Three hours before the Rays’ 42nd game of the season, Ji-Man Choi admitted he was “kind of nervous.” Sunday was his Opening Day, after all.
Sidelined by a right knee injury for most of Spring Training and the first six weeks of Tampa Bay’s season, Choi was reinstated from the 10-day injured list Saturday and was in the Rays' lineup for the first time Sunday afternoon, starting at first base in Tampa Bay's 7-1 victory over the Mets at Tropicana Field. Choi went 3-for-4 with an RBI double.
“I felt like I saw the ball really well today,” Choi said afterward through interpreter Steve Nam. “Starting from the morning when I woke up, everything felt good today. So I think that was the result of it. … It feels good, of course, just to be in the lineup with my teammates, just able to contribute in any way possible, even just sitting on the bench. And I saw a lot of fans came out today to support, and that was really good to see.”
Choi certainly looked healthy, lashing a pair of singles (with exit velocities of 106 mph and 105 mph) along with an eighth-inning RBI double (at 103.5 mph) before scoring from second on a single by Manuel Margot.
The energetic slugger is still not out of the woods following arthroscopic surgery on the knee, as he has experienced some soreness over the past few days and will require further monitoring throughout the season. But Choi is back with his team, and on Sunday, that was good enough for him.
“I think my goal is just to help the team out in any way possible. And for me to be just staying away from the facility and just doing rehab by myself was definitely a lonely time,” Choi said before the game. “But right now, everything is looking good. I'm just happy to be back, especially being around with a great group of guys that we have here. It really feels good.”
Choi said the club’s training staff told him he might have some soreness moving forward, and he felt it after flying from Memphis, Tenn., to Durham, N.C., to St. Petersburg over the past few weeks. He’s not sure what caused it, but traveling during his rehab assignment with Triple-A Durham might have aggravated his knee a little more than a month after he underwent surgery.
With that in mind, manager Kevin Cash said the Rays are asking Choi to provide honest feedback about how he’s feeling. And given the depth and flexibility of their position player group, they don’t necessarily need Choi to play every day. Tampa Bay can use him at first base or at designated hitter, or it can make him available off the bench with other first-base options such as Yandy Díaz, Kevin Padlo and Mike Brosseau.
Regardless, the Rays are happy to have Choi in the mix again. While their lineup has shown signs of breaking out over the past few days and their defense has ranked among the Majors’ best all season, there’s no doubt they have missed his left-handed bat, patience at the plate, glove (and flexibility) at first base and the spirit he brings to the dugout every day.
“Nice to have him back. He had a big day at the plate,” Cash said. “We talked about before the game how he can lengthen us out on our roster, whether he's in the lineup, not in the lineup. It just gives us some added decisions that are really quality for us to continue to be versatile and find ways to get the right matchups that we think will help us win games.”
The Rays' lineup moved another step closer to full strength on Sunday when the club reinstated catcher Francisco Mejía from the 10-day injured list. Tampa Bay placed Mejía on the IL on May 8, retroactive to May 6, believing that the training staff had caught his left intercostal discomfort early enough that it wouldn’t turn into anything more serious.
They were right, and Mejía not only returned to the roster on Sunday but jumped right back into the starting lineup in the series finale. Cash said Mejía wasn’t on the shelf long enough to lose his timing at the plate, his conditioning behind the dish or his arm strength.
Before his injury, Mejía split playing time with Mike Zunino. That kept both catchers fresh to start the season, and ideally, that arrangement will allow Mejía to ease back into action as well.
“I think that helps a lot,” Mejía said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “Instead of not playing for a few series or playing too much for a few series, it's good to have a day or two in there to know you're going to rest and then know that you're going to play as well.”
To make room for Mejía, the Rays designated catcher Kevan Smith for assignment. He could be claimed by another club in the coming days, but Tampa Bay would gladly keep him on board if he clears waivers.
“We've got a lot of trust in him,” Cash said. “If somebody goes down, we feel comfortable with the knowledge that he has of our pitching staff, the ability that he can go up and put together good at-bats.”
Additionally, the Rays acquired infielder/outfielder Wyatt Mathisen from the D-backs on Sunday for cash considerations and sent him to Triple-A Durham. Mathisen, a 27-year-old who has mostly played the corner spots, was designated for assignment by Arizona on Wednesday after hitting .119 with 21 strikeouts in 23 games.
Around the horn
• Right-hander Michael Wacha (right hamstring tightness) threw an extended bullpen session Sunday, felt good and should face hitters in simulated game action at some point during the Rays’ three-game series in Baltimore that begins Tuesday. Righty Chris Mazza (right shoulder inflammation) is nearly ready to join Triple-A Durham, either to begin a rehab assignment or to pitch in simulated games before he’s reactivated.
“He deserves that. He works hard enough. And I think with the right opportunity, that can happen,” Cash said. “There's some irony that he's going to the Dodgers, who we faced at the end of last year, but we wish him nothing but the best. We care a lot about Yoshi.”
• Right-hander Luis Patiño will start the Rays’ series opener in Baltimore on Tuesday, his second straight start. At this point, it seems likely that Patiño will function more like a traditional starter than an opener after he worked four innings against the Yankees last time out.