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First turn through the rotation is not exactly what the Rays hoped for

ST. PETERSBURG — Well, that didn’t go so well. And danged if it didn’t come as a surprise.

We have become so conditioned to the Rays striking it rich with discarded pitchers that you half-expected Tyler Alexander to step onto the mound Sunday and make you wonder where he had been all your life.

Waived by the Tigers after last season, the Rays protected Alexander all winter on the 40-man roster, taught him to throw a sweeper in spring training, and then inserted him in the rotation after Taj Bradley went down with a muscle pull.

It was similar to the Jeffrey Springs resurrection, except it didn’t end with high-fives and clubhouse shots.

In his Rays debut, Alexander gave up five runs in five innings during a dreary 9-2 loss to the Blue Jays that led to a season-opening four-game split. As if that wasn’t depressing enough, Jacob Waguespack — the guy Alexander beat out for the rotation spot — gave up four walks in his one inning of relief work.

Alexander had only two walks in his five innings, but was not precise enough within the strike zone for a lefty whose fastball sits in the 89- to 90-mph range.

“Historically he really commands the baseball, so (I’m) confident that today just didn’t go his way,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said.

Beyond the command, the Rays may be asking too much of a pitcher who has historically struggled to retire right-handed hitters. The two lefties in the Toronto lineup, Cavan Biggio and Daulton Varsho, went 0-for-5 against Alexander. The rest of the lineup was 6-for-16 with two walks, two homers and a double.

That may explain why Alexander was 4-20 with a 4.70 ERA as a starter in Detroit but, in relief where it’s easier to be matched up against left-handers, he was 7-3 with a 3.90 ERA. Of the six hits he gave up Sunday, five came when he was either ahead in the count or had two strikes on a hitter.

“I trust everything I throw when I throw it. Just, when I miss in spots, especially fastballs in two-strike counts, hitters are always ready to swing,” Alexander said. “When you miss over the plate, they don’t make mistakes.”

The bigger picture is whether the Rays need to be concerned about this spot in the rotation. Bradley is expected back sometime in May, and Shane Baz and Springs should return later in the summer, but the Rays have 51 games in their first 56 days of the season. That’s nearly one-third of the schedule without many opportunities to hide a potential weak spot in the rotation.

Tampa Bay signed Jake Odorizzi to a minor-league deal late in the spring and he’s scheduled to pitch this week at Triple-A Durham. Odorizzi and the Rays will re-evaluate his status after each start, meaning he’ll have the opportunity to go somewhere else if offered a major-league job and the Rays do not match it.

This isn’t exactly unchartered territory in Tampa Bay. With injuries to Shane McClanahan, Tyler Glasnow, Springs and Drew Rasmussen last season, the Rays did not have a single week with their entire rotation intact. And they still won 99 games.

The difference is they are not as deep in 2024. Bradley and Aaron Civale arrived as replacements last year, but are now mainstays in the rotation. And McClanahan, Springs, Rasmussen and Baz are still in various stages of recovery, while Glasnow is in Los Angeles. That means Alexander, Waguespack, Odorizzi or minor-leaguer Jacob Lopez are the best options for the next 8-9 turns through the rotation.

On top of that, several relievers struggled with their control in the opening series.

If you count Shawn Armstrong’s one-inning stint as an opener on Sunday, Rays relievers have given up 13 walks in 13.1 innings.

“They’ve done such a good job for so long of controlling the zone and getting ahead, and we’ll get back to that,” Cash said. “But, yeah, the walks have been a little uncharacteristic.”

There’s no reason to panic four games into a season but if Alexander does not rediscover his command quickly, the Rays may be experimenting with their rotation a little more than you would like in April.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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