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Bucs announce latest phase of Raymond James improvements

The Tampa Bay Bucs are building off of the field, too.

The Bucs announced another phase of improvements to Raymond James Stadium, including a redesigned West Stadium Club, a new team retail store, expansion of the Hall of Fame Club, and a new home team locker room.

“These are exciting times for our organization, both on and off the field,” said Buccaneers Chief Operating Officer Brian Ford. “The redesigned West Stadium Club will be a game-changer for our fans that are looking for the best views of the action along with the comfort of an air-conditioned lounge. The new team store will also be a great destination for our fans looking for exclusive merchandise that they won’t find anywhere else.”

Other stadium enhancements include a new 18,700-square foot Buccaneers locker room, which will triple the size of the previous one, and a refresh to the press box.

The Buccaneers won their final four home games, and six of their last eight overall, to cap a 9-7 season in 2016. They will look to carry that momentum and excitement against a 2017 home slate that includes the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots, NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons, New York Giants, New York Jets, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, and NFC South rivals Carolina and New Orleans.

Yankees’ Michael Pineda tames Rays back in their first road loss of year

This time, the Tampa Bay Rays ran into the good Michael Pineda.

In their first road game of the year, Pineda was a stop sign. He flirted with a perfect game, sitting down the Rays’ first 20 batters en route to a two-hitter in an 8-1 win by the New York Yankees. He struck out 11.

You can hardly blame the Rays if they failed to recognize Pineda as the inconsistent pitcher who lasted only eight batters against Tampa Bay earlier in the season in a 4-1 Rays’ win.

This time, the Rays’ managed only a two-out double by Evan Longoria in the seventh and a solo home run by Logan Morrison in the eighth.

For the Yankees, Aaron Judge, Chase Headley and Starlin Castro all homered in the win. The Yankees broke a 3-1 game open with a five-run eighth.

Pineda has always been hard to figure out. He was 6-12 last year with a 4.82 ERA, but he led the Yankees in strikeouts.

“He had really good fastball command,” Rays’ manager Kevin Cash said. “He could place his slider where he needed to, and he mixed in a change-up a lot more than we saw in his first meeting. We’ve always respected how he comes out and competes. He can make some really good hitters look bad.”

For the Rays, it was that way as they visited the Yankees, who won their 16th home opener in their last 20 games.

The teams are off today, then play again on Wednesday.

Lightning finish their season with a win, but must watch the playoffs

The Tampa Bay Lightning barely missed the playoffs. In some ways, that makes it more difficult.

The Lightning wrapped up their regular season Sunday evening, beating the Buffalo Sabres 4-2. That left the team with 94 points, one behind both Toronto and Boston.

Brayden Point scored two goals in the finale. Defensemen Victor Hedman and Braydon Coburn also scored for Tampa Bay.

“It’s hard to digest right now because it’s been less than 24 hours since we’ve known that we weren’t going to play after tonight,” Cooper said. “All I can say is there was a time in early February where we were not relevant at all. This team found a way to make themselves relevant through game 81.

“Just to watch the crowd support at a 5:00 game on a Sunday afternoon on a beautiful day while The Masters is going on. The place is jam packed and nobody left and everybody stayed till the very end.

“There’s a love affair between the team and our fans. I was just proud to be standing there behind the bench, The players, they made the team relevant during the last two and a half months of the season, but, in saying that, come five months from now everybody’s 0-0-0. But, there’s a lot of fight in that group and you’ve got to say a lot of that group will be back here next year and it’s great to be a part of that.”

 The Lightning finished their last 30 games at 20-6-4, but 94 points weren’t enough to get into the post-season. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was 6-1-1 over his last eight starts.

Cooper was pleased with the effort of Point, who finished with 18 goals.

“That kid’s a hockey player,” Cooper said. “It’s hard to define everything good that happens to players. It’s happening to him because of his commitment to be better. I thought it was unbelievably fitting the way the winning goal goes in because the kid that just worked the hardest got awarded with a fluky one because he deserved that. I’m just so impressed that somebody that young and a little bit undersized can come in and – a lot of guys put the team on their back these last few months. But his growth has been phenomenal.

“He’s just a committed kid. (There are) not enough guys like him. I’ll just tell you that.”

