The second leg of the Rays’ current American League East road trip will take them home.
After finishing up a three-game series against the Orioles in Baltimore on Thursday afternoon, the Rays will begin a four-game set with the Blue Jays on Friday as the visiting team. But players, coaches and staff will be able to drive from their homes to the “road” ballpark, as Toronto is still stationed about 25 miles north of Tropicana Field at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Fla.
“It actually works out in our favor. We get to go home, sleep in our bed, see our wives and just stroll on over to Dunedin for a big league game, which is pretty crazy,” said outfielder Brett Phillips, a Seminole, Fla., native who said he played some Little League games in Dunedin. “But regardless of the circumstances, we’re going to show up and treat it as if we're playing in Toronto and take care of business like we do.”
Of course, it won’t be like playing in Toronto at all. Players can stay at home and, if they so choose, drive themselves to the game. The Rays will also take a bus from Tropicana Field to TD Ballpark, the same way they might travel from the team hotel to a road ballpark. And when they arrive, they’ll likely see more Rays fans than they typically would in another city, considering they don’t have to leave Pinellas County.
“I think it's unique. I think the guys will appreciate that we're wearing gray uniforms but we're getting to sleep at home,” Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said. “But we're going to go and hopefully play well. Toronto's played really, really well. They're a good team. We have to play well to have success over there. But I'm excited to go over there. The ballpark, I played a lot of games there, so I'm excited to see what they did to maybe enhance it, to get it up to Major League speed. It should be a lot of fun.”
A number of Rays have played at TD Ballpark, either when they were coming up through the Minors -- Dunedin is home to the Blue Jays’ Low-A team -- or during Spring Training. Several said they were curious to see how the ballpark looks after its recent renovations, and Phillips and Tyler Glasnow were among those who said the ball tends to fly out of the park there.
“But that's just kind of how baseball goes. Certain stadiums are like that, but you're just out there competing and trying to get guys out,” said Glasnow, who will start Friday’s series opener. “I don't really care about the surroundings or anything like that. ... So I'll just treat it like any other start.”
The biggest adjustment might have come when the Rays were packing for the flight to Baltimore. Brandon Lowe said he packed his bags preparing for a three-game trip then checked his phone, saw Tampa Bay had seven straight road games and briefly worried he didn’t bring enough clothes.
“And then I had to remember that we're actually coming back home,” Lowe said, “and it's a 20-minute drive to the other team.”
Around the horn
• Shortstop Willy Adames, whose right calf cramped up after recording the final out of Wednesday’s game, told Cash he felt good and could have played in Thursday’s series finale. But Adames got the day off, as scheduled, and should be back in the lineup regularly with the Rays set to face several left-handed pitchers against the Blue Jays this weekend. Joey Wendle started at shortstop and homered in his first at-bat on Thursday.
• Right-hander Michael Wacha (hamstring) “threw the ball really, really well” in a simulated game on Wednesday in Baltimore, Cash said. He will likely return at some point during Tampa Bay’s upcoming four-game series against Toronto.
• Righty Chris Mazza (shoulder) officially began his rehab assignment with Triple-A Durham on Wednesday, pitching a scoreless inning with two strikeouts. No. 2 prospect Vidal Bruján once again led the Bulls' lineup, going 3-for-5 with a homer and three RBIs, and outfield prospect Josh Lowe capped the Bulls’ 5-4 win over Charlotte with a walk-off sacrifice fly in the 10th inning.
• Catcher Mike Zunino entered Thursday leading the Majors with a 26.4 percent barrel rate, according to Statcast, meaning he has produced the highest percentage of batted balls with an ideal exit velocity and launch angle to produce home runs and extra-base hits. That’s shown up in more traditional stats as well, as Zunino leads Tampa Bay with 10 homers, a .567 slugging percentage and an .857 OPS.
“The home runs have been great, but he's on the whole just having better at-bats. He's being a very complete player right now -- and a really, really good one,” Cash said. “Our catching combo, him and [Francisco Mejía] have been just such a big bright spot for us this season.”