Uwasawa 'fun to watch' in Opening Day roster bid

Rays ready for spring debut; newcomer shining

February 23rd, 2024

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Right-hander was a three-time All-Star in Nippon Professional Baseball. He pitched for Japan in the 2018 MLB Japan All-Star Series. He’s taken the mound for plenty of big games before.

Still, he admitted, he was “a little nervous” as he began facing hitters in his first live batting practice session of Spring Training on Friday morning. But with a small crowd of reporters locked in on every pitch and fans sitting in the bleachers by Field 4 at Charlotte Sports Park, some sporting jerseys and shirts with his name on it and others holding homemade signs, Uwasawa quickly found his rhythm.

“I thought it was wonderful. I told him I was really excited to see him for the first time facing hitters,” said Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder. “I know he was excited as well and kind of got some nerves out of the way after the first couple pitches and settled in nicely. Certainly fun to watch.”

Uwasawa wasn’t much of a strikeout pitcher during his career in Japan, but the non-roster invitee was pleased to rack up seven or eight swinging strikes during the 30-pitch session. Snyder said Uwasawa’s fastball ran up to 91 mph, which was a slight tick higher than he averaged for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters last season.

Snyder said he’s been “really, really impressed” with the way Uwasawa has made so many adjustments so quickly. He’s had no issues with the Major League ball in four throwing sessions from the mound. He’s still getting used to the pitch timer and PitchCom pitch-calling system, which he used for the first time on Friday, plus the possibility of an every-fifth-day starting schedule.

The way he’s handled that has allowed Snyder to start coaching up Uwasawa on more specific strategies, like pitch distribution and location. For example, Uwasawa noted he’s working on throwing fastballs up in the zone after spending years in Japan focused on keeping the ball down.

“A lot of different advice from Kyle Snyder,” he said through interpreter Taishi Terashima. “I’ve been working on it and, at the same time, trying to get prepared for the season.”

Game time

The Rays will begin their Grapefruit League schedule Saturday as they host the Braves at Charlotte Sports Park. Amed Rosario is expected to bat leadoff as the designated hitter, his first game action with Tampa Bay.

Also slated to be in the lineup are top prospect Junior Caminero, likely Opening Day shortstop José Caballero, center fielder Jose Siri, catcher René Pinto and three young players competing for spots on the Opening Day roster: Jonathan Aranda, Curtis Mead and Josh Palacios.

Right-hander Nathan Wiles will start for the Rays, with a group of fellow non-roster invitees scheduled to pitch after him. First pitch is set for 1:05 p.m. ET. The Rays Radio broadcast will air live on WDAE 620 AM/95.3 FM.

Workout notes

• Manager Kevin Cash said starter Ryan Pepiot’s live batting practice session “really stood out.” Cash was also impressed by right-hander Chris Devenski, who’s working on a cutter in addition to his signature changeup as he gets stretched out to be a multi/bulk-inning option for the Rays.

• Another highlight on Friday was the Rays’ defensive work. With coaches hitting ground balls, infielders worked to turn routine plays and double plays while third-base coach Brady Williams timed how long each one took. At one point, they were working fast and furiously to get outs in under 4.1 seconds, which mimicked the intensity they might feel when trying to beat a runner to first base.

“To watch the guys and how they went about it was pretty cool,” Cash said.

• Caballero capitalized on a windy morning by cranking a handful of homers during batting practice. Cash said hitting coach Chad Mottola has informed Caballero he has the freedom to pull the ball in the air, advice that’s paid dividends in recent years for Rays hitters like Yandy Díaz and Isaac Paredes.

“He’s letting it loose,” Cash said. “He seems to be taking to that.”

• Reliever Kevin Kelly also faced hitters in live BP, worked on a cutter to use against left-handed hitters and said afterward with a smile he’s “ready to pitch in some games.” The right-hander spent all last season on Tampa Bay’s roster as a Rule 5 Draft pick and wound up playing a key role in the bullpen, but he can now be freely shuttled to and from Triple-A. Kelly said he’s not approaching this Spring Training any differently, however.

“I know more people this time, which is nice. That’s the main difference,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re still every year treating it like you’re trying to make the team.”