Red-hot Rays finish first home streak of the season at 5-2 with win over Blue Jays

The Tampa Bay Rays have started the 2017 baseball season as if they were trying to make you reconsider.

The Rays, last in the American League East a year ago, ran their record to a franchise-best 5-2 start to a season Sunday with a 7-2 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays. The Rays are currently in second place in the AL East, a half-game behind Baltimore.

This time, the Rays competed hard enough that their angst showed a couple of times. Center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, who had three hits, was ejected for the first time in his career in the eighth inning. And right fielder Steven Souza, who had a key three-run homer, helped to ignite a benches-clearing brawl when he went hard into Blue Jays shortstop Troy Tulowitzski.

Still, the Rays had nine hits and came back from a two-run deficit. Jake Odorizzi gave up two hits to the first four batters he faced, then didn’t give up another one through six innings. He retired 16 of the final 17 batters he faced.

Catcher Jesus Sucre hit a home run and drove in two more runs with a single. Rookie Daniel Robertson had two hits.

Souza is now tied for third with a .417 batting average, and he has struck out only twice in seven games. The last two seasons, he has struck out 303 times.

“It’s just a week,” Souza said. “We have 155 more games if my math is right. We have a game in New York; we’re still in the division. These are important games. More so, if I can help our team win on a daily basis so we can be in the World Series, that’s all that’s going to matter to me.”

Souza wasn’t concerned with the tempers flaring.

“I’m not going to play every game and wonder if Tulo is going to get upset about it,” he said. “I’m playing hard, and if he thinks that I’m trying to be malicious, he clearly doesn’t know who I am. It’s unfortunate that it turned into something like that because it was just baseball. Hopefully, we can just squash it and move on, because I’m really tired of having a feud with that.”

Kiermaier said he didn’t know he had been ejected until teammate Daniel Robertson told him on the bench.

“That was my first time (being ejected),” he said. “It’s not really how I pictured my first ejection — I wish I would have gotten my money’s worth. I definitely thought I had some low pitches.
“I know I can’t get tossed from a game with my defensive resume. I didn’t do a good job of holding my anger in the moment back, and he tossed me. Fair on his part. I just totally disagree with the call.”

The Rays now go on a seven-game road trip, starting Monday in New York.

Rays beat Blue Jays in extra innings behind Mallex Smith’s big night

For a moment, it appeared that the strategy had worked. It hadn’t.

For a moment, it appeared that the Toronto Blue Jays could get out of the jam. They couldn’t.

The Tampa Bay Rays won another close one Saturday night, edging the Blue Jays in 11 innings. And the catalyst to it all was a speedy outfielder who had a career night. Mallex Smith reached base five times, on two hits and three walks. He hit a double and scored the winning run in the 11th.

Smith was sacrificed to third with one out, but the Jays intentionally walked Corey Dickerson and Kevin Kiermaier to load the bases. The plan seemed to work when Casey Lawrence struck out Evan Longoria for the second out of the inning, but he followed with a walk to Brad Miller to force in the winning run.

“That’s two in a row,” said manager Kevin Cash. “Two games that we’ve won and had a tough time finding ways to win. We found a way to win tonight. That was an outstanding pitching performance by Arch (Chris Archer) and their guy (Aaron Sanchez). It was fun to watch early on if you’re a fan of good pitching. That was electric stuff. Location, everything was going on. Two good lineups. Just excited that we were able to pull it off.”

Cash enjoyed watching Smith’s performance.

“Mallex’s spring was put on pause for an injury early on,” Cash said, “so we didn’t get to see him and then I think throughout spring, I think he was trying to feel his way a little bit. You can tell since he’s been here that it’s been much more the aggressive style of play. We are going to ride with it as he’s feeling it. Tremendous at-bats at the plate laying off tough pitches and putting himself in hitter’s counts every single at-bat.

Smith said his plan was simple: Get on base.

“I call that a blessed day right there,” Smith said. “You know that doesn’t happen every day so when you have days like this you gotta relish in them for the rest of the night. Just a good day progressively you know, taking steps forward and just building confidence in my own game. Building up some confidence in the staff here you know so that’s a very progressive day. It’s nice to have a day like today where I can showcase a lot of it. The only thing I didn’t do today was bunt. I know that’s the thing that everybody penciled me in as a bunter, but a great day.”

