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Yonny Chirinos gets win as Rays sweep Red Sox

After being sidelined for two-plus years, the right-hander works three scoreless innings to help Tampa Bay keep rolling.
 
Rays relief pitcher Yonny Chirinos reacts after pitching in the fifth inning against the Boston Red Sox Wednesday at Tropicana Field.
Rays relief pitcher Yonny Chirinos reacts after pitching in the fifth inning against the Boston Red Sox Wednesday at Tropicana Field. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Sept. 8, 2022|Updated Sept. 9, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG — The two-plus years since Yonny Chirinos last pitched in the major leagues had been challenging physically and mentally as he worked his way back from a pair of serious elbow injuries, raising doubts and drawing tears.

“A lot of negative thoughts come into your head when you’re in a situation like that,” Chirinos said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “But, thank God, I never gave up.”

Being activated off the injured list and rejoining the Rays on Tuesday was emotional and rewarding: “Even sitting in there with my teammates,’' he said, “it’s something that you still can’t believe that it’s happening all over again.”

Wednesday was even better.

Chirinos returned to the mound and pitched three solid, scoreless innings to help the Rays to a 1-0 victory over the Red Sox that completed a three-game sweep. Not only was it his first big-league appearance since Aug. 16, 2020, it was his first win in the majors since Aug. 4, 2019, with 1,129 days in between.

“It felt really good,” Chirinos said. “Being able to go out there and compete with the team and help the team win, that’s all I wanted.”

And in a tight game that mattered.

The Rays improved to 77-58 and a season-best 19 games over .500, winning for the eighth time in their last nine games, 19th in 24 and American League-best 23rd in 33 since the start of August. They are five games behind the East-leading Yankees, who they face this weekend in New York, and atop the three-team wild-card field with Seattle’s loss.

Held hitless into the fifth by Boston starter Nick Pivetta, the Rays got their run when Francisco Mejia led off with a double, moved to third on Ji-Man Choi’s flyout and scored on Taylor Walls’ shift-beating infield single after battling from 0-2 to a full count. “A tremendous at-bat,” manager Kevin Cash said.

With the Rays shortening Jeffrey Springs’ start to three innings for workload reasons, Chirinos made his return at the start of the fourth, retiring Alex Verdugo on a flyout. The previous batter he faced was Toronto’s Teoscar Hernandez, with 751 days in between.

Chirinos underwent Tommy John elbow surgery on Aug. 24, 2020. Thirteen months later, nearing the end of his rehab in September 2021, he fractured his elbow while throwing batting practice and needed another surgery that idled him until this spring.

“It was very tough, but I just had to keep my mind right,” Chirinos said. “It was about six months before I threw another ball ever again, and it’s that mentality where you think, ‘It’s broken. I’m never going to come back from it.’ Those are the (thoughts) that I had.”

When he got word during the third inning Wednesday to start warming up, and when he took the Tropicana Field mound, he said he was able to push those thoughts aside and focus on pitching. “Compete, attack the zone, and try to throw zeroes up on the board,” he said. “That’s all I was thinking.”

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Chirinos allowed a single and a walk, then struck out Christian Arroyo (with a nasty backdoor slider) and Rob Refsnyder to end the fourth.

Chirinos allowed himself to savor the moment with a brief show of emotion — hopping slightly off the mound, raising his arms, slapping his glove several times and smiling broadly.

“Obviously, very happy, a lot of emotion,” Chirinos said. “I haven’t been out on the mound for two years, so to be able to have that energy to go out there and have that privilege again, to go out there and compete, everyone wishes to be out there for that. And I was able to do that.”

Chirinos allowed four hits and walked one, striking out four and throwing 35 of 53 pitches for strikes. He clocked as high as 96 mph, threw first-pitch strikes to nine of 14 batters and got six swings-and-misses. He looked pretty much as he did before the injury, Cash said.

“It was really cool for all us,” Cash added, saying that the Rays’ players were thrilled for Chirinos.

“I don’t know if there are words for what he’s been through, just all the time he’ s missed,” Springs said. “Seeing him when I was rehabbing last year, too — I mean, the positive attitude every day, it was unbelievable. Just the same guy, comes in, works hard, has a smile on his face. You couldn’t ask for a better person. And to see him out there back pitching, it was really cool to see. Very happy for him.”

As was Red Sox manager Alex Cora.

“Good for him,” Cora said. “It’s one of those stories, what happened to him and not to be able to post the last few years and go out there and perform, regardless of the results, it’s good. It’s good for baseball; it’s good for him; it’s good for the organization. Obviously, a lot of people are happy for him.”

Chirinos said all the hard times were worth it.

“During the surgery, it was tears of sadness,” he said. “But now we’ve got tears of joy.”

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