Living on the West Coast of Florida, I try to take in a few spring Training games each year. Often, I venture south to Port Charlotte to see a game at the Tampa Bay Rays’ spring training home, but I went north to Bright House Field in Clearwater on Friday to see the Rays play the Philadelphia Phillies. It was a beautiful day for a ballgame with temperatures in the mid-80’s and only light cloud cover. If Ernie Banks was still alive, he’d say “Let’s play two!”
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Bright House Field, the spring training and High-A home for the Phillies, opened in 2004 replacing the decrepit Jack Russell Stadium. It is just off U.S. 19 and has plenty of $10 parking. The stadium is very clean and bright, but the architecture reminds one of an office building with stadium seats. We sat four rows behind the Rays’ dugout, but considering the field’s 8,500-seat capacity, there is not a bad seat in the house. Our game was a sellout with a good mixture of Rays and Phillies fans.
The food and drink at the stadium is plentiful, but mostly the usual ballpark fare. I did manage to score an interesting craft beer from Pennsylvania. Figures! There is also a tiki hut bar in right field. Tiki huts seem to be mandatory in spring training/A-ball parks. This was under the management of Frenchy’s, an infamous Clearwater Beach watering hole.
The game itself was one of your usual early spring training games. Pitchers are ahead of batters and that often makes for a low scoring and not very interesting game. The Rays were matched up against the Phillies’ Joely Rodriguez, a lefty that had never pitched above Double-A. They managed four hits and one run against him in three innings and no hits off a parade of Phillies relief pitchers the rest of the game.
On the plus side, Evan Longoria and James Loney got three of the four hits and looked to be in midseason form. Longoria’s stroke was particularly smooth and gone was that loopy B.J. Upton-esque swing from early last year. Kevin Kiermaier, Desmond Jennings and Steven Souza also hit the ball hard but had nothing to show for it.
Juan Franciso is as big as a house and looked terrible striking out. He did homer yesterday, though, and the Rays will hope to see more of that and less of what I saw. Hak-Ju Lee ran hard on a ground out and showed no signs of a lingering knee problem.
On the defensive side, Curt Casali looked smooth behind the plate and executed a number of snap throws behind the runners. Asdrubal Cabrera played short, but most of the middle infield plays were routine. Steven Souza played first base for the last four innings of the game. That move, along with Jaso in left field, could be interesting when it comes to setting the Rays’ 25-man roster.
Rays pitching was, for the most part, quality. Chris Archer started, featuring his usual mid-90’s fastball, and he was effective for three innings. He also struck out Chase Utley on a nasty changeup. As the changeup has not be Archer’s best pitch, it was nice to see. He also went an inning too far and gave up a two run dinger to Ryan Howard.
After the home run, Archer was replaced by Enny Romero, who dispatched the next two hitters. Romero was replaced by Everett Teaford and Teaford proved to be an adventure. He pitched 1.2 innings and gave up no runs but was in trouble for the entire outing. He didn’t exactly inspire confidece. Dylan Floro, Mike Montgomery and Grayson Garvin finished out the game in fine style.
The game ended with a 2-1 loss to Philadelphia, but there were encouraging aspects of the Rays performance. For the most part, the Rays had solid pitching and the defense was tight.
I liked the way a number of the Tampa Bay Rays swung the bat. My first sleeper player from the game was Hak-Ju Lee, who has put on 20 pounds of muscle, looks healthy, and has caught Kevin Cash’s eye. He was demoted to minor league camp yesterday, but he might get a shot to be the Rays’ shortstop later in the year. The other player that impressed me was Mike Montgomery, who looked good and could be a left handed middle or long relief pitcher.
It’s still a long way to Opening Day, but there is plenty of reason to be following the Rays now. From watching the established stars to seeing which young players will make names for themselves, even a relatively boring game like the one I attended can provide plenty of insight.