Columbia native Josh Fleming made his Major League Baseball debut Sunday as the starting pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays, pitching five solid innings for a victory.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound lefty took the mound at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., as the Rays hosted the Toronto Blue Jays. The game was nationally televised on TBS.
Fleming struck out the first major league hitter he faced with a fastball clocked at 92 miles per hour. It was Toronto’s Cavan Biggio, son of Hall of Famer Craig Biggio. He ended his perfect first inning with a strikeout of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who is also the son of a Hall of Famer.
Fleming surrendered a home run in the second and ran into trouble in the fourth inning before wriggling out of a bases loaded jam.
He left the game after five innings with a 3-2 lead, and the Rays built upon their lead to earn Fleming his first major league win.
“I’m kind of on cloud nine,” Fleming told MLB.com after the game. “I woke up this morning and was a little anxious. Once I got on the mound, it kind of all went away.”
Asked if during the game he felt like he could compete in the majors, Fleming replied “I’ve kind of felt like I always belonged. First pitch, I felt like I was where I needed to be and everything.”
Fleming, a 2014 graduate of Columbia High School, was a non-roster invitee to the Rays’ big league spring training camp this year and was included on the club’s 60-man roster at the start of the season.
He was called up to the main squad from the Rays’ alternate training site in Port Charlotte, Fla., Friday afternoon to take the place of pitcher Yonny Chirinos on the 40-man roster. Chirinos suffered a UCL tear that will require season-ending Tommy John surgery.
Rays manager Kevin Cash told the Tampa Bay Times that Fleming had “a lot of excitement when he was told’’ about the call-up.
Cash said after the game that this excitement continued with Sunday’s win.
“Anytime you see a young guy come up, debuts, pitches good enough, deserves the win, got the win, it’s pretty exciting,” Cash told the Tampa Bay Times.
Fleming was selected in the fifth round of the 2017 MLB draft following a spectacular pitching career at NCAA Division III Webster University in St. Louis.
From 2015-17, Fleming set Webster University single-season marks for ERA and strikeouts and allowed the second-lowest batting average for opponents (.165). Additionally, Fleming recorded the lowest career ERA in school history (1.92).
He was named 2017 D3Baseball.com Pitcher of the Year.
Fleming, 24, is in his fourth season of professional baseball and was expected to start the season at Triple-A Durham before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the minor league season.
He is 22-13 with a 3.40 ERA in 56 games (46 starts) with 214 strikeouts and just 53 walks in his minor league career.
During his senior year at CHS, Fleming went 8-4 with a 1.53 ERA and seven complete games with 91 strikeouts in 73 innings pitched for the Eagles.
CHS head baseball coach Neal O’Donnell called Sunday’s outing a proud moment for the Eagles baseball program and the entire community of Columbia.
“He did a good job in his first outing and showed why he’s there,” O’Donnell said. “He competed and limited the damage in the fourth inning when things could have started to unravel. He showed a lot of poise. I was glad that they were able to get those three runs across in the fifth so he could get the win and they were able to hang on.”
Josh’s parents, Mark and Lori Fleming, and fiancé Katie O’Toole joined some of Josh’s college friends in traveling down to St. Petersburg to watch the game at a bar and grill across the street from Tropicana Field. It’s the best they could do since MLB teams do not allow fans inside stadiums due to the pandemic.
After the game, Josh told FOX Sports Sun that he was giving the game ball to his mother.
“When he made the call to tell us on Friday, that’s when I thought about all those times when he was a little boy and we would play catch,” Mark Fleming said of his son in a Sunday interview with the Tampa Bay Times. “We’re going to have to learn how to relax so we can enjoy watching him because today it was hard to even breathe.”
The Fleming family will need to learn quick, as Cash said Josh will remain in the rotation at least in the near future. His next start is projected to be this Friday against the Miami Marlins.