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Say hello to the Rays’ latest October surprise

John Romano | Shane Baz was impressive in his big-league debut Monday, and he might just solve what had been a recent downturn in the rotation.
After giving up two hits (both solo home runs) in five innings in his MLB debut, Rays right-hander Shane Baz looks like he might be able to provide another quality arm for a postseason run.
After giving up two hits (both solo home runs) in five innings in his MLB debut, Rays right-hander Shane Baz looks like he might be able to provide another quality arm for a postseason run. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Sep. 21

ST. PETERSBURG — Well, this could change everything. The rotation? It looks better. The bullpen? It gets deeper.

The World Series? It seems closer.

Maybe that’s a big burden to heap on one 22-year-old after five innings in the big leagues, but Shane Baz sort of brought it on himself. The Rays right-hander was that electric in his MLB debut in a 6-4 win against Toronto on Monday night at Tropicana Field.

His fastball touched 99.5 mph, his slider got about a dozen swings-and-misses and his curveball showed up just enough times to keep hitters off-balance. It wasn’t a flawless performance, but it was tantalizing enough to make you want to see him again and again.

Like, maybe, on the American League Division Series roster in another two weeks?

If Baz can potentially slot in as another option to start for the Rays in October, or even as a multi-inning reliever, it could change the way the roster is constructed, including which pitchers are needed in the bullpen.

“That was part of the thought (process) of getting him up here, that we wanted to see him and give him a little bit of the big league experience,” manager Kevin Cash said after the game. “If there is an opportunity where we get to where we’re hoping to get, then he becomes an option for us. So he’s done that, and we’ll see how it shakes out over the next couple of days or week and go from there.”

And, safe to say, Baz helped make those type of decisions easier?

“I don’t think he could have done much better,” Cash said.

There’s no reason to just hand Baz a postseason roster spot at this point. For one thing, there’s enough time left in the regular season to get him another start or two just to make sure what we saw on Monday night was as special as it seemed.

If you recall, Wander Franco had a similarly dazzling debut this summer, then proceeded to take a few weeks to get his feet settled under him. Baz may have retired 15 of the 17 hitters he faced Monday, but the rest of the AL will quickly study how he attacked the Blue Jays and it will then be incumbent on Baz to make his own adjustments.

But two things were evident against Toronto:

The wealth of talent, and the uncanny composure.

“The kid might have the slowest heart rate I’ve ever seen,” said Rays pitcher Dietrich Enns, who retired the final hitter with the bases loaded to get the save. “The game comes slow to him.”

Both of those attributes have been evident since the Rays acquired him from Pittsburgh, along with Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows in 2018 in what may turn out to be one of the most lopsided trades in MLB history, but there were still refinements that had to be made.

The Rays convinced him to swap his two-seam fastball for a four-seam fastball (that plays better higher in the strike zone with his velocity) but pitching coach Kyle Snyder said all of the credit goes to Baz.

He began his pro career walking 5.3 batters every nine innings of work, but slowly learned to attack the strike zone early in the count. His strikeout-to-walk ratio went from 1.75 in Class A in 2019 to 8.69 in Double-A and Triple-A this season. Baz’s control was so impeccable against the Blue Jays that his 78.5 percent strike rate was the best ever for an MLB debut since Stats LLC began tracking data more than 30 years ago.

“It’s just trusting his stuff, giving him reasons to trust his stuff, helping him understand why, and how good his stuff is, and how best to put it to work,” Snyder said. “It’s the willingness to fill up the (strike) zone, as well as his stuff growing, that gives us every indication that he came come up here and compete.”

And, truthfully, it comes at the right time for Tampa Bay. The Rays have been transitioning from a veteran rotation to start the season (Glasnow, Rich Hill, Michael Wacha, Chris Archer and Ryan Yarbrough) to a bunch of 20-somethings here in September.

But the plan hasn’t been completely smooth in recent weeks. In their last 12 games not started by Shane McClanahan or Drew Rasmussen, Rays starting/bulk pitchers had a 7.26 ERA. Now, with the possibility of Baz joining Luis Patino, 21, McClanahan, 24 and Rasmussen, 25, the Rays could have four elite arms that only need to go five innings or so before turning the game over to the bullpen.

While it might have seemed counterintuitive to have a young pitcher make his debut against one of the best-hitting lineups in the baseball, it allowed the Rays to see just how Baz might perform against elite hitters when October rolls around.

“He’s got a good arm, that’s what I saw,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. “Another good arm for the Rays comes up from the minor leagues.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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