Rays' No. 1 prospect Bradley debuts with mom in stands

22-year-old righty K's eight, holds Boston to three runs over five innings

April 13th, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG -- If you think Wednesday night was a big deal for Taj Bradley, imagine what it meant to his mother.

After learning Tuesday afternoon that Bradley would be making his Major League debut a day later, Ana Mosley woke up early Wednesday morning and drove straight down Interstate 75 from the Atlanta area. She made it to her seat at Tropicana Field to watch her son earn his first big league win.

Tampa Bay’s top prospect held the Red Sox to three runs in five innings in a 9-7 victory, extending the Rays' historic season-opening winning streak to 12 games.

On his mom’s birthday, no less.

“This is her present,” Bradley said, grinning. “I saved some money on this one.”

It’s been a whirlwind couple of days for Bradley. The 22-year-old right-hander received word Tuesday that he was being summoned from Triple-A Durham to the Majors to make a spot start for Zach Eflin, who was placed on the 15-day injured list due to tightness in his lower back. The emotional weight of the news didn’t hit him until he called his mom.

He didn’t have to look far to find her during his debut, either. She was there in the crowd of 17,136, personalized scorebook in hand, watching her son live out his dream -- and keeping track of his outing, as usual.

Ana has kept notes on every one of Bradley’s starts since he was pitching for Rookie-level Princeton in 2019. When she can’t be there in person, she follows along via streaming broadcasts and fills out her book.

“Every start, every pitch, she has recorded,” Bradley said. “She was telling me [before his debut] she's hoping people don’t get in her face today because she was like, if she misses a pitch, she's gonna be upset.”

She had a lot to keep track of, starting with the unusually high stakes of his debut.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was only the second time since 1900 that a team on a winning streak of at least 10 games sent a starting pitcher to the mound for his big league debut. The Braves did so with 19-year-old Mike McQueen in the final game of the 1969 season.

Bradley avoided any excess expectations by shutting off Instagram on Tuesday and ignoring messages from anyone besides family and close friends. Understanding the pressure Bradley might feel amid the Rays’ undefeated start, manager Kevin Cash only asked for two things: strike-throwing and plentiful run support. He got both.

Bradley walked the first batter he faced as a big leaguer, but Randy Arozarena’s three-run homer in the first inning helped settle him down. A memory with his mom helped ease the debut jitters, too, Bradley said.

Wearing his navy No. 45 jersey, Bradley walked down the right-field line about 35 minutes before his first pitch to applause and fans shouting his name. While playing catch in the outfield, he looked for the spot in center field where he and Ana took a picture after he signed as a 17-year-old fifth-round pick in the 2018 MLB Draft.

“That’s kind of where my eyes started just locking in, and then after the first hitter, all the nerves went away,” Bradley said. “My heart kind of stopped beating so fast, and I just settled in.”

He appeared to be in control after the leadoff walk to Alex Verdugo, giving up five hits while striking out eight batters, the second-highest total for a Rays pitcher in his debut behind only Wade Davis (nine). He may have tired a bit toward the end, as he went from throwing 51 pitches in his last Triple-A start to 78 against the Red Sox, but he kept the Rays in position to win.

“Really impressive,” Cash said. “Really happy for Taj.”

Bradley wound up finishing three strikeouts with his curveball, his fourth offering in the Minors (behind his fastball, cutter and changeup) but one he threw 11 times in his debut thanks to encouragement from catcher Christian Bethancourt.

“So, big development day today in my debut,” Bradley said with a laugh. “It's crazy I did it like that, but it's cool.”

He’s expected to return to Triple-A on Thursday to continue that development, but Wednesday was just a glimpse of his potential -- and quite a gift for his mom.

“Today was amazing. A little jittery, a little emotional, happy, nervous, like every emotion coming into one except anger. I was just excited this day came, man,” Bradley said. “It was a great outing, got my first win -- and my mom's birthday. … That's awesome.”