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PORT CHARLOTTE, Florida (93-7 THE FAN) – It almost felt like Opening Day.
And in a sense, for some, it was.
The Pirates fell, 6-3 to Tampa Bay, in (one of) the Rays’ Spring Training Opener(s) at Charlotte Sports Park on Friday afternoon.
Following a moment of silence to honor those lost and those affected by the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School across the state nine days earlier, a stirring rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, and a United States Coast Guard fly over, baseball was officially under way, even if each team wasn’t playing with a full complement of everyday Major Leaguers.
Neither team, for example, was playing with All-Star left fielder Corey Dickerson, whom the Rays traded to the Pirates Thursday in exchange for reliever Daniel Hudson, minor league infielder Tristan Gray, and $1 million. Dickerson, who was at the hospital with his wife expecting a new arrival late Thursday/early Friday, has been delayed in making the move from Port Charlotte to Bradenton.
It gave one of the Pirates’ outfielders of the future an opportunity to make some noise, tough.
Austin Meadows, whose 2017 season was derailed by multiple injuries, started the 2018 Grapefruit League season off with a perfect day at the plate, going for 3-for-3 with a pair of doubles, 2 RBIs, and a walk.
“Overall, my body felt good. That’s been the issue in the past, with the struggle to stay on the field,” said Meadows. “First thing’s first, my body felt healthy, and I felt like I was seeing the ball pretty well out there.”
Despite getting doubled off second for the final out of the game, the Pirates’#2 overall prospect showed some results after changing up his offseason training regimen.
“A lot of total body lifts, a lot of mobility,” said Meadows. “[It’s] more of a functional lifting, and paying attention to your body.”
The Pirates’ offense struggled otherwise though, despite having runners on base in six out of nine innings. Four innings ended with runners on base and two more with double plays.
Tyler Eppler looked solid in his first start, getting six consecutive outs after giving up a leadoff single to Tampa’s current left fielder, Denard Span.
The key was a slider that put away six of those outs via swing-and-miss strikeouts.
“I told Stallings in the bullpen before the game it was feeling really good, so if we had any troubles, to go to that, because it was feeling good,” said Eppler.
Refining the pitch was part of Eppler’s offseason work.
“Practice makes perfect, and just trusting it. I messed around with a few little grip changes.”
The Pirates will host the Yankees Saturday afternoon at 1:05 p.m. in their Grapefruit League home opener at LECOM Park in Bradenton. Expect a healthy dose of veterans in the lineup around the horn.
The best guess here is that Josh Harrison will lead off and play second base, as he alluded to when we spoke Friday morning.
“The jersey will be on tomorrow,” said Harrison. “Today’s still another workout day, we’ll keep it light.”
Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, David Freese, Sean Rodriguez, and Jordy Mercer should all be in the lineup as well, while Nick Kingham will get the start on the mound. Clay Holmes, Michael Feliz, Kyle Crick, Jordan Milbrath, Jack Leathersich, and Richard Rodriguez are all expected to pitch as well.
–Adam Frazier continued to show why Hurdle should have no hesitation plugging him into the leadoff spot when he’s in the lineup. He drew a six-pitch walk to start the game and later, belying his 0-for-2 day at the plate, smoked a low line drive to the hole at shortstop that a lesser fielder than Adeiny Hechavarria wouldn’t necessarily have been able to snag six inches off the dirt.
-Kevin Kramer looks ready for another jump in levels. Despite missing nearly three months with a broken right hand last season, his numbers at AA Altoona still impressed, with a .297 BA and .880 OPS in 221 PA. Against the Rays he was just 0-for-1 with a walk, but he came around to score on a Meadows single following that walk, and roped a pair of line drives into foul territory in left to keep the bat alive that exhibited some of the same hard contact he showed at Pirate City.
Swings and misses:
-Chris Bostick at second base and Max Moroff at shortstop flubbed a double-play ball that kickstarted what turned into a 4-run Tampa 3rd inning. Combined with Todd Cunningham’s valiant but not-quite-there dive for a sinking liner off the bat of Kevin Kiermaier, and better defense could have kept the Pirates’ 1-0 lead intact.
-Also in the midst of the bottom of the 3rd inning, First Base Umpire Marvin Hudson apparently misinterpreted the new mound visit limitation rule, keeping Pitching Coach Ray Searage from visiting Alex McRae after Jacob Stallings had gone out earlier in the inning.
“Technically we’re still working through this, because technically he should’ve been allowed to go out,” said Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle. “The rules are still being talked through. They’ve changed a bit since they’ve been brought up.”
Executive Vice President for Baseball Operations Joe Torre is expected to visit Florida next week to discuss the rule with each team.
-About 48 hours after signing him, the Pirates’ released outfielder Michael Saunders so that he could sign a minor league contract with the Kansas City. The Royals jumped the gun though, and announced the signing before the Pirates’ had announced Saunders’s relase, and all while their bus to head back to Bradenton was departing Port Charlotte.
It led to a few confusing, but comical moments in the media room.
Saunders’ agent, Barry Meister, told Chris Cotillo of SBNation that the team released Saunders once the trade for Dickerson made it apparent the situation had changed, and that “the Pirates and specifically Neal Huntington were gracious enough to allow Michael to seek another opportunity. They should be commended for their player-friendly, honest and transparent behavior.”