ST. PETERSBURG -- Before Shane Baz could walk, his mother Tammy has said, he could throw a baseball. He’s wanted to throw a baseball for a living since he was a young child. Pitching in the Major Leagues, the 22-year-old right-hander said Sunday, is “kind of what I feel like I was meant to do.”
Baz looked like he belonged in the Rays’ 6-4 win over the Blue Jays on Monday night at Tropicana Field. The Rays’ top prospect held the Majors’ hottest team to two solo home runs over five innings, and Yandy Díaz’s go-ahead three-run homer off Robbie Ray in the fifth inning put Baz in line for the win in his big league debut.
“It was like a dream-come-true type thing,” Baz said.
After seeing him dominate hitters at two levels in the Minor Leagues then test his mettle for Team USA in the Olympics, the Rays felt Baz was ready for the challenge of facing a tough Blue Jays lineup in the stretch run of a pennant race. Baz said Sunday he felt more nervous to pitch in Tokyo than he was to face Toronto, and he seemed completely at ease when he took the mound Monday night.
“When I got on the field, it just felt right. It was like, ‘Yeah, I feel comfortable. This is what I'm meant to do,’” Baz said. “It was good to be able to pitch well enough for us to win.”
Well enough to give the Rays plenty to think about, too, whenever they sit down to construct their postseason pitching staff.
Monday’s victory, which came on the heels of consecutive losses, knocked the Rays’ magic number to clinch their second straight American League East title down to five, and their magic number to clinch a postseason berth was two entering the second game of the set. A win by the Rays on Tuesday along with losses by the A's and either the Red Sox or Yankees would secure Tampa Bay's spot.
Manager Kevin Cash said the Rays will see how the coming days shake out, but if Monday was a test, Baz clearly passed.
“You're not going to see many more impressive outings against Toronto's lineup,” Cash said. “So happy for him. He was awesome. Fun to watch.”
The right-hander admitted he felt some nerves sitting in the clubhouse Monday afternoon, but they faded the moment he climbed up the dugout stairs, stepped onto the field and warmed up to “Fearless” by Pink Floyd.
His first pitch to George Springer was a fastball, low and outside, clocked at 95 mph. Four pitches later, he had his first big league strikeout. With two outs in the first, Baz fell behind Vladimir Guerrero Jr., then made the AL MVP candidate swing and miss on two straight breaking balls and a 99.5 mph fastball.
Baz’s debut wasn’t perfect. In the second inning, Teoscar Hernández hammered a high fastball out to center. In the fifth, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. pulled a slider out to left. That put the Rays in a 2-0 hole, which Díaz pulled them out of by launching a 1-2 fastball out to left field against the AL Cy Young Award candidate Ray.
Díaz hopped out of the batter’s box with his hands raised, took a few slow steps down the first-base line then stared into Tampa Bay’s dugout before jogging around the basepaths and putting Baz in position to win.
“I know that home run put us in the lead,” Díaz said through interpreter Manny Navarro, “so I think we heated up the dugout a little bit.”
Baz, meanwhile, did everything the Rays came to expect as he cruised through the Minors this season.
He struck out five and didn’t walk anybody -- his greatest point of pride -- which was in character, considering his absurd 8.69 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the Minors. He threw 51 of his 65 pitches for strikes, the highest strike percentage (78.5) by any starter in his MLB debut since pitches were first tracked beginning in 1988, according to STATS.
“The kid might have the slowest heart rate I've ever seen. The game comes slow to him,” said left-hander Dietrich Enns, who displayed a slow heartbeat of his own by striking out Breyvic Valera to leave the bases loaded in the ninth inning. “He's always under control with his mechanics, and it almost looks effortless out there. That's just his demeanor. Nothing's too big for him.”
Baz also displayed the elite stuff he’s possessed since the Pirates picked him 12th overall in the 2017 Draft, getting the Blue Jays to swing and miss 15 times. He allowed no hits other than the solo shots. And he looked, as his warmup song might have hinted, fearless.
“The stuff speaks for itself. The velocity speaks for itself. The composure, that's what you always wonder about any time it's your debut,” Cash said. “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.”
Baz earned the celebrations that came afterward. First, in the clubhouse with his teammates, which the 22-year-old called “the icing on the cake” to his performance. Then, on an otherwise empty field with his parents and about a dozen other family and friends who were on hand to watch him live his dream. At one point, Baz stood alone on the mound with his parents, Raj and Tammy, who were wearing his No. 11 jersey.
“Surreal,” Baz said. “I think we've all waited on that moment for so long.”