ST. PETERSBURG -- The pitching was excellent, from Shane McClanahan’s first fastball to Pete Fairbanks’ final offering. The defense was solid and, at times, spectacular. Manuel Margot showed his return to health with a run-saving diving catch to end the seventh inning, and Wander Franco proved his worth with an opposite-field solo shot in the eighth.
In the end, the Rays’ 4-0 victory over the Tigers on Opening Day at Tropicana Field played out more or less how they drew it up in the offseason. Tampa Bay’s brand of pitching, defense and just enough offense got the job done in the franchise’s 26th season-opener.
“Pretty standard Rays win,” reliever Colin Poche said. “I think we’re going to see a lot of those this year.”
That was the idea, even as the Rays pursued but ultimately didn’t sign a veteran hitter to further bolster their lineup this winter. They expect to win a lot of games, aiming to reach the postseason but no longer content with just getting in. And their run prevention should be enough to keep them in nearly every game they play, as was certainly the case Thursday afternoon before a sold-out crowd of 25,025 at Tropicana Field.
“A very Rays-like win,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We'll sign up for those types of wins a lot.”
McClanahan barely ran into trouble in his first Opening Day win, firing his fastball up to 99.8 mph and allowing just four hits and a walk while striking out six over six innings. Tampa Bay's ace left-hander became the third pitcher in franchise history, after Tyler Glasnow (2021) and Steve Trachsel (2000), to pitch at least six scoreless innings in the season opener.
“For the first time in quite a bit, I felt butterflies,” McClanahan said. “It was really cool. Opening Day, the fans were there, and it was awesome. That’s the best way I can describe it.”
There were more superlatives thrown around the clubhouse after the game to describe Margot’s catch behind Poche in the seventh. Tampa Bay had a 3-0 lead with runners on first and second and two outs, and Ryan Kreidler smashed a line drive that kept slicing toward the right-field line.
“I knew I had to do something, whether it was just to trap it or make a play,” Margot said through interpreter Manny Navarro, “because the game was close at that point.”
If it had landed on the turf, the Rays’ lead would have been reduced to one. Instead, it landed in Margot’s glove. Sidelined for two months last season due to a strained tendon in his right knee and limited even when he returned, Margot displayed his closing speed and athleticism by hustling toward the ball, leaping at the last second and reeling it in.
“He's the only person that makes that play,” Arozarena said through Navarro.
Offensively, Tampa Bay is counting on mostly the same lineup that finished 21st in the Majors with 666 runs last season, a steep decline of nearly 200 from the year before. What it saw Thursday was encouraging in several ways, starting with Siri’s 110.5 mph missile to left field off Eduardo Rodriguez in the third inning that got things started.
The Rays strung together more of a station-to-station rally to score two runs in the sixth. Yandy Díaz worked a leadoff walk, Isaac Paredes smacked a single to center and then Arozarena bounced an RBI single up the middle off reliever Jason Foley and celebrated with the arms-crossed pose he made famous in the World Baseball Classic. Pinch-hitter Luke Raley capped the inning with a single to right in his first Opening Day game.
“Liked how we kind of pieced together that inning,” Cash said. “Guys got on base at the right time.”
While Poche, Jason Adam and Fairbanks put zeros on the board, Franco gave the Rays a little more breathing room -- and perhaps a sigh of relief, too.
After an otherwise healthy camp, Franco was scratched from the lineup last weekend due to a sore right quad that kept him from playing in Tampa Bay’s final Spring Training games. He erased any doubts quickly, however, reaching on a single in his first at-bat and then blasting a 402-foot shot to left-center field off Mason Englert in the eighth.
“Any time you hit the ball like that,” Franco said through Navarro, “you feel healthy.”