End of Baz's rope comes one batter too early

Strong through 5 2/3, top prospect exits after career-high 95 pitches in fateful 6th

June 29th, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG --  unloaded nearly everything in his arsenal against the Brewers’ Rowdy Tellez, capping a seven-pitch battle with a 97.4 mph fastball that Tellez swung through for strike three. The 23-year-old right-hander was one out away from getting through the sixth inning with a one-run lead, but he had just thrown his career-high 95th pitch of the night.

The Rays believed Baz was at the end of his outing, considering he hadn’t reached the 80-pitch mark in seven previous starts between Triple-A and the Majors this season. And with a fully rested bullpen after an off-day, manager Kevin Cash liked the matchup he could set up to keep the Rays’ narrow lead intact.

So Cash pulled Baz with two outs and a runner on second base, then summoned right-hander  from the bullpen to fire sliders at Andrew McCutchen. Eight pitches later, the Rays’ one-run lead had transformed into a three-run deficit, and they were on their way to a 5-3 loss to the Brewers on Tuesday night at Tropicana Field. 

“Felt like [Baz made] a big pitch to Tellez right there to get him to strike out, and then felt confident with Wis on McCutchen,” Cash said. “It just didn't work.”

The defeat was Tampa Bay’s 13th consecutive game decided by two runs or fewer, the longest streak in the Majors since the Yankees played 16 such games in a row from July 20-Aug. 5, 2014. The Rays have gone 5-8 during that stretch of close games.

The Rays rallied for two runs in the eighth before the Brewers’ back-end bullpen duo of Devin Williams and Josh Hader slammed the door, but this one ultimately got away from them in a hurry in the sixth inning.

After a sluggish start, Baz eventually found his rhythm on the mound. The rookie outdueled Brewers right-hander Brandon Woodruff, who allowed a run on two hits while striking out 10 over five innings. Baz struck out six, including five on sliders, as he induced 15 swinging strikes on the night.

“I still don't quite think it was like coming easy for him early on. Just didn't feel like he could find his rhythm. He'll get there,” Cash told reporters. “I think he's going to get there and find the balance of starting games off and how to do those things. But once he settled in, he made big pitches.”

Indeed, Baz turned over Milwaukee’s lineup twice to work five scoreless innings in his fourth start of the season. Of the first 18 batters the Rays’ top prospect faced, only four reached safely: Two on singles, two on walks.

But his slightly inefficient start, particularly a 23-pitch first inning, caught up with him in the sixth.

With Baz starting his third trip through the Brewers lineup and Wisler warming up in the bullpen, Christian Yelich hit a leadoff single and stole second. Baz struck out the dangerous Willy Adames and flung one of his hardest fastballs of the night by Tellez for the second out.

Pitch counts are not all that matters when it comes time to take out a starting pitcher or stick with him, but the number carried some weight in this case. It was Baz’s highest pitch count since Sept. 1, 2019, when he was finishing a season in Class-A ball. Coming back from arthroscopic elbow surgery in March and a Spring Training-style build-up over the last six weeks, Baz acknowledged after the game that he’s still getting stretched out.

“It’s all up to them. My job is just to get people out. I could have been a lot more efficient, so it's on me,” Baz said. “The more efficient I can be, the longer I can stay out there, so that's definitely the goal.”

Eventually, the Rays believe, Baz will become the kind of pitcher who gets to finish what he starts. Shane McClanahan has taken that step this season, and Baz believes he’s physically capable of working deeper into games as well. But on this night, 95 pitches was enough.

“That’s the good takeaway, is that I still feel like I can do a lot better,” Baz said. “That's definitely a positive.”

In came Wisler, the right-handed slider specialist who had put together a 0.66 ERA with a .109 opponents’ average in 12 outings since May 25. But he left too many pitches over the plate, and the Brewers were ready to make him pay for it.

McCutchen pulled Wisler’s second breaking ball out to left field for a go-ahead two-run homer. Kolten Wong doubled to right, then Luis Urías smashed Wisler’s next pitch out to left-center for another two-run homer. Eight pitches, eight sliders, four runs.

“The ball was catching a little bit too much of the plate, but other than that, I've felt pretty good all year so far,” Wisler said. “I felt decent going in there tonight. I just didn't execute enough.”