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Joey Butler’s Clutch Hits Not Enough in Rays Spring Opener

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There is a major irony in spring training–everyone comes to see the stars, but it is usually the unknowns who decide who wins and loses. Of course, that is exactly why the games mean so little. However, breaking through the irrelevancy is far from impossible–while people came to see Evan Longoria, Kevin Kiermaier, and Asdrubal Cabrera, they will leave remembering Joey Butler as well.

Nate Karns started for the Tampa Bay Rays hoping to start his case for the fifth starter spot on a strong note. Instead, he delivered mediocrity. Karns went 2 innings allowing no runs on 1 hit, striking out 1 while walking 1. Just 10 of his 21 pitches for strikes. Karns touched 93 MPH with his fastball and flashed a solid breaking ball, but inconsistency has always been his problem and this small sample size was no different.

The game was scoreless through 6 innings with the help of some solid pitching and a few terrific defensive plays. As Kevin Cash said on the Rays broadcast, Kevin Jepsen hit as high as 96 MPH with his fastball as he tossed a scoreless inning working around a hit. Of course, the hit was no weak single.

Chris Parmelee began the top of the third inning smash to deep left field that got past David DeJesus and went off the wall. Kevin Kiermaier came over from centerfield to gather the ball as Parmelee rounded second and headed for third. However, teams around baseball got a reminder of just how good Kiermaier’s arm is as he threw a laser to Evan Longoria for an outfield assist.

After Kiermaier and Curt Casali were stranded on base in the bottom of the inning, Brandon Guyer was next to impress defensively. After Steve Clevenger singled to right field, Everth Cabrera rounded third base too widely and Guyer threw behind him to Asdrubal Cabrera for another assist. What could have been first and third with one out became a man on first with two outs as Brad Boxberger escaped the inning.

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It would have been nice for Boxberger to pitch to cleaner results, but dominating hitters was a couple of rungs down on his agenda. He was working on his slider, a pitch he used extremely sparingly in 2014. Boxberger’s fastball-changeup combination was extremely effective last season, but it is difficult to be as good as Boxberger was in 2014, and it’s nice to see Boxberger making the type of adjustment he needs to stay at that level.

After Jhan Marinez tossed the fifth, Steve Geltz tossed the best inning of the game by any Rays pitcher, delivering a perfect frame with a strikeout. Then, after Enny Romero worked around an infield single with a wild pitch with a pair of strikeouts, Joey Butler put him in line for the victory.

Tampa native Corey Brown greeted ex-Ray Mark Hendrickson with a drive to right field for an impressive left-on-left triple. Then Butler slammed a line drive double and suddenly the Rays had a 1-0 lead. Butler, at least a hypothetical fit for the Rays roster as a right-handed outfielder, got his Rays tenure off to a great start and wasn’t done. In the bottom of the 9th, he hit a long solo home run to the batter’s eye in centerfield.

By the time Butler delivered his second big hit, the game had already turned around entirely thanks to an unearned run off C.J. Riefenhauser and Robert Zarate‘s inability to get anyone out. It’s a funny thing when your usual late-inning relievers pitch fine but a nobody blows the game when the ninth inning actually does arrive. In any event, Andrew Bellatti deserves credit for escaping Zarate’s jam with a strikeout and a flyout.

The other notable players for the Rays were Curt Casali, who went 2 for 2 with a runner caught stealing, and John Jaso, who drilled a double in a left-on-left matchup with Wei-Yin Chen in his first at-bat. Overall, Zarate’s meltdown was disappointing and would have been nice to see more offense, but the Rays got their spring season off to a solid start.

Tomorrow, the Rays will welcome the Minnesota Twins to Port Charlotte at 1:05 PM. Jake Odorizzi will start the game, and prospect Matt Andriese will also make an appearance. MLB.com Gameday Audio subscribers can listen to a Rays broadcast of the game featuring Rays Radio’s Neil Solondz.

Next: Nate Karns Aims To Start Rays Spring Training in Style

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