ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays have reached the postseason each of the past four years, the longest streak in franchise history. But they’ve been knocked out in their first series in each of the past two years following a run to the World Series in 2020.
So Tampa Bay’s goal heading into Thursday afternoon’s Opening Day matchup against Detroit at Tropicana Field is simple.
“Our expectations are to make it a fifth, to make it more successful than last year,” president of baseball operations Erik Neander said at the outset of Spring Training. “Our goal remains to figure out a way to be the last team standing, and [we] think that is within reach. We’re ready to take another crack at making that happen this season.”
Meanwhile, the Tigers are coming off last year’s 96-loss campaign. But they have plenty of players with something to prove.
“We’re being sold short by a lot of people,” Matthew Boyd said. “A lot of people don’t believe in us. A lot of people don’t believe what we can do. That’s fine. They’re entitled to their opinion. We know where we stand, and let’s go show everybody else otherwise.”
The Tigers have not started a season strong in two years under manager A.J. Hinch. They lost 23 of their first 32 games last season and 24 of their first 33 the year before. Three of their first four series this year are on the road against the Rays, Astros and Blue Jays.
When is the game and how can I watch it?
First pitch is set for 3:10 p.m. ET Thursday, and the game can be watched live on MLB.TV. The Tigers’ telecast will be available in Michigan on Bally Sports Detroit. The radio broadcast will be available in English on 97.1 FM and in Spanish on 1270 AM.
The Rays’ telecast will be available on Bally Sports Sun, which will have a special extended pregame show beginning at 2 p.m. ET. The radio broadcast can be heard on WDAE 95.3 FM/620 AM and the Rays Radio Network.
What are the likely lineups?
Tigers: Hinch loves using positional versatility to play matchups — not just lefty-righty, but success against pitch types. It’ll be interesting to see how he uses that against southpaw Shane McClanahan, who posted reverse splits last season. Left-handed-hitting Nick Maton, for instance, struggled against lefties in the Minors last year, but he crushes fastballs. Detroit also platoons in one outfield spot and will not have a set leadoff hitter.
Rays: Manager Kevin Cash has used 158 lineups each of the past two years, always looking to optimize performance and seeking advantageous matchups. In this case, assuming Wander Franco is healthy, Tampa Bay should be able to load the bottom of the lineup with right-handed hitters against Eduardo Rodriguez, with left-handed/switch-hitting options off the bench like Luke Raley, Josh Lowe, Taylor Walls and Francisco Mejía.
Who are the starting pitchers?
Tigers: Rodriguez will make his second consecutive Opening Day start for the Tigers. He’s 2-5 with a 5.59 ERA in 14 career starts against the Rays. Most of that experience comes from his time with the Red Sox before he joined Detroit as a free agent before last year. However, he allowed four hits and two walks in one-third of an inning at Tropicana Field last May 18 before leaving with a left rib cage sprain.
Rays: McClanahan will make his second consecutive Opening Day start for the Rays. He got off to a spectacular start last season, which earned him the starting nod for the American League in the All-Star Game, and he finished the year with a 2.54 ERA and 194 strikeouts in 166 1/3 innings over 28 starts. The lefty is motivated to be even better this season. And with a legitimate four-pitch mix led by a fastball that averaged 96.7 mph last year, McClanahan has the stuff to contend for the AL Cy Young Award.
How might the bullpens line up after the starter?
Tigers: Detroit is still sorting out its bullpen after losing late-inning relievers Gregory Soto, Joe Jimenez and Andrew Chafin over the offseason. Hinch hasn’t identified a closer, but Alex Lange and José Cisnero are strong candidates to handle a lead in the ninth inning. The bigger question is, who will bridge the innings between the Tigers’ starters and the late-inning group? They have multi-inning relievers such as Tyler Alexander, but several of them struggled in Spring Training.
“We’re trying to have as many options as we can and then let it develop, matchup-based,” Hinch said. “A month from now, we might have a different conversation as things start to develop and mature.”
Rays: Much of Tampa Bay’s bullpen usage is based on matchups and leverage, so anything is possible, even on Opening Day. But you can expect Pete Fairbanks and Jason Adam to get the highest-leverage situations to begin the year. The Rays have three left-handed options in Garrett Cleavinger, Jalen Beeks and Colin Poche, plus two sidearmers who should be tough on right-handers in Ryan Thompson and Rule 5 Draft acquisition Kevin Kelly. The wild card is Calvin Faucher; he might have the nastiest stuff in the ‘pen besides Fairbanks and Adam, but he has had minimal experience or success in the Majors.
Any injuries of note?
Tigers: A matchup against McClanahan might have been ideal anyway for Tyler Nevin, but the righty-hitting corner infielder is out with a left oblique strain suffered early in Spring Training. He could begin a rehab assignment when Triple-A Toledo’s season begins Friday. Right-hander Michael Lorenzen was on track to start in this series, but he is out with a left groin strain.
Rays: Tyler Glasnow, Tampa Bay’s Opening Day starter in 2021, will likely be sidelined until May as he works his way back from a strained left oblique. Fellow starter Shane Baz will sit out this season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Reliever Andrew Kittredge, an All-Star in ‘21, is eyeing a midseason return from Tommy John surgery. Right-hander Shawn Armstrong is also sidelined with an unspecified neck injury.
Who’s hot and who’s not?
Tigers: Maton, acquired in January from the Phillies in the Soto trade, batted .313 (15-for-48) in Spring Training with five home runs and eight RBIs, including two homers in his last three games. The strong spring coincided with the arrival of a plush wolf toy in his locker, a gift from his mom in honor of his nickname, Wolfie. Greene hit .308 (16-for-52) with four homers and 14 RBIs.
Meadows endured an 0-for-13 slump in early March before recovering to bat .240 (12-for-50) with no homers, five walks and nine strikeouts. Cisnero did not have a hitless inning all spring, allowing 12 hits and posting a 7.11 ERA over 6 1/3 innings, with four walks and 10 strikeouts.
Rays: Raley earned a spot on the Opening Day roster with a great spring, hitting .326 with a 1.117 OPS and five home runs. Brandon Lowe also had a healthy camp, batting .306 with three homers. Perhaps you’ve heard that Arozarena enjoyed an all-around excellent World Baseball Classic performance. Díaz also hit well in Spring Training.
Margot hit just .237 this spring, while Mejía posted a .671 OPS. McClanahan had a great spring, as did Faucher and most other relievers. Cleavinger struggled at times, particularly in his last appearance. Starter Jeffrey Springs had arguably as good a spring as any pitcher in baseball.
Anything else fans might want to know?
• The Rays are celebrating their 25th anniversary season, and this is a fitting opening series for it. The first game in Tampa Bay franchise history, then as the Devil Rays, was against the Tigers at Tropicana Field on March 31, 1998. (Detroit won that day, 11-6.)
• The Rays announced that Thursday’s game is a sellout. Former Tampa Bay pitcher James Shields, who is ceremonially retiring as a Ray, will throw out the first pitch.
• Tampa Bay won the season series last year, going 5-2 while outscoring Detroit by 16 (35-19).