ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) – It’s been a whirlwind 24 hours for former USF pitcher Phoenix Sanders. Wednesday night he was in Durham, North Carolina in Triple-A, and Thursday morning he was on a 7 a.m. flight, on his way to realizing a lifelong dream.
“You start playing Little League,” Sanders said. “You start playing catch in the backyard, to fulfill this goal. I think it all really hit me last night, sitting at home, trying to fall asleep and unable to fall asleep. Like ‘Wow. We actually did it.’ Again, words can’t even (describe) how it feels. It’s unbelievable.”
“He’s put-up some solid seasons in the minor leagues,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash about the newest addition to his pitching staff. “Opportunities don’t happen for everybody that do that, but we’re happy that it is for him. You talk to our player development group, his managers, his pitching coaches—everybody has raved about him as a person and as a teammate.”
Even Sander’s wife, who’s seven months pregnant, couldn’t believe this moment was finally here.
“She’s like, ‘Are you serious?’” Sanders said. “She thought she was dreaming—kind of like how I thought I was dreaming too. It was kind of like an ‘Aha moment.’ We’ve kind of had to grind. We’ve played well. We’ve had friends get up to the big leagues, like ‘OK that’ll be us. That’ll be us.’ We waited and we waited and it’s finally paid off.”
Giving him a warm welcome in the clubhouse Thursday morning, was his former USF teammate, Shane McClanahan. The two pitchers overlapped for two years there, and Sanders recalled what a talented– but maybe underrated– a group they had.
“We rattled off 23 and one to start my senior year and I’m like, ‘Oh this is going to be a lot of fun.’” Sanders said. “We all had good opportunities and it’s actually pretty cool because now, McClanahan has been here, I’m here, our Sunday guy is in Triple-A with the Brewers and we have two other guys in Triple-A with other organizations. It’s kind of a prideful thing like yeah, USF’s a mid-major but like how the Rays have done it—a little bit under-market, under the radar, but we kind of keep winning and keep producing guys that are really doing it.”
Sanders and McClanahan have enjoyed being in the same organization on their respective journeys to the majors, running similar courses, but still with that friendly competition that goes back to their college days.
“It was funny because my senior year, his redshirt freshman year, I got to be the Friday guy and he was the Saturday guy,” Sanders recalled. “So I always jab at him for that a little bit, but I think he ended up being the Opening Day starter here so I think at the end of the day he kind of got the last laugh.”
“That’s a pretty unique bond,” Cash said, about having college teammates on his team. “I think it helps for the incoming player, certainly Phoenix, to have some comfort. Now, he’s been around. He knows most of our players, but to know that he’s got a good relationship with Shane, certainly can help.”
Sanders made his major league debut in the fifth inning Thursday when the Rays were trailing the Athletics 5-1. After giving up a single, walk, and another single, he settled in and retired the next eight batters he faced to close out his first big league outing.
Sanders ended up going three full innings, giving up two hits, one run, walking one, and striking out two.
The Rays lost the game 6-3 and now head to Chicago for a six-game road trip– their first road trip of the season.
They’ll play three against the White Sox, followed by three against the Cubs, before returning to Tropicana Field next Friday.