The way the Tampa Bay Rays were cleaning house and slashing payroll, Denard Span spent much of spring training wondering if he'd ever play a game for his hometown team.
The biggest name acquired by the budget-minded club during a winter of revamping the roster survived the purge and made a huge splash in his debut on opening day, lining a bases-loaded triple to highlight a six-run eighth inning that carried the Rays over the Boston Red Sox 6-4 Thursday.
"I wasn't 100 percent sure that I was going to get this opportunity. ... It's just a true blessing, just to be able to play in front of my family and friends. I can't ask for anything better," Span, who grew up in Tampa and was obtained in a December trade that sent Evan Longoria to San Francisco.
A .283 hitter over parts of 10 seasons with the Giants, Minnesota Twins and Washington Nationals, was part of a starting lineup featuring just one position player from opening day a year ago.
The Rays were shut out on one hit through the sixth by Chris Sale, and took advantage of four walks in the eighth to come back.
Span lined a 3-2 pitch off the right field wall, setting off a raucous celebration among the sellout crowd of 31,042 at Tropicana Field.
"My heart started racing. I could hear the roar of the crowd. If I could have cried, I would have cried. But I was running so I couldn't," Span said.
"Everybody greeted me with a bunch of energy, a bunch of love," he said of the party that continued in the clubhouse. "That was probably in all my 9 1/2, 10 years, probably the best postgame celebration by any team I've been on. Just a fun time."
Span's triple was only Tampa Bay's third hit of the day and gave the Rays a 5-4 lead. Adeiny Hechavarria followed with an infield single off Carson Smith (0-1), providing a two-run cushion for closer Alex Colome to earn a save.
"Exciting. Another day at the ballpark, I guess," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "Speaks volumes about our clubhouse about this club to bounce back."
The Red Sox lost in Alex Cora's first game as a major league manager. They wasted a superb start from Sale, who showed no ill effects from being hit by a line drive in the hip in his final spring training start. The 2017 big league strikeout leader fanned nine and walked three.
Matt Barnes pitched the seventh for Boston, which let the game slip away after Joe Kelly entered in the eighth.
It happens, man. It's part of the game. I've been there," Sale said of the late collapse.
"I know how it feels and nobody feels worse than them. I don't see anybody in here hanging their heads or losing confidence," the Boston ace added. "We take this one off the chin, go back and get some sleep and come back (Friday) ready to go."
Boston built a 4-0 lead against Rays starter Chris Archer, with Eduardo Nunez hitting a two-run, inside-the-park homer and Rafael Devers driving in two runs with a seventh-inning double and a RBI grounder in the second.
Archer allowed four runs and six hits in six-plus innings. The two-time All-Star was in danger of falling to 2-13 lifetime against Boston before Span delivered his first hit as a Ray.
"It was a huge swing of emotions. The hometown boy is the hometown hero, and it was great to see," Archer said. "We battled all game and we were able to pull it off. It was awesome."
The Rays, who routinely rank near the bottom of the majors in attendance, sold out their home opener for the 13th consecutive season.
CIRCLING THE BASES
Nunez's inside-the-park homer was the second of his career. The other also came against the Rays while playing for the Minnesota Twins in 2016. It was Boston's first inside-the-park homer during the regular season since Blake Swihart had one on the road against the New York Mets on Aug. 28, 2015. It was their one on opening day since Carl Yastrzemski on April 10, 1968 at Detroit.
Rays team president Brian Auld said there were no injuries from a small grease fire in the upper deck of Tropicana Field that created a smoky haze over the playing field at the dome stadium five hours before game time.
The St. Petersburg Fire Department closed media and employee gates, but did not evacuate those already inside the ballpark.
The fire did not impact pregame work or activities.
Red Sox: 2B Dustin Pedroia, on the disabled list following left knee surgery, had a streak of consecutive starts on opening day end at 11. ... LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (right knee surgery) worked four innings in a minor league spring training game.
Rays: There's no definitive timetable for RHP Nathan Eovaldi to return from arthroscopic surgery for loose bodies in his pitching elbow. He was sharp in his final spring training outing Monday, however manager Kevin Cash said the following night the pitcher noticed the first sign of a problem when he woke up with swelling in the elbow.
Red Sox: LHP David Price (6-3, 3.38 ERA in 2017) faces his former team in the second game of a four-game series. Price was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft and pitched for the Rays from 2008-2014, winning the AL Cy Young Award in 2012. He's 3-3 with a 3.91 ERA in nine appearances, including eight starts, against his old team.
Rays: LHP Blake Snell (5-7, 4.04 in 2017) looks to build on improvement he showed over his final 10 starts of last season, when he went 5-1 with a 2.84 ERA after being recalled from the minors on Aug. 8.