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Rays are counting on Pruitt's flexibility

Cash likes attributes necessary to be in bullpen
MLB.com @wwchastain

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Austin Pruitt's flexibility makes the right-hander the perfect fit for the Rays pitching plans this season.

During the 2017 season, the Rays found out that Pruitt can start, he can pitch long relief, or he can help get out of a jam. Given the fact the team will enter the 2018 season with "Bullpen Day" penciled in as its fifth starter, the team will need flexibility on the staff.

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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Austin Pruitt's flexibility makes the right-hander the perfect fit for the Rays pitching plans this season.

During the 2017 season, the Rays found out that Pruitt can start, he can pitch long relief, or he can help get out of a jam. Given the fact the team will enter the 2018 season with "Bullpen Day" penciled in as its fifth starter, the team will need flexibility on the staff.

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Relievers will need to have the ability to pitch multiple innings, and they'll need to show they can recover quickly.

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Pruitt, 28, started 2017 in the bullpen. And by the time his first season in the Major Leagues had run its course, he'd spent three stints in the Major Leagues. He went 5-2 with a 6.53 ERA in 22 relief appearances, and 2-3 with a 4.19 ERA in eight starts.

"I think after last year I know I have the stuff to compete at a high level," said Pruitt, who pitched three scoreless innings against the Red Sox on Saturday. "It's just kind of how you feel between the ears. To be mentally stronger I think if you're there every time you're going to be successful."

The highlight of Pruitt's 2017 season came on Aug. 2 at Houston when he started and earned the win, holding the Astros scoreless through 6 1/3 innings in front of 200 family and friends in the crowd. In doing so, he outdueled Houston lefty Dallas Keuchel, who was riding a nine-game winning streak at the time.

Video: TB@HOU: Pruitt fans three over 6 1/3 strong innings

"I was there mentally the entire time," said Pruitt when asked if he did anything different that night. "I had a bunch of friends and family there. So I wanted to do my best for those guys."

A side note from that Austin vs. Dallas competition at Minute Maid Park came from SABR name guru Diane Firstman, who noted there were at least six previous games in which the starting pitchers' first names were both cities in the state where the game was played.

Pruitt has many positive attributes that are suitable for the bullpen. The ability to throw strikes probably ranks high on that list.

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"I think there's a lot of pitching coaches that would argue that's the name of the game," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "Controlling that 0-0 count and that 1-1 count is huge. And we saw Pruitt at times last year was a consistent strike thrower. I think when you look at some of his hiccups that he had throughout the big league season, it evolved around falling behind. And I think he's gotten back into that mode of trusting his stuff and getting it in the zone early."

The right-hander threw first-pitch strikes to 66 percent of the batters he faced last season, which would have ranked fifth in the Major Leagues if he qualified. According to Stats LLC, the only qualifier in franchise history to throw first-pitch strikes at a higher rate was David Price in 2014 (72.3) and 2013 (67.5).

Pruitt's arsenal includes a fastball, curveball, slider and changeup. Some pitchers have been known to limit which pitches they throw when they go to the bullpen. Not Pruitt.

"I think I need all of my pitches to be successful," Pruitt said. "I definitely don't take any of them out of my repertoire because I need all of them to be successful."

Cash said all of Pruitt's pitches "kind of complement and feed off each other."

"The last thing we would want to do is take away from something that we think makes him good," Cash said.

Bill Chastain has covered the Rays for MLB.com since 2004.

Tampa Bay Rays, Austin Pruitt