Feb 25, 2009
There wasn't much to cheer about in Tampa Bay's 12th Grapefruit League spring training opener Wednesday afternoon against the Cincinnati Reds, who prevailed 7-0.
But then a record crowd of 6,028 already had plenty to celebrate -- the return of spring training to Charlotte County for the first time since 2002; the re-christening of Charlotte Sports Park, which received a nearly $28-million facelift that got nothing but rave reviews from players and fans alike; and the raising of the 2008 American League Championship banner in left field.
Since spring training results don't count, of course, it was all right that the Rays celebrated more off the field than on Wednesday against the Reds, who are playing their final season up the road in Sarasota before exiting for Arizona as the Texas Rangers did from here following 2002 spring training here.
A lot of hearts were broken and many others were hardened when the Rangers convinced the Kansas City Royals to follow the sunset to Surprise, Ariz. It took a lot of counseling for both sides, a category-4 hurricane in 2004 (Charley) and the vision of new Rays owner Stuart Sternberg and team president Matt Silverman to extend their regional footprint 90 miles south=2 0of Tropicana Field to Charlotte County, which in the Rays found a true partner for the next 20 years.
And while all the rebuilding was reaching its conclusion last summer, a funny thing happened - the Rays, who had won 70 games only once in their previous 10 seasons, became the new beasts of the American League East, winning the regular-season division title with 97 victories under AL Manager of the Year Joe Maddon, defeating the Chicago White Sox 3-1 in the divisional series and then knocking out the Red Sox in seven games to win their first American League pennant.
The Cinderella story ended in the World Series as Philadelphia beat the Rays four games to one, but new dream seasons are being developed on the 5e diamonds outside the refurbished Charlotte Sports Park and the 40,000-square-foot administrative building which sits behind the Rays bullpen in right field and the foul pole-to-foul pole boardwalk which proved to be a popular place for fans to watch the game Wednesday.
Of course, the smell of Philly cheese steak sandwiches grilling and the tiki bar in left center certainly proved to be just as popular for the adults as the Kids Clubhouse playground proved to be for those under 10.
So who cares that the Rays managed only four hits off five Cincinnati pitchers - a single by left fielder Carl Crawford in the first, a single by shortstop Jason Bartlett in the third and doubles by Justin Ruggiano and Chris Richard in the eighth and ninth innings.
For the first game in their new digs, Maddon started regulars Bartlett, Crawford, AL Rookie of the Year Evan Longoria, free-agent DH Pat Burrell, utilitymen Willy Aybar and Ben Zobrist and catcher Dioner Navarro before turning it over to reserves and players who figure to be making up the team's top three farm clubs at AAA Durham, AA Montgomery and High A Charlotte.
The Reds did their damage in two innings - a five-run fifth which was highlighted by a grand slam to left by shortstop Jerry Hairston Jr. off left-hander Randy Choate and Adam Rosales' two-run homer to left off right-hander Mitch Talbot, who went 13-9 last season at Durham before a September cup of coffee with Tampa Bay.
Left-hander Carlos Hernandez got the start for Tampa Bay, which is limiting the innings of starters Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine after last season's postseason run.
Hernandez, who had a history of shoulder problems while with Houston, signed with Tampa Bay in July 2008 and made six starts with Class A Vero Beach, going 2-1with a 1.04 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 26 innings, pitched two innings, facing seven batters while allowing no hits, no walks and recording one strikeout.
Right-hander Jason Hammel, who spent last year with the Rays, mostly in the bullpen, and is out of options, went the next two innings and surrendered thr ee hits while striking out two. The three hits all came in the fourth inning, and center fielder Fernando Perez saved a run by throwing out the Reds' Joey Votto at home plate, Shawn Riggans making the tag.
Cincinnati rocked Choate, who played last season for Milwaukee's AAA Nashville affiliate, for five runs (four earned) on five hits, four of them in a row, the last Hairston's blast onto the boardwalk in left.
Three relievers - right-hander Lance Cormier, left-hander J.P.
Howell and right-hander Neal Frontz - each pitched a scoreless inning and surrendered one hit. Cormier was signed as a free agent after pitching for Baltimore last season, going 3-3 with a 4.02 ERA in 45 games, while Frontz had a combined 26 saves - the most of any Rays farmhand - pitching at Class A Vero Beach and Class AA Montgomery. Howell, coming off a breakthrough season during which he went 6-1 with a 2.22 ERA in 64 games with 92 strikeouts in 89.1 innings, is getting ready to join Team USA next week for the upcoming World Baseball Classic.
UP NEXT: NEW YORK YANKEES
When: Thursday at 1:15 p.m.
Where: Steinbrenner Field, Tampa.
Radio: On the web (www.raysbaseball.com).
Rays pitchers: RH Wade Davis, RH Winston Abreu, RH Calvin Medlock, RH Chad Orvella, RH Dale Thayer, RH Julio DePaula.