At long last, baseball is back at the Trop. The 2021 Tampa Bay Rays return home for their third series of the season, retreating to lick their wounds after suffering the wrong end of a series sweep at the hands of the Boston Red Sox. After a series win over the Marlins to kick off the 2021 season, the Rays were feeling good—but the Red Sox piled on 26 runs over three games to bring them back to reality.
The Rays enter the weekend with a 2-4 record facing their biggest test yet as the New York Yankees come to town. To make things worse, Tampa Bay will be looking at the back end of their rotation—which is littered with question marks—to take on a scary Yankees lineup. Let’s take a look at the upcoming series and what to expect.
2021 Tampa Bay Rays: Game One
Friday, April 9th at 3:10pm ET
The Rays’ home opener features a battle of veteran pitchers. Kluber will take the mound for the Yankees, looking to build off his debut in pinstripes last Saturday where he went four innings, allowing two runs (one earned) off of five hits and three walks, punching out five. He threw 74 pitches in that one, expect the Yankees to try to get five or six innings from Kluber this time out.
For the Rays, they’ll send out Rich Hill for his second start. Hill’s debut with the Rays was awfully similar to Kluber’s: four innings on 71 pitches, giving up five hits, two walks, and striking out four. However, it resulted in four earned runs for the 41-year-old southpaw—less than ideal for Tampa Bay. They’ll hope he can go a bit longer in this one to match Kluber, which will largely depend on how well his curveball is working. If things go well, this could be a fun pitcher’s duel to kick off the weekend.
Saturday, April 10th at 1:10pm ET
In exciting news for the home crowd, Chris Archer is likely to make his official debut as a starter with his former team. Archer came on in relief of Rich Hill on Saturday in his first official appearance with the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays as he continues to work his way back from the thoracic outlet syndrome surgery that sidelined him in 2020. It wasn’t the most encouraging return to Tampa, as he coughed up four runs (three earned) and took 52 pitches to get through just two innings.
Archer’s four-seamer averaged under 92 mph, a far cry from the 95+ from his first stint with the Rays. He’ll inevitably need time to work his way back up, but keep a close eye on his velocity on Saturday—if it stays low, he might not be in for a long outing. Even if he’s not quite ready yet, it’ll be an encouraging sight to Rays fans to see him take the mound in the first inning.
He’ll face New York’s Domingo Germán, who also missed 2020 after serving a suspension for domestic violence. Despite a strong Spring Training (17 strikeouts and just two earned runs over 13 innings), Germán showed some significant rust in his first start with the Yankees last Sunday, lasting just three innings and needing 68 pitches to get there, giving up three earned runs on four hits, including a pair of homers. In a season where workloads will be cautiously managed, the Yankees will take it slow with Germán just like they’re doing with Kluber but will be hoping for a solid five innings from their 28-year-old right-hander.
Sunday, April 11th at 1:10pm ET
So which of the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays pitchers will take the mound to start Sunday’s game? Manager Kevin Cash hasn’t said, but logically it should be Michael Wacha, who would be next up in the rotation. Wacha struggled in his Rays’ debut on Monday, surrendering five runs (four earned) through five innings, punching out six while walking two, and giving up a whopping eight hits. It wasn’t quite the result Cash was looking for, but Wacha did manage 90 pitches (a rarity for the limping Rays rotation) and was able to keep the ball in the yard. However, if Archer struggles early on Saturday, Cash could look to Wacha to jump in or elect to start Wacha behind an opener Sunday to preserve his bullpen.
There’s even a chance Cash throws ace Tyler Glasnow out on the mound as he’ll be on five days of rest. Glasnow—acquired in the deal with the Pirates that ended Archer’s first stint with Tampa Bay—has been the lone bright spot for the rotation, going six innings in both of his first two starts, striking out a combined 15 across the two starts while allowing just one run. The 27-year-old, however, has only topped 70 innings in a season once and no doubt Kevin Cash will want to preserve Glasnow’s health and manage his workload with great care, as he plays an enormous role in the potential success of the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays.
Whether it’s against Wacha or someone else, the Yankees are likely to send out Jordan Montgomery to toe the rubber. The 28-year-old lefty impressed in his debut season in 2017, throwing over 150 innings in 29 starts to the tune of a 3.88 ERA. Since then, his promising career has been plagued by injuries, averaging just over 20 innings per season. This year he’s healthy out of the gate and was sharp in his first start Monday, striking out seven over six scoreless innings against the Orioles. He needed just 73 pitches to get through those six innings which is likely an efficiency the Yankees will bank on for Sunday—if he runs into trouble early, New York might pull him to avoid running up the pitch count too high.
What to Watch For
There are a few intriguing storylines to keep an eye on as the Rays enter their first homestand of the season. The first one is obvious after reading to this point—how will the Rays’ free-agent rotation work out? Relying on cheap one-year signings of Hill, Archer, and Wacha (all of whom have serious concerns coming into the season) could be a masterstroke of payroll manipulation—or it could backfire horribly for the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays. All three will look to work up their pitch count and pitch close to a full starter’s workload this weekend but will be on a short leash to preserve their long-term health. And unfortunately, the Yankees’ latest attempt to reboot Murderer’s Row is a lineup that can do a lot of damage and do it quickly.
This means Tampa Bay will likely need to rely on their bullpen for a good chunk of at least one of these games, which last season would have brought a sense of comfort to Rays fans. Through the first week of the season, however, the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays have the highest bullpen ERA in MLB. It’s early, of course, but for a team with one of the best ‘pens in the league in 2020, it was set to be a big part of their game plan coming into 2021. After closer Nick Anderson was shut down with an elbow injury, the Rays have had to scramble—and it hasn’t gone so well. Perhaps the return to Tropicana Field is the change of scenery the relievers need to settle in.
Offensively, the Rays are solidly middle of the pack, ranking 15th or 16th out of 30 in most categories. They’ll be without Gold Glove outfielder Kevin Kiermaier, who was put on the IL with a quad strain. And they’re already down their first baseman Ji-Man Choi who won’t be back until at least May after knee surgery. The typically deep Tampa Bay lineup will be anything but. They called up their #25 prospect, infielder Kevin Padlo, who debuted Tuesday against the Red Sox, starting at third base and going 0-2 with a strikeout. He slashed .265/.389/.538 in 432 plate appearances in 2019 between AA and AAA, and they’ll need him for depth in the infield. Keep an eye on him over the weekend as he’s likely to get some playing time.
Above all else, though, fans will want to watch their home team take their home field in St. Petersburg. The Trop is expected to open Friday to a capacity of around 9,000 fans, over half of the average 2019 attendance. The 2021 Tampa Bay Rays undoubtedly hope the return home will provide a way to get back on track after a disappointing start to the season.
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