ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP)No team does a better job of utilizing the entire roster than the Tampa Bay Rays, who thrive on unselfish contributions by role players such as Francisco Mejia.
Less than 24 hours after his eighth-inning, pinch-hit sacrifice fly drove in the go-ahead run against Baltimore on opening day, the young catcher made his first start of the season and delivered again in Saturday’s 5-3 victory over the Orioles.
”I’ve learned to be ready at any time,” Mejia said through an interpreter.
The 26-year-old is in his second year with the Rays after spending parts of four seasons with Cleveland and the San Diego Padres.
Told that some of his teammates jokingly referred to him as ”Mr. Clutch” after he homered and drove in three more runs to help the Rays beat the Orioles for the 14th straight time Saturday, Mejia smiled slightly.
”It really doesn’t matter to me,” he said, ”as long as I’m part of the team.”
The two-time defending AL East champions improved to 20-1 against the Orioles since the start of the 2021, and the 14-game winning streak that began last July is the longest against a single opponent in Rays history.
”I think we’re facing some really good pitching,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said.
Coming off losing 110 games in 2021, Baltimore has dropped the first two games of a season for the first time in 12 years.
”We come here all the time. These guys have great arms. They have good starting pitching. They can match up with you out of the bullpen,” Hyde added. ”It’s a tough place to start because the pitching is really good, and it’s been good here for a long time, and that’s why they’ve won. ”
Mejia’s sacrifice fly drove in the tiebreaking run in Tampa Bay’s 2-1 victory over the Orioles on Friday. He started at catcher in place of Mike Zunino Saturday, hitting a RBI single in the second and a two-run homer off Jordan Lyles (0-1) in the third.
Wander Franco, hitless after singling three times in the opener, finished a three-run second inning with a hard-hit sacrifice fly for Tampa Bay, which has outscored Baltimore 157-75 in the past 21 games between the teams.
Reliever Josh Fleming (1-0) inherited a three-run lead and worked 3 1/3 scoreless innings, while allowing three hits and striking out five. Andrew Kittredge yielded a run-scoring double to Jorge Mateo in the ninth before getting the save.
Meanwhile, Lyles allowed five runs and seven hits over five innings. The Rays hit him hard from the start, with nine batted balls registering exit velocities of over 100 miles per hour in the first four innings, including Franco’s line-drive sacrifice fly and another ball the 21-year-old launched to the wall in center field.
Lyles allowed a major league-high 38 home runs last season while going 10-13 with a 5.15 ERA in 32 appearances (30 starts) with the Texas Rangers. That was also a career high, and the most homers allowed in the majors since Mike Leake yielded 41 in 2019.
Rays starter Drew Rassmussen departed with a 5-2 lead, but worked just four innings and not involved in the decision. The right-hander gave up a two-run homer to Ryan Mountcastle in third and allowed three hits, walked one and struck out three while throwing 64 pitches.
Mountcastle led all rookies with 33 homers last season. His opposite-field shot to right trimmed Baltimore’s deficit to 3-2 in the third. Mejia restored Tampa Bay’s three-run lead in the bottom half of the inning.
Orioles LF Anthony Santander, who homered on opening day, was hit by a pitch in the left knee in the first inning. He stood near the plate, doubled over in pain for a moment, but remained in the game and went 2 for 3 with two singles.
The finale of the season-opening, three-game series, with two-time AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber making his debut for the Rays after going 5-3 with a 3.83 ERA for the Yankees in 2021. He’s 5-1 with a 3.15 ERA in 10 career starts against Baltimore. RHP Tyler Wells (2-3, 4.11 last season) starts for the Orioles.
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