Rays' Bradley stays in attack mode in dominant start

Club's top prospect delivers on plan to pound the zone, going 5 2/3 impressive innings

May 29th, 2023

CHICAGO -- Ahead of Monday afternoon’s series-opening game at Wrigley Field, Rays manager Kevin Cash stressed the need for starter to get into rhythm earlier than he had in recent outings. The team’s top prospect had been working uphill in Cash’s eyes, most notably in Tuesday’s trying outing against the Blue Jays. So Tampa Bay wanted to see him in attack mode right out of the gate.

Bradley didn’t waste time confirming that the message had been received.

The rookie right-hander came after Cubs hitters from the get-go, striking out eight over a career-high 5 2/3 innings and allowing no earned runs for the second time during the Rays’ 1-0 loss.

“Super pleased with Taj,” Cash said. “Mixed all of his pitches, had the fastball and the cutter really going a lot. Broke out a couple changeups to lefties, but a lot of power.

“It’s pretty cool when he’s sitting at 95, 96 [mph], and then when he needs to reach back, he can go ahead and get 99. Really, really pleased with the way Taj threw the ball.”

Stringing together an efficient outing was especially important for Bradley. His previous start -- when he allowed four runs on 80 pitches in four innings during Tampa Bay’s 20-1 loss to the Blue Jays -- left the 22-year-old wanting to get back to basics and avoid getting behind in counts.

As Bradley displayed in the first inning, it wasn't too difficult for him to make that adjustment. He threw 12 pitches in the opening frame, 11 of them strikes. He didn’t throw a first-pitch ball until the eighth batter he faced.

It was a notably different approach than Bradley's previous outing. Yet he insisted the key to stronger results was a matter of simplifying things on the mound.

“Don’t try to do too much,” Bradley said of his mindset. “You’re trying to learn on the go. If you try to change so much while you’re playing the game, it just becomes out of whack. So I just go back to what I was doing. If I need to expand, I can, but don’t try to go so much out of the zone.”

Bradley peppered the Cubs with a steady dose of four-seamers and cutters while mixing in his curve and changeup, which helped him effectively evade the only two jams he faced. 

With two on and two out in the second inning, Bradley got Tucker Barnhart to pop out on a four-seamer over the plate. He immediately found himself in a difficult spot in the fourth when Seiya Suzuki singled and advanced to second on third baseman Taylor Walls’ throwing error. Bradley was able to limit the damage, though, allowing Suzuki to score an unearned run after a pair of flyouts before striking out Edwin Ríos to end the frame. 

“He was great,” Walls said of Bradley. “I hate that I couldn’t make that play behind him, but he was awesome. He was extremely impressive, extremely composed. He looked sharp.” 

While Bradley impressed his teammates with his composure, he caught himself off guard with the velocity he was able to reach. The righty wasn’t aware he nearly hit 99 mph on a few of his four-seamers until after he exited with two outs in the sixth inning. 

“That’s what I heard,” Bradley said, laughing. “I don’t even think I was trying for that. But if I did, you know, good for me. I was just trying to throw the ball as hard as it played.”

Though Bradley and the Rays’ bullpen did more than enough to keep the game close, Tampa Bay’s offense was completely stifled by Cubs starter Marcus Stroman. Chicago's ace held the Rays to just one hit as he tossed the second shutout of his career and his first since Sept. 8, 2014 (which, coincidentally, came against the Cubs when he was a rookie for the Blue Jays). 

“We’ve seen him a handful of times,” Cash said. “That might have been the best that I’ve personally seen him. He pitched a heck of a ballgame.”

The same could certainly be said about Bradley, who recorded seven or more strikeouts for the fourth time in his first six starts. Though the outcome didn’t fall in Tampa Bay’s favor, the team left the outing feeling even more confident about its top prospect. 

“He’s going to continue getting better,” Cash said. “But man, what a step in the right direction.”