Jays’ manager John Gibbons admitted it was an unusual strategy.

“Normally, you don’t want to walk the bases loaded to get to Longoria, but the situation, you needed a force play with Smith running,” Gibbons said. “The chance of getting him on a tag play with the way he runs. He got the big out there, but then of course then walk which was the ballgame. I thought he handled himself well. I thought we pitched very well tonight. I thought Sanchez was great. We ran into our own nemesis Archer and when we took the lead, we had the chance to add on, which would have been big, but they answered right back. The guys are battling. Every game we are playing, other than last night, has been a tight game late, we’ve just come up short.”

Chris Archer pitched well for the Rays, allowing five hits and two runs in 7 2/3 innings. He struck out eight in a non-decision.

The Rays play the Blue Jays today at 1:10 p.m. Jake Odorizzi will pitch against Marco Estrada.

Rowdies keep winning formula going with third straight win

To sum up, ditto.

For the third straight game, the Tampa Bay Rowdies got a goal from Georgi Hristov.

For the third straight game, the Rowdies got a clean sheet from Akira Fitzgerald.

And for the third straight game, the Rowdies won a game at Al Lang Stadium. This time, the Rowdies stopped  the Ottawa Fury FC in a 1-0 game. The Rowdies have now collected nine points in their three home games to key one of their fastest starts.

“You can build momentum and confidence from this type of start,” Rowdies’ coach Stuart Campbell said. “Tonight was a tough game physically. They put us under a lot of pressure physically with a lot of long balls, but we defended absolutely fantastically again. I was really happy for the whole team to get a clean sheet again.”

Hristov’s goal came from a Luke Boden cross which was deflected by an Ottawa defender, but not enough to prevent it from reaching Hristov at the near post.

“I think we played really good tonight because it was a very, very tough game,” Hristov said. “The way they played, it’s very hard to play against. I don’t think they were really looking for a win. It was a good test for us because it was hard to break through them because they were very tight with no space. Even though it didn’t look like one of our best games, I personally think it was our best game so far.”

Fitzgerald made three saves on the night. Fitzgerald had been asked to make only two saves in the first two weeks combined. But the Rowdies haven’t given up a goal since the team played in the NASL.

“It was a great result again with another clean sheet,” Fitzgerald said. “The chances (Ottawa had) were from distance, things I’m expected to do well with. I’m glad I was able to help the guys out. The guys in front of me battled really hard. We knew it was going to be a tough game.”

Tampa Bay (3-0-0, 9 points) could’ve doubled its advantage in the 51st minute when Michael Nanchoff beat his defender and was chopped down just outside the box, but the Rowdies didn’t convert the free kick into a goal.

Up next, the Rowdies hit the road for the first time in the USL regular season, visiting Louisville City FC next Saturday and then FC Cincinnati on Wednesday.

Bolts eliminated from playoffs as Maple Leafs rally past Pittsburgh

The ride has ended. The Tampa Bay Lightning are going home.

The Lightning was eliminated from the NHL playoffs Saturday night as the Toronto Maple Leafs came from behind to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, 5-3, in Toronto. For the Lightning to make the post-season, it needed Toronto to lose to both Pittsburgh Saturday and Columbus on Sunday, while the Bolts would have had to beat Buffalo.

Instead, the game will be played with no more meaning but to say farewell to their fans.

Pittsburgh led 3-2 in the third period, but Toronto came back. Connor Brown scored the go-ahead for Toronto with his 20th goal with 2:48 to play. Auston Matthews scored his 40th goal with an empty netter.

Several FSU players have highlights in Seminoles’ spring game

It left you wanting more. In a good way.

More points. More speed. More Cam Akers. More Derwin James. More Brian Burns.

The FSU Seminoles’ spring practice Saturday was largely a tease, a hint of the big plays to come. The Gold team beat the Garnet, 17-7, in a game that that looked very much like a highlight film.

For instance:

There was Akers, the five-star recruit who stepped in like he had been on campus all along. He had 87 yards rushing on 10 carries and caught two passes for 15 yards, and by the end of the day, his teammates were comparing him to the departing Dalvin Cook.

