Returning Rays still buzzing from Classic atmosphere

March 18th, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG -- There was a buzz in one corner of the Rays’ clubhouse early Saturday morning with , and Harold Ramírez back from the World Baseball Classic. They had teammates to catch up with and plenty of stories to tell.

Four Rays players were still active in the Classic as of Saturday afternoon: reliever with Team USA, plus  (taking the tournament by storm),  (who had a big game Friday night) and  with semifinal-bound Mexico. But four others returned over the past few days:  (Panama), then Ramírez (Colombia), then Mejía and Franco (Dominican Republic).

Even with the Dominican club dealt a disappointingly early exit, each player raved about his experience competing on an international stage in high-stakes games in front of crowds that surpassed even what they’ve witnessed in the postseason.

“I don't think I'm ever going to feel nervous again,” Mejía said through interpreter Elvis Martinez. “I think my ears are still ringing from all the noise in the crowd. … It’s like you’re playing in a concert or something.”

Franco, who has played in a pair of postseason series, said the Classic atmosphere was even more intense than the playoffs. Noting the big crowds full of fervent fans, Ramírez said it was “the first time I’ve played in the United States with a game like that.”

“It was definitely a dream come true for any Dominican player to be able to represent the country,” Franco said through interpreter Manny Navarro.

It was a family affair for many players. Franco said his brothers and father were in Miami to watch the Dominican squad. Between games, Bethancourt and his wife played tourist, riding Taiwan’s high-speed rail and trying different food everywhere they went. Ramírez’s parents made the trip to Phoenix to see him play, and he sent his mom home with all his souvenirs: jerseys, baseballs and other Classic memorabilia.

Franco will keep his Dominican Republic uniform. Same for Mejía, who asked All-Star teammates Manny Machado and Juan Soto to sign some gear. Bethancourt saved his uniform, a handful of Classic baseballs and one ball signed by Panama’s entire team.

“Probably the best experience I’ve had in a very long time, other than last year playing in the playoffs for the first time,” Bethancourt said. “I'm very proud of that group that we had. … Then we made history by winning our first ever World Baseball Classic game, so that was so cool.”

More important than any gifts they brought home, though, was the emotional experience of representing their countries.

Bethancourt said he shed some tears when he heard Panama’s national anthem while warming up in the bullpen before the team’s first game. Franco spent a lot of time with Machado, who shared advice about playing under pressure. The magnitude of the moment hit Mejía in his first at-bat against Puerto Rico.

“It was a really good experience, regardless of the results,” Mejía said through Martinez. “I had conversations with a lot of veterans in the clubhouse in the dugout, and I think I did a lot of learning. It didn't end the way that we wanted to, but it was a good experience.”

Shane’s start
Presumptive Opening Day starter breezed through a five-inning outing in Tampa Bay’s 3-1 win over a split-squad Boston roster full of prospects and Minor League call-ups.

McClanahan struck out six (including one automatic strikeout on a pitch timer violation), walked two and allowed only two hits: a solo homer, and an infield single that was immediately negated when Taylor Walls started a smooth 5-4-3 double play. The lefty threw 67 pitches, including 42 strikes, and generated 11 swinging strikes while throwing everything in his four-pitch arsenal.

“I feel like I'm in a good spot,” McClanahan said. “I feel like last Spring Training was so short and so quick, and we've had the opportunity in this camp to stretch out and kind of figure some stuff out and not feel so rushed.”

Siri’s speed
Center fielder put his “electric” speed on display in the second inning. Siri smacked a hard ground ball by third baseman Matthew Lugo and reached on an error. He promptly stole second and third, then dashed home when catcher Caleb Hamilton’s throw skipped into the outfield.

Two errors, two stolen bases, one run.

“Special player,” Cash said. “We’re going to win games because of his foot speed.”