Honey Day sweet reward for gritty TB righty

April 11th, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- The last time pitched in a Minor League game was on Sept. 19, 2017, when he picked up the win for the Durham Bulls in the Triple-A national championship game. Four elbow surgeries and exactly 1,300 days later, Honeywell scaled the mound at Tropicana Field for his Major League debut.

Once one of baseball’s top pitching prospects, Honeywell immediately showed why the Rays remain so excited about what he can do. Honeywell went 3 1/2 years in between meaningful competitive outings, but he didn’t look that way. The right-hander retired all six Yankees hitters he faced and struck out two in his debut outing as an opener for Tampa Bay during a 10-inning, 8-4 loss on Sunday afternoon.

“It's been a long time since I've been in the game that counted,” Honeywell said afterward. “I enjoyed my time out there before I threw my first pitch. And that was all it took, and then I locked it back in and it was time to roll.”

In need of pitching depth after landed on the 10-day injured list with right lateral forearm tightness, Tampa Bay called up Honeywell after its 4-0 win over the Yankees on Saturday. Sunday was Honeywell's turn to start at the alternate training site in Port Charlotte, Fla., so the Rays slotted him in front of veteran right-hander in their series finale.

The Rays optioned Honeywell back to the alternate site after Sunday’s game, giving him a chance to build up his workload so he can throw more than two innings the next time they need him. But manager Kevin Cash said the 26-year-old sent a “strong message” with his performance. Afterward, Honeywell put into words what his pitching already said loud and clear.

“I know that I belong here,” he said, “and I know that these guys want me here.”

Honeywell took a seat in the Rays’ dugout about two hours before his first pitch, watching his teammates run through defensive drills to put his mind at ease. He showed no sign of nerves when his turn on the mound came, no indication that the moment was bigger than normal.

Honeywell’s fastball touched 95 mph, which is what Tampa Bay saw in Spring Training. He used his changeup as his primary offspeed pitch and appeared to work in one screwball, which Aaron Hicks rolled over for the final out of the first inning. He struck out Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres in the second, then got Rougned Odor to pop out.

“I just kind of put it to the side and did the work. But it's a lot of fun. You definitely can't simulate it, I don't think,” Honeywell said. “It's something that I'll remember for the rest of my life. It was definitely a big step.”

Of course, it was hardly a surprise to anyone in Tampa Bay's dugout that Honeywell appeared so composed. Starter described Honeywell as “the most genuinely confident person I’ve ever met,” and that might be putting it mildly.

“Oh, he's got confidence, that's for sure. You better have confidence like he does to get through what he has,” Cash said before the game. “That's a credit to him. At any moment, there could have been times where he really kind of derailed himself in the rehab process. But I think it's that confidence and that belief in himself to be a really good pitcher for us [that] kind of got him through a lot of those low moments throughout his rehab.”

Honeywell endured four operations on his right arm after establishing himself as the best arm in the Rays’ system, starting with Tommy John surgery on Feb. 27, 2018. Then came another elbow surgery on June 9, 2019, a decompression procedure on his right ulnar nerve last May and finally arthroscopic surgery on Dec. 16. It was the last surgery that seemed to help Honeywell return to normal, as he and Cash both said Honeywell wasn’t quite this sharp when he pitched in Tampa Bay's postseason bubble last year.

It was certainly sharp on Sunday.

“It was a blast to be a part of. I remember watching him in the Futures Game and all the hype around him,” catcher said. “What’s happened to him is unfortunate, but you know what? He’s resilient. He comes back. He works hard every day. And to be able to see him make his debut and have success like he did was pretty special.”

It was made more special by everyone there to see it. Honeywell said his family was in the stands. The excitement in Tampa Bay’s dugout was noticeable. The Rays invited Major League medical coordinator Paul Harker into the dugout to watch Honeywell’s start, Cash said, and Honeywell credited Harker as being “the guy who helped me get back out on the field” by overseeing his rehabilitation.

All of them were thrilled to witness Honeywell’s long-awaited debut -- the beginning, they hope, of a long career in the Majors.

“My dad built me as a pitcher, and he always told me, he's like, 'You're gonna pitch in the bigs for a long time.' Now I'm 26, and it's just starting,” Honeywell said. “I think I try not to get too caught up in the moment, necessarily, but I've just got to keep doing what I'm doing and getting myself back on the field ready to go for whenever they need me again.”