There was James, who missed most of last season with an injury. But James roared back with seven tackles, including three for losses.

There was Brian Burns, the rising sophomore who had three sacks and seems as if he will be able to replace Demarcus Walker.

There was defensive back Kyle Meyers, who returned an interception 28 yards for the only touchdown by the Garnett team.

There was punter Logan Tyler, who punted 13 times and averaged 43.5 yards per kick. He had five punts inside the 20.

There was quarterback Deondre Francois, who threw for 133 yards and a touchdown.

Except for that, there were the defenses, which combined for 12 sacks, 19 tackles for loss and an interception.

“I liked the scrimmage today from a standpoint of it was very physical,” Fisher said. “Guys tackled well, played well. … Even though there wasn’t a lot of scoring, there wasn’t a lot of missed assignments. Guys just really beat a block or made a play. …

“I’d much rather be ahead on defense right now, which I think we are.”

Jacques Patrick added 64 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries for the Gold, while fifth-year senior Ryan Green led the Garnet by carrying six times for 36 yards.

“It’s hard when there’s a lot of guys that you’re not used to, and I didn’t have the receivers that I usually have,” Francois said. “So, it was good to work with some guys who I’ve never worked with before, but there are pros and cons that come with that.

“But it’s all good, and I feel comfortable with how the spring ended.”

Can the FSU offensive line protect Deondre Francois in Spring Game?

Five things to ponder while watching the FSU spring game.

1. The kids are all right: A lot of eyes will be on freshman running back Cam Akers as he tries to relieve much of the loss of all-everything Dalvin Cook. Akers is one of several Seminoles who have enrolled early, giving a chance for immediate help. Can Akers, a high school quarterback, be an instant success? Isn’t that the best kind?

2. The James Gang rides again: Safety Derwin James returns after missing most of last season due to injury. James was considered the best Seminole defender when he went down, and it took several games for the Noles to adjust.

3. The quarterback attack is back: Quarterback Deondre Francois won’t have Cook behind him, but on his own, Francois led five FSU comebacks last year. He’ll have to be very good very fast with Alabama looming in the opening game.

4. The Great Wall: Last year, FSU’s offensive line was sketchy. This year, it needs to protect Francois early. It was 58th in the NCAA with 26 sacks allowed last year, and Francois took a beating even when he got passes away. If the Seminoles’ young backs have a chance, they’ll need holes.

5. Is anyone open?: Who is Francois going to throw to? FSU lost its top four receivers from a year ago. Are Nyqwan Murray and Auden Tate the answers? We’ll see.

5 things to watch for as the Tampa Bay Rowdies put their unbeaten streak on the line

Five things to look forward to in the Saturday night game between the Rowdies and Ottawa FC.

1. Unbeaten, untied. The Rowdies seek to complete a successful homestand with a win over the Ottawa Furies. Tampa Bay had won 1-0 and 4-0 in two weeks and has looked solid on both ends of the pitch. For a team to get nine points out of its first home stand would be impressive.

2. Old friends: Ottawa is one of the few teams in the USL that is familiar to Tampa Bay, also coming from the NASL. Last year, the Fury had a loss and a tie at Al Lang Field, so the Rowdies will attempt to continue their hold over Ottawa, which is 0-1 on the season after losing last week with an own-goal.

3. Clean sheets: The Rowdies’ defense has been superb in two games so far, and pitched a shutout (a clean sheet) in both. Tampa Bay goaltender Akira Fitzgerald has been solid, but he really hasn’t had a lot of work because of the defense in front of him. Fitzgerald has only two saves in two games.

4. Passing crispness: Through two games, the Rowdies have completed 967 passes. That’s second in the USL to the Portland Timbers 2, who have 1,132, but the Timbers have played one more game. If the Rowdies can continue to distribute the ball, they should be able to get past the Fury.

5. Third time’s a charm: Rowdies’ forward Georgi Hristov has scored in each of the first two games for the Rowdies. Despite missing several chances in their opener, the Rowdies are second in the USL with five goals. Also look for Michael Nanchoff, who had two assists and earned Man of the Match honors.

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