ST. PETERSBURG -- The way Jeffrey Springs sees it, he wasn’t supposed to make it this far.
He was drafted 888th overall in 2015, in a round that no longer exists, and signed with the Rangers for $1,000. He was moved to the bullpen before he reached Double-A. He did part-time landscaping work in the offseason and held down a job at the YMCA, mostly for the accompanying free gym membership. Even after getting to the Majors, he was designated for assignment three times and traded twice.
But Springs isn’t just beating the odds anymore. He’s establishing himself as a dominant starting pitcher. The left-hander thrived in Tampa Bay’s rotation last year, earned a four-year, $31 million contract extension in January and fired six hitless innings with a career-high 12 strikeouts in the Rays’ 5-1 win over the Tigers on Sunday afternoon at Tropicana Field.
“That was just an outstanding performance,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “His stuff is probably playing at an all-time high, and he's putting it to use about as good as you can possibly do."
Springs’ standout performance -- backed by Randy Arozarena’s first homer of the season, another two-hit game by Wander Franco and two more RBIs from Jose Siri -- helped the Rays secure the fourth season-opening series sweep in franchise history, a feat they previously accomplished in 2002, ‘12 and last year. It also continued an incredible start to the season by Tampa Bay’s rotation, as Shane McClanahan, Zach Eflin and Springs have combined to allow just one run in 17 innings.
“From Day 1 of Spring Training, we've talked really highly about our starting pitching for good reason,” Cash said. “It's a long season, but I don't think we could have set a better tone than these first three days.”
Springs permitted just one walk, baffling Detroit’s hitters with a mix of fastballs, changeups, sweepers and sliders. The left-hander struck out 10 of the first 16 batters he faced to set a new career-high mark in the fifth inning, as the Tigers were clearly caught in between his fastball (which yielded 14 called strikes) and changeup (which generated nine whiffs on 17 swings).
“Very happy for him,” Arozarena said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “I wouldn't have wanted to hit off him, just because nobody else was hitting off him.”
Not content after a breakout season last year, Springs worked with pitching coach Kyle Snyder to split his slider into two breaking balls: a sweeper and a breaking ball with tighter spin. He subsequently cruised through 14 scoreless innings in Spring Training, and Sunday proved that was no spring fluke.
“Just trying to continue to mix and move, pitch to my strengths, things that I like to do -- speed up hitters and slow them down, kind of pick and choose when to throw the fastball,” Springs said. “Overall, I felt like I was able to spin it well and kind of keep them off-balance."
Springs’ day was done after throwing 81 pitches, however. Cash called it a difficult decision “out of respect to Jeffrey” and his competitive nature, but otherwise “not really” a tough call to pull Springs after six innings in his season debut.
“Totally respect the magnitude of throwing six no-hit innings. Kind of gut wrenching,” Cash said. “I apologized to him. But I felt like sometimes we've just got to make some decisions that are best for the team.”
Despite how much he wanted to keep pitching, Springs said he understood where Cash was coming from and completely trusts the coaching staff to make the right decision.
“When he says I'm done, I'm not going to question him whatsoever. That's his job, to manage, and my job is just to pitch. I'm good with it,” Springs said. “Hopefully there's another opportunity that I can talk my way into it -- maybe next time.”
The Rays’ hopes for a combined no-hitter immediately came to an end, as Tigers center fielder Riley Greene reached on an infield single off reliever Colin Poche to lead off the seventh. Greene slapped a grounder to first baseman Luke Raley, and Poche -- whose delivery takes him to the third-base side of the mound -- couldn’t beat Greene to the bag.
Cash called the play a “tweener ball, not much that could have been done.” Raley felt he made the right decision, staying back to field the ball rather than being overly aggressive on it. Greene said he could “smell a hit” as he sped down the line. And Poche summarized perhaps the only thing all weekend that didn’t go the Rays’ way.
“I think the short answer would be: He's fast, and I'm slow,” Poche said. “A little disappointing, for sure."