PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh opened their Grapefruit League seasons Saturday afternoon at Charlotte Sports Park as the Pirates took a 3-2 win over the split-squad Rays.
Pitching is the Rays' strong suit, and they wheeled out three of their best arms to start for the split-squad team that stayed home while another team traveled to Fort Myers to play the Red Sox.
Roberto Hernandez, Jeff Niemann and Fernando Rodney retired the first nine Pirates batters in order.
Hernandez and Niemann are the leading candidates for the No. 5 spot in the Rays' rotation. Their performances Saturday served as a possible precursor for the competition that should take place between the two this spring.
"It felt great to get back on the field and be in a game," said Niemann, who dealt with injuries in 2012.
When asked about whether the competition with Hernandez starts today, Niemann said:
"It's one of those things where I think we're both going out there and doing our thing, trying to get better for us, and trying to build up for us individually, and whatever decision is made, is made. But we're going out there and trying to do what we need to do right now, may the chips fall where they may."
Rodney, who will be pitching for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, looked ready as he threw several offspeed pitches en route to striking out the side in the third. When the Rays' closer left the field, he offered one of his signature arrow shots, much to the crowd's delight.
Pirates starter Jeff Locke, who was the organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2012, pitched three scoreless innings. The left-hander is in competition to claim a spot in the back of the Pirates' rotation.
"It felt good to get back out there and compete against guys in different uniforms, and no 'L' screen," said Locke. "It was a good little workload. I was able to move the ball to both sides of the plate well. Everything was great today, must've been the smooth bus ride over [from Bradenton]. I just want to continue the success, keep being me."
Starling Marte offered a glimpse at what the Pirates' batting order might look like if he bats in the leadoff spot this season. He opened the fourth with the first hit of the game then promptly stole second base and scored the game's first run on a groundout.
The Pirates added two runs in a sixth inning highlighted by Felix Pie's RBI triple to center field. Pie later scored on Darren Ford's single to left.
The Rays scored two runs in the eighth for the final margin.
Up next: The Pirates will host the Braves in a 1:05 p.m. ET tilt in Bradenton. Right-hander James McDonald is expected to start for the Pirates. Other pitchers who could see action include: Right-handers Jason Grilli, Jared Hughes, and Ryan Reid along with left-handers Justin Wilson, Jonathan Sanchez, and Tony Watson.
Right-hander Julio Teheran will start for the Braves.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.