There is no closer in the Rays’ bullpen. Right-hander Diego Castillo is currently the reliever who will pitch in the highest-leverage moments, but Tampa Bay is past the point of handing out titles and designating innings for certain pitchers.
So when Castillo finished the seventh inning then faced the top of the Yankees' lineup in the eighth inning of Tampa Bay’s 4-2 win Sunday afternoon in New York, the ninth inning fell to Jeffrey Springs. The left-hander rewarded the Rays’ confidence in him, striking out Gleyber Torres before retiring Gio Urshela and Rougned Odor to pick up his first Major League save.
“Obviously, being put in that situation is pretty exciting. It was really cool,” Springs said Monday afternoon before the Rays’ series opener in Kansas City. “It couldn’t have happened at a better place, I feel like. Just happy to get the job done and be put in that situation.”
After Sunday’s game, manager Kevin Cash remarked that Springs probably didn’t envision himself in that situation -- protecting a two-run lead in the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium -- coming out of Spring Training. Springs agreed, but don’t let that obscure the 28-year-old's belief in himself or the Rays’ trust in him.
“He's a guy that we really liked a lot when we acquired [and] another example of a guy that we feel, with some simple messages and him going out and executing, can have some really tough stuff to square up,” Cash said. “We've got all the confidence in the world and confidence in a lot of those guys that maybe don't have as much underneath them right now. They're young, but we're going to need them.”
It’s impressive enough that Springs reached this level at all. He signed with the Rangers for the minimum $1,000 after being selected out of Appalachian State University in the 30th round of the 2015 MLB Draft. As a Minor Leaguer, he worked part-time jobs during the offseason: pitching lessons, landscaping work and a gig at the YMCA that afforded him a free gym membership.
Springs always knew he had the stuff to get good results, even as he compiled a 5.42 ERA in 59 appearances over his first three seasons in the Majors. The Rays reinforced the idea that Springs’ pitches were good enough to compete with anybody, and he’s proving it now.
“I guess just trusting, throwing it over the plate more and having a little bit more conviction,” he said. “But as far as confidence, I feel like I’ve always believed in myself. But now, just simplifying my approach from the mental side has really helped.”
Acquired alongside Chris Mazza from the Red Sox just before Spring Training began, Springs has allowed just one earned run and six hits while striking out nine in seven innings to start the season. He has a legitimate three-pitch mix with his fastball, slider and changeup. The Rays encouraged Springs to throw his slider more often and helped him tweak his changeup grip to add more depth to the pitch, creating even more separation from his fastball on the swing-and-miss pitch that Torres whiffed on for the first out of the ninth on Sunday.
After Sunday’s game, Springs got the ball from his first save authenticated. Soon, he’ll receive a lineup card to commemorate the accomplishment as well. The postgame celebration on Sunday was good enough for him, though.
“Coming away with a sweep of the Yankees in Yankee Stadium, that’s what it’s about: winning,” he said. “Little moments like that, first save and everything like that, are just icing on the cake.”
Around the horn
• Left-handed reliever Ryan Sherriff, who was placed on the restricted list on April 3 to take some time away from the game, is rejoining the Rays at their Minor League camp, Cash said. Sherriff remains on the restricted list and thus won’t count against their 40-man roster for the time being. Considering how long he’s been away from the team, it will likely take Sherriff time to get built back up into pitching shape.
• Cash said there isn’t yet a timetable for the return of right-hander Collin McHugh, who was placed on the 10-day injured list on Sunday due to a lower back strain. Cash noted that McHugh was “managing his back” during Spring Training, and it remained a nagging issue once the season started.
“It might not be the worst thing to just get all the kinks out to where the back, moving forward [when] he gets back here, is kind of a non-issue,” Cash said.
• Cash said right-hander Chris Archer (right lateral forearm tightness) is “still in a rehab mode,” and the Rays should learn more about his status when they return to Tropicana Field this weekend.
• Monday’s game in Kansas City was the Rays’ first regular-season game outside of the Eastern Time Zone since their Sept. 10-18, 2019, trip to Arlington, Anaheim and Los Angeles. The Rays played postseason games in San Diego and Arlington last year, but they spent the regular season playing teams in the East divisions.