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Diaz's power surge backs sharp Rays staff

Rays start season with 3 series wins for 1st time in franchise history
@juanctoribio
April 7, 2019

SAN FRANCISCO -- Yandy Díaz continued his early season dominance, blasting a leadoff home run to help the Rays to a 3-0 win over the Giants on Sunday at Oracle Park. The shutout sealed the series win, marking the first time in franchise history that Tampa Bay has won its

SAN FRANCISCO -- Yandy Díaz continued his early season dominance, blasting a leadoff home run to help the Rays to a 3-0 win over the Giants on Sunday at Oracle Park. The shutout sealed the series win, marking the first time in franchise history that Tampa Bay has won its first three series to start a season.

Here are three takeaways from the Rays' seventh win of the season:

1. Chirinos impressive again in start
After allowing just one run over seven innings in the win against the Astros on March 31, Yonny Chirinos followed that performance with five scoreless innings on Sunday to pick up the win. Chirinos isn’t officially a starting pitcher for the Rays, who will continue to use the opener this season, but the right-hander has pitched well enough to earn more starts this season.

“A lot of guys have been impressive. Yonny is right there, for sure,” said Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash. “Young pitcher that had some ups and downs last year. We think really, really highly of him, and he’s going out there -- it looks like he has a confidence about him.”

Chirinos gave up just two hits and was efficient with his pitch count, needing just 67 pitches to get through five innings against the Giants' lineup. The sinker-splitter combination was working for Chirinos on Sunday. Chirinos threw the sinker 37 times but used his splitter on four of his five strikeouts.

Now in his second season in the big leagues, Chirinos said he feels much more comfortable on the mound. With the win, the right-hander improved to 2-0 and has a 0.75 ERA in 12 innings.

“It’s something that in the first year, you’re doing a lot of learning,” Chirinos said, in Spanish. “But when you have your second year, what you want to do is make adjustments, and that’s what I’ve been doing. Now I just have to keep getting good results.”

2. Diaz stays hot
After hitting just one home run over parts of the last two seasons with the Indians, Diaz has worked on improving his launch angle in order to hit for more power. Diaz has collected a base hit in all nine of the games in which he has appeared this season, and his 1.062 OPS leads the Rays.

“I’m not [surprised],” Cash said when asked about Diaz’s power surge to start the year. “I think our [front office] does a tremendous job of finding out little tidbits of information upstairs, and [they] recognize this guy has a chance to really take off. I’m glad so far he’s definitely doing that for us. He’s played such a big role offensively for us.”

Last season, Diaz’s launch angle averaged 4.4 degrees, but he has improved that to 8.1 so far this season. His home run on Sunday has a 109 mph exit velocity and a launch angle of 19 degrees, per Statcast.

“I’m not that type of a home-run hitter, but I’m doing better with my swing trying to get the ball up in the air,” Diaz said. “And the results are getting there.”

3. Kolarek plays first
When Cash went out to the mound in the seventh inning, reliever Adam Kolarek thought his outing had come to an end. Kolarek had just given up a base hit to pinch-hitter Yangervis Solarte to start the inning and right-hander Evan Longoria was coming up to the plate. Cash called on Chaz Roe to face Longoria, but with two left-handers following him, the Rays' manager moved Kolarek to first base in order to have the left-hander against Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford.

“When Cash extended his hand for the ball, I just went to hand it to him and started walking toward the dugout, and he was like, ‘Hold up, go play first,’” Kolarek said. “I was like, 'All right, let’s do it.' It was great.”

Kolarek has some experience playing first base from his days at the University of Maryland, but he admitted that it had been about 10 years since he last played the position. He said he was confident that he could make a play on the ball if it came his way.

It was the third time that Cash has used a pitcher on the field. He did so on June 26, 2018, against Washington when he put Jose Alvarado at first base, and he did it again on July 25, 2018, when he used Sergio Romo at third base. The plan ended up working for Tampa Bay on Sunday as Roe struck out Longoria and Kolarek got Belt swinging before giving up a base hit to Crawford. Diego Castillo relieved Kolarek and struck out Kevin Pillar to end the threat.

“Those guys did a tremendous job,” Cash said. “Kolarek, I don’t know he might have been so stunned, he wasn’t even aware of what he was being asked to do. But I’m glad it worked out.”

Juan Toribio covers the Rays for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @juanctoribio.