Jake McGee has plenty of memories from his time pitching for the Rays, topped by a 2010 big-league debut that included striking out Derek Jeter and getting the win in the wild-card clinching Game 162 in 2011.
He has a place in Tampa Bay’s team record book, with a seemingly safe team-most 297 games pitched. He has some prized memorabilia, most prominently a framed jersey and photos on the wall of his Reno, Nevada, home.
And now, having decided at age 36 after 13 big-league seasons to retire, McGee want to do so as a Ray.
Though the left-handed reliever went on to pitch for five other teams, winning a World Series with the Dodgers and spending 1½ seasons with his somewhat-hometown Giants (including a 31-save 2021), the Rays remain his true love, going back to when he was a fifth-round pick in the 2004 draft and working through the minor leagues.
“They were the first team to give me an opportunity,” McGee said. “I was in the organization for 11 years. I know it was (only) six years in the big leagues, but I learned so much — analytically wise, like how to pitch up in the zone with my fastball.
“All the teams were really good when I was there. We were competing for the playoffs every year. And then we lived in Tampa, it was kind of our (fulltime) home for a while. So just being with the organization for all that time.”
Though there won’t be anything formal, such as signing a one-day contract, McGee and the Rays will acknowledge their lasting relationship during the season, when he will return to Tropicana Field to be honored before a (still-to-be-decided) game and throw out a first pitch.
McGee said the decision to retire now was based on a combination of factors, such as ongoing knee issues and being away from his wife, Morgan, and their now 8-year-old daughter, Rowen, as he was when he went from the Giants to the Brewers to the Nationals last season.
“I feel like it’s kind of the right time,” McGee said. “I’d rather be at home with my family. I played 13 years. I won a World Series in ‘20. It’s about time to stop. I don’t want to grind it out and keep bouncing around and stuff like that.”
McGee’s career after switching from minor-league starter to big-league reliever was solid, though injuries were an ongoing issue. He finished with a 32-28 record and 3.71 ERA over 650 appearances (11th-most of pitchers active at the end of 2022); 79 saves (in 113 chances); and 613 strikeouts over 572-1/3 innings. He pitched in five postseasons. And he earned around $50 million.
Most impressively, he did all of that throwing pretty much one pitch — a four-seam fastball.
Nearly 90 percent of the 9,585 pitches McGee threw in regular season games were fastballs, per fangraphs.com data. That included some remarkable stretches of consistency — or stubbornness — such as streaks with the Rays during his career-best 2014 season, per foxsports.com, of 206, 125, 82, and 60 straight fastballs.
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Coaches and others would often suggest, especially during McGee’s four seasons in Colorado after the Rays traded him in 2016, that he throw more sliders and curves, and he tried at times.
But McGee threw the fastball so well, averaging 95 mph and usually on target up in the zone, that it didn’t matter that hitters knew it was coming.
When he signed with the Dodgers in July 2020 — having been released by the Rockies before the final season of a three-year, $27 million deal — he said they told him to throw 100 straight fastballs.
When McGee did mix in a well-placed breaking ball, it became a big deal.
Headline news even — “Rays’ victory comes with a hook,” per the Tampa Bay Times — when he got Manny Machado to wave helplessly at a curve to end a June 29, 2014, game at Baltimore and secure a 5-4 win.
“He swung and missed, his helmet came up and he tipped his cap to me, like, ‘You got me,’” McGee said, clearly remembering the moment.
But what McGee did worked.
“Jake was an incredible competitor and teammate,” said Andrew Friedman, baseball operations chief with the Rays through 2014, then with the Dodgers. “You have to be a great competitor to have the sustained success he had with only one pitch. More seriously, he had a great career and it was fun watching him dominate on the mound as he was unmoved by any big game situation.”
Said Rays manager Kevin Cash, “He was an awesome teammate. And as easy-going of a pitcher as we’ve had. So many relief pitchers, they’re like adrenaline junkies. And Jake, for whatever reason, was as calm as possible. And when he was in his prime, as good as probably anybody in the American League.”
McGee pitched against the Rays in the 2020 World Series at Arlington, Texas, but it wasn’t much of a reunion due to COVID-19 restrictions. He has been back to the Trop — “one of my favorite places to pitch” — only once since being traded, with Colorado in April 2019. He relished the memories and excitement until a knee issue forced him from the game.
He is looking forward to coming back this season and throwing one more pitch —albeit ceremonial — as a Ray.
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