Spring training final scores can be exceedingly misleading- in the Rays’ 15-7 win on Saturday, they led just 5-4 after 6 innings. And despite the lopsided score, the Rays’ big takeaways from the game were the performance of their starting pitcher and concern over a position player that wound up being unfounded.
Jeff Niemann started for the Rays and pitched well, going 3.2 innings allowing 1 run on 4 hits, striking out 3 while walking 1. The Phillies finally got on the board against him with a Ryan Howard solo shot in the 4th inning, but that was the only really mistake Niemann made as he was in control the entire outing. Niemann command was exceptional most of the outing as 10 of his 11 outs came either on the ground or via the strikeout, and Niemann praised his cutter after the game while Joe Maddon raved about his curveball as contributing most to his success. When you have to argue which pitch was best in the game, you know you’re doing pretty well. Niemann’s continued strong performance makes the Rays’ 5th starter competition more interesting by the second, with Roberto Hernandez and Chris Archer also impressing, and you know that it’s going to go right down to the wire and no matter who wins out, the Rays are going to be getting quite a bit of production from the 5th spot in their rotation.
Jeremy Hellickson followed Niemann (after a 0.1 IP appearance by Dane De La Rosa), but after a 10-pitch 5th, he fell apart in the 6th, allowing 3 runs on 4 hits. Hellickson simply had a frustrating outing as all of his pitches showed flashes but no consistency, and while that’s never good to see, much better to get that out of the way now than in the regular season.
The scariest moment in the game was in the third inning, when he rounded second base the wrong way and evidently suffered a mild ankle sprain. But Jennings scored later in the inning and Joe Maddon said following the game that “he’s fine” and will only miss a day or two. With B.J. Upton gone, the Rays can ill-afford to lose Jennings for any period of time, but luckily that’s not something they’ll need to think about right now.
On the offensive side, Sean Rodriguez and Shelley Duncan both slammed 2-run home runs, with Rodriguez’s capping off the Rays’ 4-run 3rd while Duncan’s put an exclamation point on what wound up being a 6-run 8th inning, and Rodriguez went 1 for 3 in the game while seeing time at first base while Duncan went 2 for 6 with the homer and a double, although he did strike out 3 times. Both are candidates for playing time on the Rays’ against right-handed pitching, although neither has gotten off to a very good start this spring, with Rodriguez hitting just .130 and Duncan hitting .192, and they hope Saturday’s game can help them break those ruts.
Also having 2-hit performances in the game were a pair of surprises: catcher Robinson Chirinos and infielder Shawn O’Malley. Chirinos went 2 for 2 with a double, a walk, 2 RBI, and a run scored, showing some of the potential that makes him the Rays’ catcher candidate with the most upside in 2013, while O’Malley came out of nowhere to go 2 for 4 with 3 runs scored. Leslie Anderson and Hak-Ju Lee also caught some eyes with 2 RBI days, with Anderson going 1 for 3, cooling off a tiny bit, and Lee going 1 for 1. The Rays left just 7 men on base on the game as their offense got contributions from all over the place and made Phillies pitching pay when even they had the opportunity, and 15 runs, even in spring training, is certainly an incredible offensive showing.
The final in the game was 15-7 as the Rays improved to 11-4 this spring, still a half-game back of first place in the Grapefruit League as the 10-2 Orioles refuse to lose as well. The overall results have been incredible for the Rays so far in spring training and even more impressive has been the progress that several key players have been making, with Niemann and the candidates for the 5th starter spot specifically sticking out.