McClanahan up to task of Game 1 ALDS start

October 6th, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- This time a year ago, will admit, he was nervous.

The left-hander had never pitched in the Majors. He’d barely pitched above Class-A ball. He was about 2 1/2 years removed from pitching for the University of South Florida. Yet, the Rays put him on their postseason rosters throughout October and sent him to the mound for his big league debut in Game 1 of the 2020 American League Division Series against the Yankees. He recorded one out in the ninth inning of a 9-3 loss.

That appearance made McClanahan the first pitcher to ever debut in the postseason. His first taste of The Show came in the playoffs against the Yankees, Astros and Dodgers. So … yeah, of course he was nervous.

“Last year? Absolutely,” McClanahan said last week during an interview with “I think if anyone told you they weren’t nervous making their debut in the playoffs, they’d be lying to you.”

McClanahan has come a long way in the year since. He’s a more complete and confident pitcher. After his postseason experience and first full season in the Majors, he’s also a more proven pitcher. And now, rather than coming in for a mop-up outing, McClanahan will start for the Rays in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Red Sox on Thursday night at Tropicana Field.

“He's a great player. He's a great teammate. He's got great talent,” Rays shortstop Wander Franco said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “I'm looking forward to seeing him so that he can show everyone what he can do.”

What McClanahan can do now is significantly different than what he did during his 4 1/3 innings last October. Asked how he’s changed since his 2020 debut as a reliever, McClanahan started slowly, and then he broke into a grin as he spoke: “Well, I added pretty much two new pitches. I changed my motion. I throw a lot more strikes. And I'm a starter now. So not really much, to be honest with you.”

One might assume McClanahan went home at the end of last year’s playoffs thrilled with where his career had taken him. He was a successful Minor League pitcher who’d pitched on the game’s biggest stage to begin his career -- but he wasn’t satisfied. He was motivated.

McClanahan wanted to show he’s better than the way he got “hit around” in the 2020 postseason, allowing eight hits and two homers to the 24 batters he faced. He wanted to prove scouting reports that pegged him as a two-pitch pitcher who didn’t throw enough strikes, thus bound to wind up in the bullpen, wrong. He wanted to be a different pitcher when he showed up for Spring Training this year.

“There's always stuff you can do to get better, no matter what. And I wanted to try to take that next step of who I was as a player,” McClanahan said. “I think the second you get content with anything, it's game over. Like Clayton Kershaw, probably one of the best pitchers to ever step foot in this world, won the Cy Young and the very next year debuts a brand new slider. It just shows, no matter what you do, don't be complacent. Always try to look for that next thing you can do to get better.”

It started with his pitch mix. Previously reliant on a fastball and slurve, McClanahan set out to add a cutter to his arsenal. He told Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder he was going to test it out during an offseason bullpen session at “The Lab” inside Tropicana Field. After his first pitch, Snyder said, “Hey, throw that again.” Then, after the next one, “Hey, how are you holding that?”

It wasn’t a cutter. It was a slider, a pitch he’s used 34.7 percent of the time this season. The slider has produced a .198 opponents’ average and a .299 slugging percentage, to go along with a 39.9 percent whiff rate. He’s used that alongside a fastball that averages 96.4 mph (and topped out at 100.5 mph), a refined curveball (.202 average against, 41.9 percent whiff rate) and a changeup (44.8 percent whiff rate) that rounds out his arsenal.

Not every team can claim a young, left-handed starter who throws this hard with a four-pitch mix.

“Well, it's rare. We had one here for a couple seasons -- he won a Cy Young -- in Blake [Snell],” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Not comparing the two … but any pitcher with a four-pitch mix that is willing to throw it over the plate has the ability to consistently do that. You're setting yourself up with a chance to be really successful.”

McClanahan has been, emerging as the Rays’ most consistent starter since ace Tyler Glasnow suffered a season-ending injury on June 14. The next day, McClanahan began a 17-start stretch during which he posted a 3.01 ERA with 99 strikeouts and 25 walks in 89 2/3 innings. He allowed more than three runs just once during that stretch while holding opponents to one or no runs in nine of those outings.

“It's just confidence in his ability,” Snyder said. “At the end of the day, he's as good of a left-hander as there is out there.”

McClanahan has shown poise beyond his years and experience, too. On July 31, the day before he faced the Red Sox on Sunday Night Baseball, reporters poked and prodded to see if McClanahan was any more amped up to face a division rival on national TV. He wasn’t, so eventually, he laughed and quietly reminded the media members gathered near the Rays’ dugout, “I pitched in the World Series.”

Nervous? Not anymore.

“I think the playoffs definitely helped me,” McClanahan said. “When you debut in literally the most pressure-filled situation in the realm of baseball, it's almost like a sense of relief when it's a regular-season game.”