Tampa Bay Rays fans got a glimpse at what the future may hold for their team when the Rays beat the visiting Atlanta Braves, 8-1, at Charlotte Sports Park on Thursday afternoon.
Off the field, Tampa Bay announced that it extended Blake Snell for five years and $50 million, locking up the 26-year-old ace through his age 30 season — answering a lot of questions about his plans going forward.
“It’ll help me pitch better, for sure,” Snell said. “Just because I’m not thinking about anything now, if I was even thinking about anything before. But the goal is still the same for me. The money is good security for me, but I’m here to get better. I want to be the best.”
Along with Snell, the Rays also locked up second baseman/outfielder Brandon Lowe to a 6-year, $24 million deal earlier this week, and the 24-year-old showed why he’s worth the money on Thursday — crushing a three-run homer in the first in a 2-for-4 effort.
“Hopefully we can keep this vibe going, and hopefully people see the Rays are investing into this team a lot with B. Lowe and me,” Snell said. “They’re continuing to show that they care, and that they want to win. And they want to win now.”
Following up Brandon Lowe, Rays prospect Nate Lowe — who will begin the season in the minor leagues — also crushed a three-run homer as Tampa Bay took a 6-1 lead in the first.
While Snell’s extension and both of the Lowes’ blasts stole the show on Thursday, the pitching debut of Brendan McKay was another reason for optimism among Rays fans.
Though the 2017 first-round pick is just 23-years-old and was facing big-league hitters for the first time, McKay had little trouble in his two innings of work.
Aside from a first-pitch fastball that Braves third baseman Austin Riley smoked for a solo home run in the first inning, McKay was otherwise in control on the mound — throwing 17 of his 28 pitches for strikes.
McKay’s two innings featured four strikeouts in which he used his fastball (around 93 mph), curveball, changeup and cutter to work quickly through the lineup.
“I think he’s got excellent stuff,” Rays catcher Mike Zunino said of McKay. “I was able to talk to him a little bit afterwards and just sort of tell him what I thought of it. And I thought he was excellent.
“He was very poised, very polished. Being only a year and some change out of college, I think the upside is extremely high with him.”One day, McKay could be the next former first-round pick to sign a long-term extension with the Rays. But for now, he’s simply happy that he got to put on a big league uniform and face off against hitters at the highest level of pro baseball.
“Yeah, I was getting excited, but I wasn’t trying to overplay what it is,” McKay said of learning about his Thursday start.
“I told my parents and they came down this week so they got to see me. I let me family members know so they can follow along. It’s a great experience.”
Duffy returns to the lineup
Absent for the majority of spring training due to a nagging hamstring injury, Rays infielder Matt Duffy batted leadoff and played third base on Thursday.
Though he was sent down on strikes in each of his three at-bats, the veteran said it was a positive step forward just to play baseball without any setbacks.
“The way I mentally went into today was to see pitches, and I think after I got one strike on me, I was a little bit too much in that mode. Mentally, I wasn’t the most aggressive,” he said.
“Combine not being mentally aggressive with poor timing, and that’s what you get. You can almost look at today as an off day.”
Zunino’s power surge
Rays catcher Mike Zunino reached 20 home runs just once in his first four seasons at the MLB level, but has become a power threat over the past couple of years — hitting 45 homers over his past 237 games.
Thursday, Zunino unloaded on a deep shot over the centerfield wall for his fourth home run of the spring and looks to provide Tampa Bay with some offense from the catcher position for the first time in years.