ST. PETERSBURG — It was more than an average solo home run.
When catcher Mike Zunino unloaded his 450-foot blast off left-hander David Peterson into Tropicana Field’s left-field party deck during Friday night’s eighth-inning, it jump-started a sleepy Rays offense and set in motion a 3-2 walkoff victory against the New York Mets.
Zunino’s shot had an exit velocity of 117.3 miles per hour — the 10th hardest-hit ball this season in the majors according to StatCast — and cut New York’s lead to 2-1. It was also Zunino’s eighth homer, doubling his regular-season figure from last year’s 60-game shortened schedule.
“It’s a personal best (for exit velocity), I’m pretty sure,” Zunino said. “I’m just trying to put a good swing on the ball. Be patient. Wait for my pitch. Try to barrel it up. ... I’m just trying to stick to my process and stay diligent.”
Rays manager Kevin Cash said he was pleased to see such a moment from Zunino.
“He has been huge,” Cash said. “His offensive numbers speak for themselves and what he has done defensively has been remarkable. He’s having a tremendous start to the season. It’s nice to see a guy who works as hard as he does get some reward.”
The Rays’ bullpen regained more strength when high-leverage right-hander Diego Castillo was reinstated to the roster following a stint on the 10-day injured list due to right groin tightness. It’s the first time this season that Castillo and right-hander Pete Fairbanks have been active at the same time.
“I feel super good,” said Castillo, who was tied for the American League lead in saves (seven) at the time of his injury. “I feel super happy I’m able to return. I’m very happy we (he and Fairbanks) are both back. He’s an excellent pitcher just like everyone else in the bullpen.”
Cash said injuries forced other pitchers into key roles, providing some potential residual long-term benefits.
“It lengthens us out,” he said. “We’re a better bullpen with both of those guys, no doubt. But we’ve also had the luxury to find out some things about other pitchers that we weren’t as familiar with. We just feel like we’re a little thicker as we’re getting a little healthier.”
McClanahan gets the call
Rookie left-hander Shane McClanahan makes his fourth start Saturday against the Mets. So far, Cash has found little to complain about.
“I think he has done everything right,” Cash said. “The fastball command is good, and the pitch distribution is outstanding. We can nitpick from start to start — maybe he would like to have a pitch back — but if we’re (just) doing that once or twice an outing, that means the guy is throwing the ball pretty well.”
King of the Hill
Left-hander Rich Hill (41 years, 63 days old), Thursday night’s starter, became only the third age-41 (or older) pitcher with nine-plus strikeouts against the Yankees, joining Nolan Ryan (four times) and Cy Young (1910).
Right-hander Chris Archer, on the injured list since April 11 with right forearm tightness, is back with the team after spending time in North Carolina following the death of his mother. … Cash said first baseman Ji-Man Choi, out all season following knee surgery, had “a good day” Friday after taking batting practice, fielding ground balls and running a bit.“He’s very, very close,” Cash said. … Catcher Francisco Mejia (intercostal discomfort) also looked on schedule for a mid-May return from the 10-day injured list.
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