Two years later, Chirinos finds joy -- and gets win
Righty returns after recovery from multiple injuries, pitches Rays into Wild Card lead
ST. PETERSBURG -- Just after Rob Refsnyder whiffed on an 86 mph splitter that tumbled through the bottom of the strike zone before settling into catcher Francisco Mejía’s glove, Yonny Chirinos pumped his fists and left his feet. He skipped toward the Rays’ dugout and clapped his right hand against his glove twice, a hint of a smile on his face as he looked down at the Tropicana Field turf.
Chirinos tapped his lips and his chest once before pointing his right hand to the sky. Finally, after two long years, he was back.
In his first Major League game since Aug. 16, 2020, Chirinos worked three scoreless innings out of the bullpen, struck out four batters and earned his first win since Aug. 4, 2019, in the Rays’ 1-0 victory over the Red Sox on Wednesday night.
Chirinos waited 752 days between appearances and 1,130 days between wins, years spent recovering and rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and a fractured right elbow, but it was worth it in the end.
“A lot of emotion,” Chirinos said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “I haven't been out on the mound for two years, so to be able to have that energy, to go out there and have that privilege again, to go out there and compete, everyone wishes to be out there for that.”
The 28-year-old right-hander was out there with no margin for error, too, in a meaningful game. The Rays (77-58) moved to a season-high 19 games over .500 and took a one-game lead over the Mariners (77-60) for the top American League Wild Card spot as they won for the 19th time in their past 24 games. Tampa Bay’s ninth shutout of the season capped a three-game sweep of Boston, the Rays’ third sweep in the past five series, heading into a big weekend set at Yankee Stadium.
“Every win's big, and especially against a good team like them,” said shortstop Taylor Walls, who drove in Mejía with a fifth-inning single off Nick Pivetta. “We know they don't come easy.”
It’s easier when the Rays pitch like they did Wednesday, however.
Left-hander Jeffrey Springs worked three innings in an abbreviated start, like the one Drew Rasmussen had in Detroit last month, designed to manage his nearly career-high workload down the stretch. That started a performance in which the Rays allowed six hits and four walks, struck out nine and didn’t allow a hit in Boston’s 10 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
On this night, the star of the staff was Chirinos, pitching with his wife and 2-year-old daughter in attendance. Signed as an 18-year-old and developed by the Rays, he debuted in 2018 and showed promise while putting together a 3.65 ERA in his first 47 big league outings. Then came Tommy John surgery on Aug. 24, 2020, and a recovery program he didn’t quite finish.
Last September, two live batting practice sessions away from the end of the long rehab road, Chirinos sustained an avulsion fracture to his throwing elbow while delivering a slider. He said he didn’t pick up a ball for six months after that, the darkest period of a difficult comeback.
“During the surgery, it was tears of sadness,” Chirinos said through Navarro. “But now, we've got tears of joy.”
Rays coaches, teammates and staff marvel at Chirinos’ relentlessly positive attitude and remarkable work ethic. When Chirinos was reinstated from the 60-day injured list on Tuesday, pitching coach Kyle Snyder said he was “probably as excited as I’ve been for any pitcher that we’ve had in this organization, just given all that he’s been through.”
“Same guy, comes in, works hard, has a smile on his face,” Springs added. “You couldn't ask for a better person, and to see him out there back pitching, it was really cool to see.”
Mejía said Chirinos seemed nervous when they spoke on Tuesday, but Chirinos didn’t look anxious in his return to the mound. His stuff looked the same as before, as he calmly pitched out of jams, getting consecutive strikeouts to end the fourth, an inning-ending groundout in the fifth and a strikeout to strand a runner at second in the sixth.
In some ways, it was hard to tell that Chirinos had been sidelined for so long. But when he bounced off the mound in the fourth inning, it was easy to see pure joy that had been two years in the making.
“It's genuine, authentic emotion for himself, and he's earned it,” Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said. “Two years is a long time.”