Phoenix's rise to bigs 'a dream' for USF alum

April 14th, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG -- Coming out of Buchholz High School in Gainesville, Fla., didn’t receive a single offer to play Division I college baseball. It was only Chris Reilly, then the coach at Daytona State College, who took a chance on “the guy throwing 86” mph, as Sanders described himself.

Sanders made himself into a legitimate prospect after two years there and two seasons at the University of South Florida, posting a 2.78 ERA in 16 starts as a senior in the same rotation as Rays Opening Day starter Shane McClanahan. Even after that, he was a “senior sign” by Tampa Bay in the 10th round of the 2017 MLB Draft, receiving a $7,500 bonus to start his professional career. Players like that can get lost in the shuffle, never popping up on prospect lists and often never making it out of the Minors.

But Sanders made it on Thursday morning. The Rays selected the 26-year-old right-hander from Triple-A Durham, his first call to the Majors, and he pitched three solid innings -- allowing only one run on two hits and one walk with two strikeouts -- in the Rays' 6-3 loss to the A's at Tropicana Field.

“It's a dream. At the end of the day, you start playing Little League, you start playing catch in the backyard with your dad, to fulfill this goal,” Sanders said. “I think it all really hit me last night, sitting at home trying to fall asleep -- unable to fall asleep. ‘Wow, we actually did it.’ It's unbelievable.”

Sanders earned the opportunity, posting a 3.07 ERA with 281 strikeouts in 231 2/3 innings over 145 appearances in Tampa Bay’s Minor League system. But the Rays also promoted him to fill a need, as they’ve worn out their bullpen over the past three days. Sanders provided manager Kevin Cash with a fresh arm capable of working multiple innings.

“It takes a lot of work and kind of grinding through, and he has. He’s done that. He’s put up some solid seasons in the Minor Leagues,” Cash said. “Opportunities don’t happen for everybody who does that, but we’re happy it has for him. You talk to our player development group, his managers, his pitching coaches; everybody has raved about him as a person.”

To make room on both the active roster and the 40-man roster, the Rays designated right-hander Dusten Knight for assignment. Tampa Bay just selected Knight from Triple-A on Wednesday afternoon, and the reliever provided the length the Rays were looking for out of the bullpen by covering 2 1/3 innings in their 4-2 loss to the A’s on Wednesday night.

But with two starters on the injured list and the bullpen having covered 21 innings over the previous three days, the Rays needed another arm behind Josh Fleming, Thursday’s starter. It was the fourth straight day Tampa Bay had made a roster move. The Rays’ options are still somewhat limited, as they can’t yet recall players who were optioned during Spring Training unless they’re replacing injured or traded players, and Sanders was available. The right-hander hadn’t pitched since he retired all seven batters he faced in Nashville last Friday.

Needless to say, Sanders was ready to pitch Thursday.

“It’s really hard to get to the big leagues,” Sanders said. “There's guys in the first round that don't make it, and there's guys in the 30th round that do. So it's always been a chip on my shoulder, for sure. I went junior college then USF and then went from starter to reliever, and I just kind of said, 'Hey, whatever is going to get me to the big leagues, I'll do.' So it's definitely rewarding seeing it all play out, for sure.”

After Durham manager Brady Williams announced Sanders’ promotion during a team meeting on Wednesday night, Sanders called his wife, who’s seven months pregnant. He told her she could make the drive south from Tallahassee, Fla., to be here -- along with 20-25 friends and family members, plus Reilly -- for his first day in the big leagues.

“She was like, ‘Are you serious?’ She thought she was dreaming, kind of [like] how I thought I was dreaming,” Sanders said. “It was kind of like an ‘a-ha’ moment. Again, we've kind of had to grind. We've played well. We've had friends get up to the big leagues and were like, 'OK, that'll be us. That'll be us.' And we waited and we waited, and again, it's finally paid off.”