ST. PETERSBURG — Shane Baz didn’t look like he even broke a sweat Monday night in an impressive major-league debut.
The Rays’ rookie right-hander was cool, calm and successful, working five dazzling innings against the potent Blue Jays.
The 22-year-old allowed just two hits, albeit a pair of sole home runs, putting on an impressive display of strike throwing (51 of 65 pitches) and looking very much like he belonged after advancing from Double-A to Triple-A — and after an Olympics sidetrip — to the majors.
“A dream come true type of thing,” Baz said.
The Rays, however, had to sweat out not spoiling the ending, as the bullpen threatened to ruin not only Baz’s work, but the impressive rallies that followed to take the lead.
Down 2-0 with Cy Young candidate Robbie Ray on the mound, first the Rays battled back. A three-run home run by Yandy Diaz off Ray in the fifth was the big blow. “Yandy picked us up in a big way,” manager Kevin Cash said.
The runs the Rays added in the next three innings proved to matter also, with Joey Wendle joining Diaz, Manuel Margot and Kevin Kiermaier in lending a big hand, including Wendle’s 11th homer and off a lefty.
“We were losing, obviously, so I know that home run put us in the lead,” Diaz said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “So I think we heated up the dugout a little bit.”
Things got pretty warm at the end for the Rays bullpen, however.
They started the ninth with a 6-2 lead and needed three pitchers to end it. David Robertson allowed a two-run homer and a walk. JT Chargois got two outs but loaded the bases Next was rookie lefty Dietrich Enns, who has had limited bullpen experience and nothing, he acknowledged, in that tense of a moment. All he did was fall behind Breyvic Valera 3-0, then come back to strike him out to end it.
“I’m obviously not trying to go 3-0 on him,” Enns said. “I’m trying to go right after him, get ahead, especially with the bases loaded and the situation that it was. But happy that the at-bat wasn’t over after that, and to just come back and get the final out was exciting.”
The win, the Rays’ majors most-matching 45th coming from behind, was especially welcomed as they had lost two straight and seven of 11. They improved their American League-best record 93-58 and extended their East lead over the idle Red Sox to seven games with 11 to play.
The Rays also reduced their magic number to clinch a third straight playoff berth to two with the A’s late loss, and to win a second straight division title to five. That means the Rays have a chance to clinch late Tuesday night, but three things have to happen: A Rays win, and losses by the Yankees and A’s.
Baz’s night turned out to be quite memorable, from the little bit of nerves he felt in the clubhouse before the game, the success he had on the mound, the beer shower he got to celebrate his first win (”Like the icing on the cake; the guys were awesome,” he said) to the postgame photos on the mound with his parents, sister and a dozen or so other friends and relatives.
“It just means everything to have them here, just able to see it,” Baz said. “And it made me so comfortable, just getting to see them this morning. It was really special.”
He pitched that way, allowing just the homers to Teoscar Hernandez (in the second) and Lourdes Gurriel (fifth), walking none (with not even a three-ball count), hitting 99.5 mph in the first when striking out MVP candidate Vlad Guerrero Jr. and 98.7 mph in the fifth. His 78.5 percent strike rate was the highest for any debuting starter since pitch tracking data was first compiled in 1988, per Stats LLC.
“You’re not going to see many more impressive outings against Toronto’s lineup,” Cash said. “He got clipped for two solo homers, but other than that, just really did a nice job of navigating. Threw strikes. Used his power. Used his breaking ball. We saw the curveball and slider just be pretty elite-looking pitches to a very good group of hitters. So happy for him. He was awesome. Fun to watch.”
And he definitely looked the part.
“The stuff speaks for itself. The velocity speaks for itself,” Cash said. “The composure, that’s what you always wonder about anytime it’s your debut — certainly when you add in that he’s 22 and what he’s gone through.
“But it does look like his experiences in Double-A and Triple-A and then obviously in the Olympics have helped him, because even with a little bit of adversity that he faced, you never saw him alter his presence on the mound, which was really, really impressive.”
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