ST. PETERSBURG — What went wrong Monday for the Rays? Well, three pitchers combined to strike out only nine Toronto Blue Jays, so no free pizza for the fans who filled Tropicana Field.
Being picky, sure, and that’s because the Rays opened a season filled with so much promise with a 9-2 victory against a division rival that had nearly everything.
David Price dominated and earned the first Opening Day victory of his career. Wil Myers had two hits against a pitcher who held him hitless last season. Matt Joyce, saddled with the unenviable role of designated hitter, drove in three runs.
Desmond Jennings made a diving catch for the first out of the game. James Loney stole a base. Evan Longoria drove in the year’s first run with a two-out single in the first inning. Ben Zobrist walked three times.
“It was outstanding,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
Myers tied his career-high with three hits. It was a first-inning double off knuckleballer R.A. Dickey that landed against the wall in right-center field that got the party started in front of a sellout crowd of 31,042.
Myers was 0-for-7 with two strikeouts against Dickey last year. But he hit Dickey’s first pitch like he knew what was coming.
“A knuckleball, yeah,” Myers said.
Price pitched seven shutout innings and got stronger as the game moved along. He needed six pitches to retire the Jays in the sixth inning and seven to retire them in order in the seventh.
“One of the tops in the business,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said of Price. “That’s why everybody hoped that they’d have traded him.”
A two-run homer by pinch-hitter Erik Kratz in the eighth inning ended the shutout. Price left after facing one more batter and getting his sixth strikeout of the game. Joel Peralta and Brandon Gomes picked up the final five outs.
“I felt like I commanded the pitches and commanded the (strike) zone with all my pitches,” Price said. “Whenever I can do that and get early offensive output like we had, it makes my job a lot easier.”
The pregame ceremony ended when the 2013 AL wild-card banner was raised to the catwalks in left field. The Rays have made it known they’re chasing much more this season, and many around the game agree much more is within their grasp. The Rays appear as World Series participants or World Series champions in a number of preseason predictions.
“I love ’em. Absolutely love ’em,” Maddon said before the game of both his team’s lofty goal and the sunny forecasts. “I think it’s great that people think we’re good. We think we’re good. It’s up to us to go out there and prove it. How do you deal with that? I really like the concept: Do not permit the pressure to exceed the pleasure.”
Whatever pressure the Rays might have felt Monday disappeared when Jennings robbed Blue Jays leadoff hitter Jose Reyes with a diving catch in the top of the first inning.
“The first play of the game, Desmond makes the diving play, really set the tone,” Myers said. “James stealing a base, the aggressive scoring on the base hits. Just a really good start to the year.”
Reyes was removed from the game after that at-bat because of left hamstring tightness.
“This place right here is a House of Horrors,” Gibbons said before the game. “Weird things happen in here, and they’ve got magic in this place.”
The Rays tied the franchise record for runs scored on Opening Day, matching the nine scored in 2002 against Detroit. It was the third time they won by seven runs.
“It was a good sign,” Longoria said of the offensive production that meshed well with the pitching and defense. “We struggled against Dickey in the past, so it kind of set the tone for the year, and to jump on a guy we have struggled with in the past is a good sign.”
A drum set appears to have been added to the Rays’ post-victory party, proving, at least on Day 1 of the 2014 season, that pleasure exceeded the pressure.