By Bryan Levine, SunCoast Sports
(The original version of this story appeared in The Sun’s Feb. 24 Rays preview section)
PORT CHARLOTTE — The baseball world typically has its full attention on spring training games once March begins.
But not this year.
If you regularly follow the Tampa Bay Rays, you may notice in a couple of weeks that some players are missing. Those absent athletes aren’t playing hookey, and they weren’t traded or released.
Four members of the Rays have been chosen to represent their countries in the upcoming 2017 World Baseball Classic.
“It’s one of the highest honors I’ve ever had in my baseball career,” Tampa Bay pitcher and United States-selectee, Chris Archer said.
“It’s just not an opportunity everybody gets. I felt blessed and humbled I get to represent the U.S.”
The WBC is a 16-day international baseball tournament featuring 16 countries. This year’s classic is the fourth of its kind, and games are played in four different nations with the championship round taking place from March 20-22 in Los Angeles.
For the Rays’ ace and the United States, games begin on March 10 against Colombia in Miami. While he’s not guaranteed to pitch that first game, Archer is one of the top pitchers on the team, meaning he’s going to be pitching in a game that has meaning weeks earlier than he normally would.
This is something that might keep Rays manager Kevin Cash up at night.
“When Chris Archer is going to be throwing 98 and throwing 91 mile an hour sliders, I’ll watch it, and pull for him, but I’ll be cringing,” he said.
Neither Archer nor Cash are too concerned over the increased chances of injury due to having to rev things up a little quicker.
“Archer has accelerated himself, simply just because he does so much of a workload before spring training starts,” Cash said. “I don’t think too much is different for him in the past. I know we have some goals for him to get to before he leaves.”
In addition to Archer, fellow pitchers Jose Alvarado, Alex Colome and Jose De Leon were all chosen to play for their countries, as well.
Colome will be playing for the defending champion Dominican Republic, who beat De Leon’s Puerto Rico in the title game in 2013.
“It’s huge,” De Leon said of the WBC’s importance in Puerto Rico. “The patriotism we feel there, it’s big. Especially getting to the finals last classic, the expectations there are high. We saw how the community came together and we were united as people.”
The 24-year-old is considered part of the designated pitching pool, which means he’s ineligible to pitch in the first round, but could likely take the roster spot of another pitcher should Puerto Rico advance to the next round.
Nonetheless, as they would say in Hollywood, De Leon agrees it’s an honor just being nominated.
“It’s a big responsibility,” he said. “Most of all, it’s a dream come true. I’m really excited and hopefully I get an opportunity to pitch.”
De Leon recognizes the importance in not getting caught up in the bigger atmosphere than your typical spring training game.
“Obviously you’re going to be more amped up, so you have to be careful,” De Leon said. “It’s early in the season and sometimes you’re not ready physically to perform at the peak.
“You have to be careful. But you can never be afraid of injuries. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen no matter where you are. You just have to be careful, that’s the main point.”
Cash would be happy to hear his young pitching prospect say that because, while the manager isn’t concerned about injuries, he knows the mindset of an athlete, and that they’re going to push to win no matter what the situation is.
But he also knows there’s nothing he can do.
“They’re competing against allstars from across the country and across the world,” Cash said. “It’s very tough to tell committed athletes to control yourself in those settings because that WBC will be talked about.”
Alvarado, a 21-year-old playing for Venezuela, is mostly looking forward to playing with future hall of famers like Miguel Cabrera and Felix Hernandez.
And it’s players like that which is why the baseball world will have one eye on the WBC and the other on spring training in a couple of weeks.