January 29, 2023

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Springs' first night in rotation marred by fluke play

4 min read
Rays outfielders lose ball in twilight sky, then Angels erupt in late innings
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ANAHEIM — After being replaced by pinch-hitter Francisco Mejía in the top of the seventh inning, Kevin Kiermaier made his way back into the visitors’ clubhouse at Angel Stadium and sought out Jeffrey Springs. Kiermaier wanted to apologize for a play he didn’t make.

With one out in the fourth inning and the Rays up by a run following Randy Arozarena’s first home run of the season, Kiermaier lost a Shohei Ohtani fly ball in the Southern California twilight, and it fell for a single. One out later, Jared Walsh marred Springs’ otherwise-impressive entrance into Tampa Bay’s rotation by smashing a fastball out to center field for a three-run homer.

That sequence, Kiermaier said, was a “huge momentum swing” in what soon turned into an ugly 11-3 loss to the Angels. So Kiermaier wanted to be accountable to his starting pitcher, and Springs didn’t want the three-time Gold Glove Award-winning center fielder to worry about it.

“I was like, ‘Dude, you’re going to save me [and] the pitching staff way more runs than you cost us, I promise,’” Springs said. “He didn’t see it, and like I said, I’m not worried about it because I know he’s unbelievable, just like the rest of our outfield.”

It was a bizarre play from the start. As soon as Ohtani reached down to golf Springs’ first-pitch changeup out to center, a handful of Rays pointed up to indicate a popup. But Kiermaier didn’t move, throwing his hands up to indicate he’d lost track of it as soon as it soared above the stands. Shortstop Wander Franco moved back on the ball, but didn’t have a play. Neither did right fielder Brett Phillips; he flung himself across the outfield to make a last-ditch diving attempt, only for the ball to fall for a hit.

“Once it went up and went into the sky, I couldn’t locate it at all. I was hoping Brett Phillips did some crazy Superman catch to bail me out there, but it fell in,” Kiermaier said. “I was not very happy about that. Springs was rolling at that point, and it was a huge play in the game. … If you can’t see the ball, there’s not a whole lot you can do. But that was a tough one, and the game seemed to change after that play right there.”

Indeed, it did. Springs had been cruising through his first official start as a member of the Rays’ rotation, breezing through three innings on 36 pitches and retiring the Angels’ first 10 hitters in order. Mike Trout broke up his perfect game with a one-out single to left field, then Ohtani’s hit fell. Springs retired Anthony Rendon — which would have ended the inning if Ohtani’s fly ball hadn’t found grass — then didn’t elevate a fastball high enough in the strike zone. Walsh capitalized.

“Even after the first couple baserunners got on, if I’m able to spray at the top of the zone a little bit better, I feel like I could have got a swing-and-miss or popup. Just missed, and he took advantage of it,” Springs said. “I felt good. My body felt good. I felt like my stuff was good. Just, like I said, one pitch.”

And that one pitch left Springs, who efficiently worked four innings on 57 pitches, with a final line that didn’t reflect the promise he displayed as the Rays’ newest starting-pitching option.

“I thought Springs was awesome,” manager Kevin Cash said. “I don’t think the stat line or the result shows how well he pitched.”

Arozarena’s homer, Springs’ performance and Wander Franco’s three hits were about the only highlights of the night for the Rays, however, as the game got out of hand when they went to their typically reliable bullpen.

In the sixth inning, left-hander Jalen Beeks gave up back-to-back homers to Trout and Ohtani to put the Angels ahead, 6-1. The Rays battled back in the seventh, making it a three-run game and bringing the tying run to the plate, but Mejía grounded out against lefty Aaron Loup. The Rays left 10 men on base as they went 1-for-16 with runners in scoring position.

“The timely hits just kind of eluded us,” Cash said. “I felt like we put ourselves in position early in the ballgame to do things, and even when they opened it up, 6-1, we came back and got the tying run to the plate. It just didn’t happen.”

Making his Major League debut in the seventh, right-hander Calvin Faucher allowed the first three hitters he faced to reach safely on two singles and a walk. That brought up Trout, who took four pitches for a run-scoring walk. Up came Ohtani, who blasted the first grand slam of his professional career — in the United States or Japan — out to left-center field.

“Not ideal. He got the first three guys on and then probably had the wrong three guys coming up, really good hitters,” Cash said. “That’s part of it, but hopefully he can look back and have the appreciation that he was pitching to Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani.”

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