Rays' Bradley dazzles in Durham debut

July 25th, 2022

DURHAM, N.C. -- In a famous mound meeting from Bull Durham, Nuke LaLoosh tells Crash Davis he wants to throw the heater and “announce my presence with authority.” On Sunday, another right-handed pitching phenom used fastballs, cutters, curveballs and changeups to achieve the same goal.

Rays top prospect Taj Bradley threw five scoreless innings in his Triple-A Durham debut to lead the Bulls to a 5-3 win over Norfolk at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. He struck out eight, walked none and scattered three hits in the opening International League gem.

As if the game didn’t carry enough significance, MLB Pipeline's No. 33 overall prospect had to wait out a 30-minute rainless delay as he itched to take the ball on a Triple-A mound for the first time.

"There were no butterflies," Bradley said. "It was more like a rush. Adrenaline kicked in, and I was excited to get out there.”

The 21-year-old right-hander became the youngest pitcher to start a Triple-A game in 2022 and showed he belonged right from the off, blowing a 95 mph fastball past a swinging Terrin Vavra with his first pitch. Bradley was around the 94-96 mph range for much of the evening and touched 97 on a few occasions. He mixed in upper-80s cutters, mid-80s changeups and upper-70s curveballs to keep Tides batters off-balance, leaning more heavily on the first two as he has for much of the last two seasons.

“My fastball, I feel, was my best pitch today,” Bradley said. “The cutter worked well. The changeup, I mixed it in to just change your eyesight. I got a swing-and-miss on it, so it was something to put in the back of their heads also as something to come back to.”

Bradley threw 79 pitches -- 58 of which landed for strikes and 18 of which were whiffs. His 22.8 percent swing-and-miss rate was better than his 14.4 percent mark at Double-A, and by fanning eight of the 18 batters he faced, his 44.4 percent K rate bested his 30.9 percent with Montgomery.

Those abilities to make Southern League batters whiff resulted in more incredible numbers -- a 1.70 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 88 strikeouts and 18 walks in 74 1/3 innings. Bradley had been so dominant that his new manager Brady Williams didn’t have much to say to the starter before his Triple-A bow.

“For me, it's about just wanting to see the kid pitch, see what he's been doing all season and see if it plays to the next level,” Williams said. “Obviously, today was a good test. That's a young talented group over there. So for him to come and do what he did, it was pretty impressive.”

The Bulls skipper added that he was most dazzled with Bradley’s ability to command his mid-90s heater. But he added that there are lessons for the young starter to learn at the Minors' top level.

“You'd like to see a guy with that caliber of stuff to be in the fifth inning at 65 pitches,” Williams said. “If you watch [Durham pitcher Kevin Herget] and if you've watched [Josh] Fleming, those guys that have solid outings at five innings, 55 pitches or five and 60 pitches and still with classic strikeouts. So you'd like to see the efficiency.”

Perhaps that will be a focus for Bradley, just as soon as he can get physically settled in Durham. Before Sunday’s debut, he last pitched an inning as the American League starter in last weekend’s All-Star Futures Game in Los Angeles. Between then and Sunday, he had stops in Montgomery (to pack) and Atlanta (for a night at home) before finally joining Durham at home late this week.

Like LaLoosh, Durham could be Bradley’s final stop before the Majors either this year or next, and if that’s true, the right-hander has one desire for all his future Bulls starts.

“Hopefully," he said, "I don’t lose that rush."