Baz gives 97-win Rays food for thought

Rookie continues push for spot on postseason roster as club ties franchise mark for wins

September 26th, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- The American League East champion Rays haven’t finalized any postseason pitching plans yet, but in only two starts, top prospect Shane Baz has given them a lot to think about.

The 22-year-old right-hander was downright dominant again Sunday afternoon, holding the Marlins to three hits and a walk while striking out nine over 5 2/3 scoreless innings in the Rays’ 3-2 victory at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay called up Baz for the final two weeks of the season to get a look at him, but now, it’s fair to wonder if he is pitching his way into its AL Division Series rotation.

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The Rays still have plenty of time to make those decisions. They’ll use the final week to balance winning as many games as possible with evaluating each and every option they have on their roster heading into October. Baz knows as well as anybody that what comes next is out of his control, but he has done everything he could with the two opportunities he has been given.

“I'm just trying to pitch as well as I can and leave it up to everybody else,” he said. “Trying to just not think about that at all.”

Games remaining: Six
Standings update: Clinched first place in the AL East on Saturday
Magic number for AL’s best record: One

On Sunday, Baz helped pitch Tampa Bay to its 97th win of the year, tying the franchise record set in 2008. Coming off Saturday’s division-clinching win at The Trop, the Rays took another step toward securing the best record in the AL. They could officially clinch home-field advantage through the AL Championship Series when they begin their final regular-season road trip Tuesday in Houston.

Manager Kevin Cash played against the 2008 Rays, so the significance of matching that team’s regular-season win total -- and having a good chance to break it – was not lost on him.

“It’s great for this team,” Cash said. “To be mirrored with them right now is pretty reflective of two very talented teams.”

In his first two starts against the Blue Jays and Marlins, Baz has allowed only two runs on five hits with 14 strikeouts and one walk in 10 2/3 innings. He has thrown 70 percent of his pitches for strikes, and opponents have missed on 35.8 percent of the swings they’ve taken against him. In other words, he’s pairing relentless strike-throwing with an elite arsenal.

That combination worked well for the Rays in their final home game until Game 1 of the ALDS. They jumped out to an early lead against Marlins lefty Jesús Luzardo, with rookie shortstop doubling and scoring in a first-inning rally that included two sacrifice flies, then rode Baz and the bullpen to their fourth straight win and 14th sweep of the season.

“I felt good,” Baz said. “Gave us a chance to win. That's all I'm trying to do.”

The Rays are already going to rely on a bunch of young arms in big roles next month. Shane McClanahan and Drew Rasmussen project to be their top two starters, and Luis Patiño is likely to be in the starting/bulk-inning mix as well. Why not Baz, too? He has shown the stuff and the poise, and it’s hard to argue with the results.

“We're just thrilled with the way he has looked in his two starts for us. I don't know how much more he can do,” Cash said. “Just very, very impressed again.”

Baz struck out six and didn’t allow a baserunner during his first trip through Miami’s lineup. Jazz Chisholm Jr. snapped that streak with a leadoff single in the fourth inning, then Baz retired five Marlins in a row before allowing another single to Joe Panik in the fifth.

Baz returned for the sixth, allowed a one-out double, then issued his first career walk with two outs.

At that point, Cash pulled him in favor of reliever JT Chargois, who immediately ended the inning with a groundout, and Baz walked off the mound to a standing ovation from the crowd of 20,826.

As well as the outing went overall, Baz seemed frustrated with himself afterward for not finishing the inning when he had a chance.

“I've got to get out of that inning and do a better job of just making my pitches, so it was good to get out there for the sixth, and I wish I could have finished it off,” Baz said. “But Chargois came in and shut the door and made a good pitch and did a great job.”

The Marlins scored in the seventh on back-to-back doubles off Chargois, then left-hander Josh Fleming -- in his first look as a true reliever, not a bulk-inning pitcher -- quickly retired all four batters he faced. Right-hander Nick Anderson, working his way back into midseason form after an elbow injury pushed back his season debut to Sept. 12, allowed a solo homer in the ninth but nonetheless picked up his first save of the season.

That made Anderson -- the team’s saves leader last season -- the 14th Rays pitcher to record a save this year, extending their Major League record.

“His stuff looked pretty good. We know one thing about Nick is that he can control his emotions as well as anybody,” Cash said. “Doesn't matter if it's the sixth or ninth, he's been in every big situation that we've been a part of. Just so appreciative of Nick's efforts.”