The Rays entered 2021 having lost 12 of their 23 Opening Day games. But when they’ve won the first game of the season, they’ve pretty much always put on a show.
Three of their 11 Opening Day victories were walk-off wins. One involved a local product hitting a go-ahead triple in the eighth inning of his first game with his hometown team. There were a couple big wins over the Yankees, Blue Jays, Orioles, Tigers and Twins, too. And, of course, there was one loss on March 31, 1998, that ultimately felt like a big win considering all it took just to bring baseball to Tropicana Field.
Let’s look at five of the Rays’ best Opening Day moments.
1. Carlos Pena downs the Yankees
Date: April 6, 2012
Peña established himself as the franchise’s premier first baseman from 2007-10, a run marked by two postseason appearances and his 144 home runs. After spending 2011 with the Cubs, Peña was welcomed back like a hero on Opening Day 2012. And he returned to the Rays in style.
Also, just consider who the Rays were facing. This was the Yankees’ lineup that afternoon at Tropicana Field: Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Robinson Canó, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher, Raul Ibañez, Russell Martin and Brett Gardner. Their starting pitcher was CC Sabathia. Their setup men, Rafael Soriano and David Robertson, were former/future closers. And their actual closer was a Hall of Famer by the name of Mariano Rivera.
Rays starter James Shields gave up six runs in his five innings of work, but Peña put the team on his back. In the bottom of the first, he got the Trop crowd of 34,078 rocking with a two-out grand slam off Sabathia to give the Rays a 4-0 lead. Evan Longoria homered in the third, pulling them within a run, then both teams went quiet until the ninth.
In came the seemingly invincible Rivera to face the top of Tampa Bay’s lineup. Desmond Jennings singled and scored on a game-tying triple by Ben Zobrist. The Yankees intentionally walked Longoria and Luke Scott to load the bases, then Rivera struck out Sean Rodríguez for the first out of the inning.
All Peña needed to do was hit something deep enough to the outfield to drive in the winning run, and he did exactly that. His fly ball to left-center landed at the base of the fence for a walk-off single, capping a wild homecoming for Peña and a 7-6 win for the Rays.
2. Carl Crawford completes the comeback
Date: March 31, 2003
Facing future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez on Opening Day 2003, Tampa Bay was unsurprisingly limited to just one run in seven innings. In fact, Martinez held his opponent hitless through three innings. So the Devil Rays entered the ninth at Tropicana Field trailing the Red Sox, 4-1. Then came a stunning rally.
It began with a Travis Lee single and a Terry Shumpert pinch-hit homer off Alan Embree. That made it a one-run game. With two on and two outs, a 21-year-old Crawford -- just beginning his first full season in the Majors -- stepped up to the plate against right-hander Chad Fox.
Crawford reached down to club a 1-2 pitch over the fence in right-center field, then pumped his right fist after rounding first base. His blast capped the Devil Rays’ five-run ninth inning and finished their 6-4 win over Boston.
3. Denard Span's happy homecoming
Date: March 29, 2018
Consider the context here. For one, this was the first game of the final season of Span’s 11-year Major League career. And for the first time, it was a real “home” game for the Tampa native. And even though it was a bad matchup for him on paper against Red Sox lefty Chris Sale, who’d eventually get the final out of the World Series seven months later, Span got the start in left field.
So the Red Sox scored three early runs against Chris Archer and another one in the seventh, taking a 4-0 lead before a crowd of 31,042 at the Trop. Then came the bottom of the eighth, when Matt Duffy drove in a run off reliever Joe Kelly to get the Rays on the board. Three walks later, they had another run and a legitimate rally going.
Up came Span to face Carson Smith with two outs. The veteran outfielder one-hopped a triple off the wall in right field, clearing the bases and giving the Rays a 5-4 lead. Span immediately scored on an Adeiny Hechavarría single, and Alex Colomé shut the door in the ninth to seal another dramatic Opening Day victory.
4. Crawford does it again
Date: April 6, 2010
This Rays team would eventually capture the franchise’s second American League East title by winning 96 games, and it all started here.
Tampa Bay fell behind, 3-2, with Shields in line for the loss despite a quality start and a sixth-inning homer by Longoria. Then the Orioles put the game in the left hand of reliever Mike Gonzalez in the ninth, and the Rays rallied back. After Pat Burrell struck out and Sean Rodríguez knocked a single to left, Kelly Shoppach pinch-hit for Dioner Navarro and clubbed a double to left-center. Rodríguez held at third, so the Orioles intentionally walked Jason Bartlett to load the bases for Crawford.
Crawford responded by drilling a double to right field, driving home Rodríguez and Shoppach and once again walking off with a win, 4-3, on Opening Day at Tropicana Field.
5. The beginning
Date: March 31, 1998
Yes, the Rays have played better games on Opening Day than this 11-6 loss to the Tigers. Two years later, for instance, Fred McGriff hit a grand slam and “The Hit Show” cruised to a 7-0 win over the Twins. But it’s hard to explain what it meant when Wilson Alvarez threw the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ first pitch ever to Detroit’s Brian Hunter in front of an Opening Day crowd of 45,369 at Tropicana Field.
That was the moment Major League Baseball arrived in the Tampa Bay area after decades of work to attract a team and many more decades of baseball history in the area. Three years after St. Petersburg was awarded an expansion franchise, all those dreams finally became real the moment that first pitch -- low and inside, for ball one -- was thrown.