NEW YORK — A major theme of Friday’s pitching matchup at Yankee Stadium when the Tampa Bay Rays and the New York Yankees continue their four-game series will be the long road that Nathan Eovaldi and Jonathan Loaisiga took to reach the mound.
For Eovaldi, is it his fourth start with the Tampa Bay Rays after a second Tommy John surgery. For Loaisiga, it is his major league debut with the New York Yankees after a quick ascent through the minors following Tommy John surgery and missing two seasons.
The Yankees opened the series with a 4-3 victory Thursday when Gleyber Torres hit a three-run homer in the fifth inning off Blake Snell. Torres leads all rookies with 13 homers and 33 RBIs, and the Yankees are 11-3 in their last 14 games and 11-2 in their last 13 home games.
Matt Duffy homered for the Rays, who are on a seven-game road losing streak after striking out 15 times. The Rays also are 4-10 in their last 14 games overall.
Eovaldi, who was 23-11 with a 4.45 ERA in 51 appearances (48 starts) in two seasons for the Yankees, is 1-1 with a 3.94 ERA in his first three starts for the Rays. Though he said his velocity is coming back, he is averaging 97 mph on his fastball, which is roughly the same he averaged on the pitch with the Yankees.
“For sure, the fact that I’ve been throwing the ball good as it is (is nice),” Eovaldi said Thursday. “So I’m going to try to keep doing that with my fastball command and really make sure I execute the off-speed pitches and get them down. Other than that, when you step between the lines, it’s about going out there and competing.”
“I know Nate really appreciated his time here, but, no, I’m not overly concerned,” Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said. “He’s been so focused on what he’s doing and kind of his surroundings, and he’s thrown the ball well for us since he’s gotten back. I think that focus won’t change, and it won’t change just because he’s facing a former team.”
Eovaldi last pitched Sunday in a 5-4 loss to the Seattle Mariners when he allowed three runs and four hits in five-plus innings. He allowed a solo homer to Nelson Cruz and a two-run homer to Mike Zunino while throwing 102 pitches, his most since Aug. 4, 2016, against the New York Mets.
“I feel like I’ve been throwing the ball well,” Eovaldi said. “I’ve been recovering better now that we’ve been getting into kind of a five-day routine of things. I feel like my arm really hasn’t been as sore as when I first started from my rehab.”
Eovaldi is the 35th player to pitch after multiple Tommy John surgeries and the 13th to start a game.
He is facing the Yankees for the first time. He is 10-4 with a 3.73 ERA in 24 appearances (23 starts) at Yankee Stadium.
Eovaldi was one of those young low-cost pitchers the Yankees were hoping to develop. Now Loaisiga is one as he fills in for Masahiro Tanaka, who injured both hamstrings last Friday against the New York Mets.
Loaisiga is pitching above Double-A for the first time and is 6-1 with a 3.00 ERA in 10 combined starts with Double-A Trenton and Class A Tampa this season. He attended spring training with the Yankees after being added to the 40-man roster in November.
“I’m excited to see him pitch here,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “It’s a guy with a really good arm, really simple athletic delivery, and I think a big reason why he’s the guy we chose is that we feel like his stuff is excellent, but his delivery is low-maintenance enough that it should allow him to step up.”
The 23-year-old originally was signed by the San Francisco Giants in 2012, and the Yankees signed him in February 2016. He was 8-1 in the Dominican Summer League in 2013 but did not pitch again until 2016 because of Tommy John surgery.
“It’s been a tough road for me to get here, and now it’s about enjoying this moment and this opportunity and trying to help this team win,” Loaisiga said through an interpreter. “I’m focused on winning; it’s everything for us and I’m looking forward to it.”
Loaisiga is the 15th native of Nicaragua to appear in the majors and the 11th pitcher. He is the first native of Nicaragua to appear in a game for the Yankees.
The career leader in wins by a Nicaraguan is Dennis “El Presidente” Martinez. Martinez won 245 games from 1976 to 1998 with Baltimore, Montreal, Cleveland, Atlanta and Seattle, and Loaisiga is aware of his impact.
“He’s a baseball ambassador,” Loaisiga said. “You look up to him as a kid, because he’s proof you can make it to the big leagues. For us, it’s following in his footsteps, and hopefully doing well and representing Nicaragua well.”