TORONTO — Rays manager Kevin Cash was pretty confident Shane McClanahan was over the shoulder impingement that sidelined him for two weeks and would show well in his return to the mound Thursday.
But he acknowledged some slight doubt.
“There’s always a little, in the back of your mind, like, ‘All right, where’s this going to go?’” Cash said.
He asked pitching coach Kyle Snyder about McClanahan’s warmup session in the bullpen and was pleased to hear that he was throwing strikes. Cash was excited to see McClanahan’s first three pitches pop up on the Rogers Centre videoboard at 99, 98 and 99 mph.
He was relieved, after a 23-pitch, two-hit first inning, to see McClanahan settle into a familiar and dominant groove, retiring 11 of his last 12 hitters as the ace left-hander threw the first five innings of the 11-0 win over Toronto.
“He looked,” Cash said, “really sharp.”
Or, as catcher Rene Pinto put it: “So nasty. We are not machines, but he looks like it.”
McClanahan’s healthy return to the mound left the Rays feeling better about themselves.
Thursday’s win put a good finish on what had been a rough road trip, losing three of five to the Blue Jays after dropping two of three to the Yankees. It was also historic, as Tampa Bay — fittingly, on Roberto Clemente Day — used the first batting order in major-league history comprised of nine players from Latin American countries.
The Rays headed home 80-63 and a close third in the three-team American League wild-card field, ½ game behind the Mariners and Jays and with a 4½-game cushion over the Orioles, who are closest to crashing the party.
And knowing they have McClanahan back for the final three weeks of the season and whatever is beyond that.
“I think it’s going to mean a lot,” said Yandy Diaz, whose three-run, second inning homer gave the Rays a welcome early cushion. Isaac Paredes also homered, Randy Arozarena had three hits and Manuel Margot added a bases-clearing double in the six-run ninth.
“We’re better with (McClanahan) than without him, no doubt about it,” Cash said. “He’s such a talented pitcher, and we know how talented this (Blue Jays) lineup is. To go through that, having not come back and not had any rehab outing, he can pitch, and he’s got his stuff as good as anybody in baseball.”
McClanahan, whose dominant first-half earned him the start for the American League in the All-Star Game, said he had no doubts he would pitch well.
His initial concern over the discomfort he felt when abruptly halting his warm-ups minutes before a scheduled Aug. 30 start in Miami was alleviated with the diagnosis of the impingement and nothing worse. The cortisone shot he received Sept. 1 helped noticeably. And the hard work he and the Rays staff did had him ready to return on Thursday, his first day eligible.
“I knew I felt good,” he said. “And I was just eager to get back out there.”
Then he took the mound and felt a little off.
“The first and second innings were kind of weird for me,” he said. “It was like, all right, well, hopefully it’s a strike. ... Usually, I can put it wherever I want. And I was struggling. I was spiking fastballs, I was pulling changeups. I wasn’t doing a good job of competing inside the zone.”
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A quick chat with Snyder and some minor adjustments made a major difference. The Rays were planning on limiting McClanahan to four or five innings, so when he came off the mound at the end of the fourth, having thrown 61 pitches, he kept saying “I’m good, I’m good,” to convince them to let him pitch the fifth.
For the day, he allowed three hits, walked just one and struck out five, throwing 46 of his 69 pitches for strikes. And he hit 99 mph or higher eight times, topping out at 100.1.
“It took a little bit to get back into the kind of the groove of things and find that tempo and rhythm and release point,” McClanahan said. “After I felt like I found it, I felt like it was a lot better for me.”
And for the Rays.
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