Monday, April 7, 2008

Devil Rays 1st Ever Win, 4/1/98

The date March 31, 1998, should always hold special significance to Tampa Bay baseball fans. After two decades of wishing and hoping for a major league team, ten years ago this week the Tampa Bay Devil Rays finally took to the field against the Detroit Tigers.

In front of a packed house at Tropicana Field, the first game in Devil Rays history didn't exactly qualify as a storybook beginning. Detroit’s four-run second inning off $35 million pitcher Wilson Alvarez soon turned into an 11-0 deficit after five innings, and the historic day ended on a dismal note with the Tigers winning 11-6.

The following day, April 1, Detroit became an April Fool’s Day victim as the Devil Rays recorded the first victory in team history. With nearly 15,000 fewer fans in attendance than on Opening Day, the Devil Rays unveiled their prized acquisition Rolando Arrojo, a defector from Havana, Cuba, who signed a free agent contract with Tampa Bay.

The starting pitcher won 160 games in ten seasons on the Cuban National Team and earned a gold medal as a member of the 1992 Olympic team. At one point during his baseball career in Cuba, Arrojo made as little as $11 per month. In 1997, Arrojo signed his first major league contract for $7 million.

The pitcher, who after the game admitted to being "anxious and excited," surrendered three runs in the first inning. Tony Clark and Tampa native Luis Gonzalez hit back-to-back doubles to spark the inning for Detroit. Following a walked batter, Arrojo rallied by striking out the last two hitters of the inning to keep the score a respectable 3-0.

Tampa Bay responded with a two-run first inning, which featured doubles by Wade Boggs and Fred McGriff. Boggs and McGriff, products of Plant and Jefferson high schools in Tampa, were brought in by the Devil Rays to add some local flavor to the expansion franchise. Outstanding players in their own right, the two would contribute offensive and defensive production, as well as name recognition, throughout their stints with the Devil Rays.

Tampa Bay took the lead in the fourth, breaking out with a four-run inning. John Flaherty singled with one out, and then advanced to third base on an opposite field single by Rich Butler. Kevin Stocker, who tripled on his first at-bat in the second inning, came to the plate with runners on first and third with one out.

The shortstop, whose trade to Tampa Bay in 1997 for outfielder Bobby Abreu would prove to be one of the most debated and maligned in franchise history, nevertheless came through in this situation, lining a single to left to even up the score at 3-3.

Leadoff hitter Quinton McCracken followed Stocker's hit with a single of his own to load the bases. Miguel Cairo's ground ball to short forced McCracken at second, but a hustling Cairo beat the throw to first, allowing Butler to score and give Tampa Bay a 4-3 lead.

A Wade Boggs single then drove in Stocker from third and forced Tigers' starter Brian Moehler out of the game. McGriff knocked in his second run of the day to complete the scoring for the Devil Rays, who ended the fourth with a 6-3 lead.

Tampa Bay tacked on another run in the sixth to make the score 7-4, and after 107 pitches thrown through six innings of work, Arrojo was pulled from his first major league start. What followed would foreshadow the following decade of Tampa Bay baseball -- inconsistent pitching by the bullpen.

Over the following two innings, Detroit would put seven of its following nine batters on base. Reliever Ramon Tatis alone allowed four of the five hitters he faced to reach. Despite the Detroit surge, however, the Devil Rays allowed only two runners to score and held a fragile 7-6 lead. Rich Butler gave his team some breathing room with a home run – the first of his major league career -- to make the score 8-6 after seven frames. Detroit answered back in the eighth by scoring a run off Albie Lopez, who had walked the first two batters of the inning.

Jim Mecir, who would go on to be the bullpen workhorse throughout the 1998 season, set down the side without allowing any more damage. Tampa Bay put an end to the suspense by batting around in the home half of the eighth inning.

Fred McGriff, who finished the game with 4 runs batted in, provided a two-run single and Dave Martinez singled in a run to increased Tampa Bay's lead to 11-7. The Tigers tacked on a run in the ninth off closer Roberto Hernandez to provide one last dose of drama, but the Devil Rays would hold on for an 11-8 victory.

In many ways, the first win in team history was as memorable as the first game played just a day prior. The Devil Rays cranked out a season-high 18 hits, batted around the lineup twice (in the 4th and 8th innings), and Rolando Arrojo earned the victory in his major league debut.

Arrojo would go on to win 14 games in 1998, earn a selection as the team's first ever All Star representative, and finish second in the American League Rookie of the Year balloting. Although Tampa Bay only won 62 more times during that inaugural season, the first win certainly proved the sweetest for both Arrojo and the Devil Rays.

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