ST. PETERSBURG — While looking for a new team during the offseason, Hunter Strickland said, the Rays’ recent history of improving pitchers was a compelling point in their favor. What Tampa Bay has done as well as any other organization the past few years clearly aligned with his personal goals.
“Over the course of the past few years, the Rays’ organization, it speaks volumes with what they’re able to do with players,” Strickland said. “For me coming here, it was more or less just to basically capitalize on my overall potential and be the best that I can be.”
After a rough Spring Training, Strickland now believes he’s in better position to do that. The Rays selected the veteran right-hander’s contract before Friday’s series opener against the Yankees and put him right to work. Strickland allowed a home run to DJ LeMahieu in the Rays’ 10-5 win on Friday, but that was the only hit against him as he struck out three over two otherwise impressive innings.
Strickland threw first-pitch strikes to six of the eight hitters he faced. Other than LeMahieu, the Yankees struggled to make contact with his slider. New York’s hitters swung at seven of his breaking balls and whiffed on five. The reliever’s fastball topped out at 96.1 mph and sat at 94.6 mph.
Strickland generally looked sharper than he did while allowing eight runs on 11 hits, including three homers, in eight Spring Training outings. And there’s a reason: After he was sent out of big league camp, Strickland worked with pitching coach Rick Knapp and the Rays’ analytics department to tweak his delivery and revamp his slider to make him more effective.
“That was awesome. He picked this up in a big way,” manager Kevin Cash said after Friday’s game. “We knew coming into the season and into Spring Training that we had high hopes for Hunter to help us in whatever capacity, so it was good to get him here on this early part of our opening homestand and then contribute.”
Strickland agreed his Spring Training performance “wasn’t ideal,” but quickly put it behind him. The life of a reliever requires a short memory, after all. He was open to input from the Rays’ staff, and he used their feedback to better utilize his legs in his delivery while refining his slider. With the Rays’ bullpen battered by injuries, there should be an opportunity for a veteran like Strickland to step in and step up when they need it.
“I’m just here to do my part. Nobody likes to see any injuries, so I feel for those guys. I’ve had my share, for sure. It’s never a good thing,” Strickland said. “But we’re all here individuals doing whatever we’re called upon, so that’s what I’m here to do.”
Around the horn
• Outfielder Manuel Margot was out of the lineup for the second consecutive game on Saturday. Cash said Margot “tweaked his groin/quad a little bit” on Wednesday, but he was available to pinch-hit Friday and Saturday. The Rays are hopeful that Margot, after one more day of rest, will return to the lineup on Sunday against Yankees lefty Jordan Montgomery.
• After making his Rays debut as a starter against the Red Sox on Monday, right-hander Michael Wacha entered the day before his second outing uncertain whether he’d start against the Yankees on Sunday or enter the game following an opener. Wacha pitched after an opener during his final Spring Training outing and seemed prepared for either plan. The Rays provided clarity following the game, recalling Brent Honeywell Jr. and announcing that Honeywell will open Sunday’s series finale.
• At 41 years and 29 days, Rich Hill on Friday became the oldest winning pitcher in franchise history, passing Russ Springer (40 years, 320 days). Hill is the oldest starting pitcher to win a game for Tampa Bay by nearly five years, with Charlie Morton (36 years, 312 days) previously claiming that title. In addition, Hill became the oldest starter to beat the Yankees since the Mets’ Bartolo Colon (43 years, 72 days) on Aug. 4, 2016, and the oldest lefty starter since the Phillies’ Jamie Moyer (47 years, 210 days) in 2010.
• The ceremonial first pitch was thrown out by Rays vice president of communications Dave Haller, whose final day with the team was Saturday. Haller, who joined the Rays in November 2007, is moving to northern Virginia with his wife and two sons. During his time with Tampa Bay, Haller worked with two managers, 22 coaches and 308 players over 417 spring games, 2,013 regular-season games and all 56 postseason games in franchise history.