For Rays’ Chris Archer, a good start back

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Marc Topkin, Tampa Bay Times
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FORT MYERS — The Rays got the answer to one major spring question — at least on the initial exam — as Chris Archer made a successful exhibition debut Friday, retiring all four Boston batters he faced.

“I’m really happy with where I’m at,” he said, “and looking forward to where I’m going.”

Archer was pitching in a game for the first time in more than a year (after missing the 2020 season with Pittsburgh after undergoing thoracic outlet syndrome surgery) and doing so with nothing wrong physically for the first time in nearly two years.

He also battled through considerable anxiety about his return to the mound — even at age 32 and in his 16th pro season and 10th in the majors.

“Today was much, much different,” Archer said. “I was really nervous. From the time I woke up, the whole drive, even leading up to warming up, just because it’s been so long since I felt good on the mound. I’ve had some nice tests along the way — bullpens, live batting practices — but there’s nothing that can simulate throwing in a game and a game setting.”

Archer threw 25 pitches to get his four outs, mixing his 91-94 mph fastball, an effective changeup and his steady slider. He fell behind in each count but made the pitches he needed to.

Manager Kevin Cash and pitching coach Kyle Snyder said they liked what they saw. “The (velocity) ticked up and looked right in line with where you’d want to be your first outing,” Cash said. “He commanded both the slider and the changeup. I hope he felt good about it, because we certainly did.”

Archer looked a bit like his old self at times, with a strut off the back of the mound after getting Alex Verdugo looking at a full-count changeup. And with a couple of small hops after not getting the call, or a swing, on back-to-back two-strike pitches to J.D. Martinez, who ended up grounding out.

“I’ve really, really missed the … competitive element,” Archer said. “It’s just fun to go out there and be myself. I haven’t been able to express this energy in a full year. So it was really nice to be out there and just be me and just be free. Cash and Snyder and (general manager Erik Neander) and everyone, that’s what they want. And that’s whenever I’m at my best. So that’s what we’re going to get.”

Friday was a big first step, a day that felt different as soon as Archer woke up and when he got to the clubhouse in Port Charlotte, turning up the music and dancing a bit to burn off the extra energy, much to amusement of shortstop Willy Adames.

“It was really, really nice to be on a baseball field with guys behind me,” Archer said. “I had a couple of close friends here as well (including two who flew in from North Carolina just for the game), so that made me even more comfortable. And of all those things, being healthy. I haven’t been healthy and on a mound in a stadium, in that setting, in a long time. So it was really, really nice.”

Archer, who returned to the Rays on a one-year, $6.5 million deal, has a chance to be a big part of the rotation being restructured after the team parted ways with top starters Blake Snell and Charlie Morton.

But how he pitches, and how frequently and much, is still be determined.

“I don’t think I’ve got a good answer right now,” Cash said Friday morning, “We all know Arch really well. Is he the guy that’s healthy and able to get deep in ballgames? Or is it a situation where we’ve really got to be aware and manage the workload very cautiously early on?”

Archer said it could be a little of both. He is confident he will be ready to open the season — “no doubts” — in three weeks, but could be limited to four-five innings initially and build from there.

For that matter, Cash said nothing about the rotation — an order or even a structure — has been decided yet, though it’s expected Archer and fellow newcomers Rich Hill and Michael Wacha will join incumbents Tyler Glasnow and Ryan Yarbrough.

Part of the complication is opening the season at Miami and playing the first three games under National League rules, then having a day off before going to Boston for three, followed by another day off.