With the first exhibition game of spring training scheduled for later in the week, the Tampa Bay Rays continued organized full-squad workouts on Monday, February 24, at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Florida.
The consistently successful team, led by two-time American League Manager of the Year Joe Maddon, has impressively reached the post-season in four of the past six years. Falling to the Boston Red Sox in last year's divisional round of the playoffs, Tampa Bay hopes its 2014 club can return to the World Series for the first time since 2008.
Such confidence is reflected by a boosted payroll that enabled the return of critical players, such as pitcher David Price and first baseman James Loney, who many expected to depart in the offseason due to financial constraints.
Despite a handful of new names spread across the facility's four practice fields, including closer Grant Balfour and catcher Ryan Hanigan, the team's current version of spring training resembles the routines that worked well in years past.
With players hitting the diamond under cloudy skies around 10:00 a.m., a brief team meeting with Maddon and the coaching staff began the workout, which was immediately followed by the disbursement of an enlarged roster among the four fields.
Defensive drills were initially practiced, as players could be seen chasing liners in the gap and hitting the cut-off man on the throw to the infield. While some pitchers tossed lightly on bullpen mounds, a series of hurlers threw against live batters during the two-hour practice.
Pitchers receiving substantial time on the hill on Monday included the 2012 Cy Young Award winner Price, 24-year old Mike Montgomery, and vaunted prospect Nate Karns, acquired earlier in the month in a trade with the Washington Nationals.
Sharpening the skills of the offense, batters additionally took swings against soft tossing from coaches and a pitching machine. Hackers seen crushing baseballs in the cages included All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria, outfielder Desmond Jennings, utility man Sean Rodriguez, and South Korean infielder Hak-Ju Lee, who hopes to make his MLB debut in 2014.
A lighter moment occurred when Montgomery brushed Matt Joyce with an inside pitch in the cage. With General Manager Andrew Friedman watching, it was quickly apparent the outfielder successfully shook off being hit, when an teammate loudly chided, "So that's why you showed up with an extra layer this year."
Entering his sixth season with Tampa Bay, the left-handed hitter from nearby Armwood High School may be a bit beyond his usual 200-pound playing weight.
Yet, such intra-squad frivolity, combined with meaningful workouts on the field, is very purpose of baseball's long-standing tradition of spring training.
Moving from field-to-field, Rays players shagged fly balls, jogged, stretched, and drilled diverse situations like bunting. After two hours on the diamond, the practice gradually concluded, and most players made their way to the locker-room by noon.
With several hundred fans in attendance, the emphasis shifted from observing heroes to procuring autographs. Players graciously interacting with fans -- and signing eagerly -- included second-year pitcher Chris Archer, 2013 A.L. Rookie of the Year Wil Myers, and veteran catcher Jose Molina.
Hoping for continued pleasant weather, the team resumes practice tomorrow, in preparation for the spring's first game on February 28, when the Rays will welcome the Baltimore Orioles to Charlotte Sports Park for a 1:05 p.m. contest.
Jeffrey Briscoe is the Fort Myers Outdoor Recreation Examiner and covers a diversity of fun topics in Southwest Florida. For a closer look at Tampa Bay Rays spring training, be sure to check out the "Photo Gallery" above.