ST. PETERSBURG -- Opening Day brought out a festive atmosphere to Tropicana Field, where the Rays opened the 2012 regular season on Friday afternoon against the Yankees.
The pregame activities began with Jim Dundee, son of late boxing legend Angelo Dundee, delivering the ceremonial first pitch to Evan Longoria. The ball used was the one struck by Longoria for his walk-off home run in the 12th inning of Game 162, on Sept. 28, 2011, sending the Rays to the postseason.
Angelo, an avid Rays fan and Clearwater, Fla., resident, died on Feb. 1 at the age of 90.
After the Yankees' introduction along the third-base line, the Rays were introduced to raucous applause from the sellout crowd. Rays manager Joe Maddon, first baseman Carlos Pena, Opening Day starter James Shields, Longoria, and coach Don Zimmer received particularly loud ovations.
Popular Tampa Bay-area saxophonist B.K. Jackson performed the national anthem, which led up to a showing of a film that captured the drama from Game 162, much to the delight of the crowd.
The pregame ceremony concluded when the Rays hoisted an American League 2011 Wild Card banner, which joined a 2010 AL East champions banner, and 2008 banners for winning the AL East and the AL pennant. All of the banners reside above the left-field stands.
Not known for power, Keppinger cleans up
ST. PETERSBURG -- Manager Joe Maddon gave Jeff Keppinger "something to add to the resume" on Opening Day -- a start at designated hitter, batting cleanup, at Tropicana Field.
Keppinger said he can't remember having ever been a cleanup hitter, even dating back to high school, but he was excited about the opportunity.
"[Maddon's] got his reasonings," Keppinger said. "I don't know -- maybe my numbers against [Yankees ace CC] Sabathia are good. I couldn't tell you. I'm just a contact guy in the middle of all the run producers. I'm sure he's got his reasons."
Keppinger had indeed hit well in his career against Sabathia (6-for-14), but Maddon's reasons were even simpler: Keppinger entered the game having posted a career .324/.371/.481 batting line against left-handed pitchers. Maddon also wanted to give Luke Scott a chance to rest his rehabbing right shoulder, but the manager noted that Scott will not be platooned and will play against lefties under most circumstances.
An infielder who's played virtually his entire career in the National League, Keppinger didn't expect too much trouble in adjusting to the DH role and said he wouldn't alter his approach.
"I think coming out of the National League, it's kind of like pinch-hitting four times in a game every time you come up," Keppinger said. "It's definitely easier to get your mind out of the game, because you're not on defense, and maybe overthink your at-bats too much or a pitch you swung at."
For younger Rays, Opening Day a treat
ST. PETERSBURG -- Four Rays players looked forward to Friday's game against the Yankees, their first Opening Day: Desmond Jennings, Matt Moore, Jose Lobaton, and Stephen Vogt.
"It's cool -- it's a good feeling," said Jennings, who started in center field. "Try not to make it too much."
Vogt, who won this year's Al Lopez Award, given annually to the Rays' top rookie in Spring Training, said that being on a Major League team on Opening day was "awesome."
"I can't really describe [the feeling]," Vogt said. "It's something I've always dreamed about, and it's against the Yankees. That's something you dream about your whole life."
Moore, who will start against the Tigers on Tuesday in Detroit, said that Friday's Opening Day was the first he's experienced.
"It's my first Opening Day, period," Moore said. "Not even as a fan. Usually on Opening Day I'm at school or something. ... This is pretty special. I'm very excited to be playing the Yankees, in the division. I'm just very excited to get this thing going."
Farnsworth's absence gives Lueke a chance
ST. PETERSBURG -- Once the Rays decided that Kyle Farnsworth needed to be placed on the disabled list with a tender right elbow, Josh Lueke became the player to take the closer's place on the 25-man roster.
The Rays called Lueke at approximately 1:30 ET on Thursday afternoon, just as he was preparing to sign a lease for his apartment in Durham, N.C., where he thought he would be pitching for the Triple-A Bulls.
Lueke said he and his fiancée quickly packed up and hit the road, making the 10-hour drive from Durham to St. Petersburg.
"I was wide awake," Lueke said. "No road rage or anything."
Lueke was surprised that he got the call after going 2-1 with a 5.40 ERA in six Grapefruit League appearances and getting optioned to Durham on March 23.
"Basically, I thought it was going to be [Brandon Gomes], since he'd been there the whole camp and [it was] a last-second kind of thing, and he'd thrown really well," Lueke said. "I'd struggled a little bit in camp and didn't really have my best stuff -- and I got the call. So hopefully, I can come back up here and prove that I belong."
Since getting optioned, Lueke said he found a feel for his pitches, including his splitter, which is his best offering.
"As long as I'm able to locate that on both sides of the plate, I pretty much know I'm getting back to my mechanics the way I should be, instead of flying open," Lueke said.
"We had other things we could have possibly done," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We don't think we saw the best of [Lueke] this camp. We think we are going to see the best of him, meaning the velocity was down a little bit. He's got this great Bugs Bunny split, changeup, whatever you want to call it. He's got to use that more often. But he has good other pitches, too. We like him a lot."
Lueke, 27, came to the Rays in a December deal that sent catcher John Jaso to the Mariners.
Lueke broke into the Major Leagues in 2011, making the Mariners' Opening Day roster, and he was one of Seattle's most effective relievers over the second half of the season. Lueke was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma in April after allowing 12 runs in 6 1/3 innings over eight appearances, but he returned to the Mariners in July and remained with them through the end of the season, posting a 3.42 ERA in 17 appearances and allowing 22 hits and seven walks, striking out 21.
Streak highlighting Rays' youth ends
ST. PETERSBURG -- When Rays starter James Shields threw ball one to Yankees leadoff man Derek Jeter to kick off the 2012 regular season on Friday afternoon, the pitch also ended an odd but impressive streak.
Shields turned 30 in December, which is significant because the Rays had started a pitcher under the age of 30 for their previous 764 games, a modern Major League record that was previously held by the 1913-17 Washington Senators. Hall of Famer Walter Johnson was on that team that established the record at 704 starts. Jae Seo had made the last start by a Rays pitcher 30 or older when he took the hill on his 30th birthday -- May 24, 2007, against the Mariners. Prior to that day, the Rays had not started a pitcher 30 or over since 32-year-old Mark Hendrickson on June 25, 2006, against the Braves.
"It's an incredible streak," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I don't know that you're going to see that one broken any time soon. Somebody may play more games than Cal Ripken before you break that particular [record]."