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Newly acquired Ben Rortvedt makes strong impression in Rays debut

ST. PETERSBURG — Ben Rortvedt made an immediate impression. In his first start since being acquired from the Yankees on Wednesday, the catcher had two hits, drew a walk and caught Aaron Civale’s best start as a Ray in Friday’s 8-2 win over the Blue Jays.

“Good for him. He’s getting acclimated really quick,” manager Kevin Cash said. “And when you have at-bats and hits like that and catch like that, you become a good teammate real quick.”

Rortvedt singled sharply to centerfield in his first at-bat, starting a third-inning rally highlighted by Brandon Lowe’s grand slam that gave the Rays a 4-1 lead. He later drew a 12-pitch walk in the sixth and singled to center in the eighth.

“Couldn’t have drawn it up any better,” Rortvedt said. “A lot of games to go, so I look forward to it all.”

While Rortvedt shrugged off his performance, Cash was impressed.

“That’s a challenge to do that,” he said. “He comes in, gets two hits and catches the ball really well behind Civale.”

Rortvedt had been waiting in a Houston hotel room for two days when he learned he had been traded to the Rays. He arrived back in Tampa Bay, where he had bought a house near the Yankees’ spring training facility, Thursday morning to meet Cash and his new teammates.

Rortvedt also found time to catch a few bullpens and talk with Civale, who limited the Blue Jays to one run on four hits and a walk Friday while striking out six over six innings.

“We’ve chatted the last couple days,” Civale said. “I watched some video of him catching, just to know his set-ups, and it was pretty seamless.”

Rortvedt said the experience was a whirlwind, but exciting, nonetheless.

“This team is awesome,” Rortvedt said. “They made me feel very comfortable right away (Thursday). So, it’s a lot of fun.”

A slow spring start can pay off

Zack Littell had time to breathe this spring. The right-hander, who had to fight for a spot in the majors the past six seasons, entered spring training knowing there was a spot in the Rays rotation for him.

That gave him the chance to focus simply on getting better and getting ready for the start of the season.

“I was able to really work on some stuff, clean up some stuff that I wanted to, as opposed to coming in and feeling like I needed to be ready right away,” Littell said Friday. “Getting to work with (pitching coach Kyle) Snyder and, like, really fine-tune the pitch shapes and kind of getting tuned in to a routine on my body, that kind of thing. It made a big difference.”

Last year, Littell worked his way out of the bullpen into the Rays’ injury-plagued rotation. In 26 appearances, including 14 starts, he compiled a 3-6 record with a 3.93 ERA, 72 strikeouts and just nine walks over 87 innings. His walk percentage (3.2%) was among the best in the majors.

With his spot secure, Littell was able to hold back a bit physically this spring as well. He and the Rays hope that means he takes the mound for his season debut Saturday feeling fresher.

“Days where you weren’t feeling great, being able to go in there and get worked on or saying, ‘I need an extra day,’ versus like a non-roster guy or even a reliever, it’s kind of more like, hey, you’ve got to kind of be ready to go, regardless,” Littell said. “So, being able to get in the training room and in the weight room and get my body moving the way I wanted to move it, it definitely makes a huge difference and then coming into the season.”

Miscellany

First baseman Yandy Díaz will receive his 2023 Silver Slugger and American League batting title awards. He finished the 2023 season with a .330 batting average, 173 hits, 22 home runs and 78 RBIs, all career highs. He became the first player in franchise history to win an American League batting title. ... USF men’s basketball coach Amir Abdur-Rahim will throw out the ceremonial first pitch on Saturday.

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