays had been playing.
The four straight losses — the finale in Miami and a three-game sweep in Boston — raised questions about the quality of their pitching and quantity of their offense.
Friday’s three-hour performance addressed both.
Starter Rich Hill rebounded from a shaky Rays debut to deliver a strong six-inning start. The crafty 41-year-old lefty retired the first eight Yankees he faced and the last 10 (though with the four in between all getting hits and scoring) throwing an impressive 61 of 83 pitches for strikes.
“He was outstanding the entire game,” Cash said. “You could tell that he was in pretty good rhythm and in sync within his delivery to allow him just to compete pitch after pitch, strike after strike.”
And the bullpen, now missing Fairbanks, Nick Anderson, Chaz Roe and Ryan Sherriff, took it from there.
As important, the Rays were able to survive the four runs Hill gave up in the third, and the 2-0 lead they erased, with an aggressive and somewhat persistent offense, chasing Yankees starter Corey Kluber in the pivotal third inning.
Yoshi Tsutsugo, looking better at the plate, singled, Austin Meadows walked and Randy Arozarena singled in a run. After Brandon Lowe struck out, Yandy Diaz walked to load the bases on Kluber’s 34th pitch of the inning, 62nd and last of the day.
Wendle greeted reliever Nick Nelson by slicing a ball the other way to left, and the two-run double put the Rays up 5-4 and to stay.
“That was a big hit,” Cash said. “We get two, they get four right back, it could have gotten really frustrating. But Joey comes up … got a fastball and drove it over their leftfielder’s head with the bases loaded. So there were a lot of big hits all around.”
Wendle has been the most clutch of the Rays hitters so far, with six of his seven RBIs either tying the score or providing a lead.
After Hill provided a quick 1-2-3, 13-pitch top of the fourth, Wendle got some help as the Rays broke the game open with a four-run outburst.
After they loaded the bases (Mike Zunino hit by pitch, Tsutsugo walk, Meadows single), Lowe came up with one out, got the change-up he was looking for, stayed down on it and laced it to left-center, scoring all three. Diaz followed with an RBI single to right to make it 9-4 and pretty much over.
“There’s no denying that it was different than what we saw the last two or three days in Fenway,” Cash said. “But, look, the guys were excited to get back here. (Thursday’s) off probably helped, and they were excited to play in front of our fans.”
With all the good feelings from the ceremony, and no worries about the early skid, Lowe said it was simply a matter of playing better.
“Really, there was nothing,” he said. “We didn’t go through the locker room and we didn’t have some sort of speech. We just knew that we needed to go out and take care of business.”
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