When Nick Anderson rejoined the Rays in Detroit on Thursday, he wanted it to be as much of a surprise as possible for his teammates. He pulled up to the team hotel in the back of a minivan and savored Kevin Kiermaier’s reaction as the back door slowly slid open, revealing that the right-handed reliever had finally returned.
“It kind of made it even a little better,” Anderson said Sunday. “I don't like surprises, but I like surprising other people.”
Anderson’s arrival was a welcome one for the Rays, whether they were expecting it over the weekend or not. Diagnosed at the end of Spring Training with a partially torn UCL and flexor tendinitis, the 31-year-old spent the entire season on the 60-day injured list before being activated Sunday morning. He made his season debut in Monday night’s 8-1 loss to the Blue Jays in Toronto, giving up a hit and a walk and benefitting from a tremendous catch by Kiermaier in a scoreless seventh inning.
“It was good to have Nick out there on the mound. He looked the part,” manager Kevin Cash said. “He’s worked hard to get back to this point. We'll look forward to seeing him again in the next day or two and see how the stuff continues to progress.”
Anderson was arguably the most dominant back-end reliever in baseball from the time he joined the Rays on July 31, 2019, until the end of the '20 season. In 42 appearances for Tampa Bay during that stretch, he posted a 1.43 ERA and a 0.58 WHIP with 67 strikeouts and only five walks in 37 2/3 innings.
But the last time the Rays saw Anderson on the mound in a meaningful game was in last year’s playoffs, when he gave up a run in each of his last seven appearances -- including the decisive World Series Game 6. Anderson returned this spring with diminished velocity and eventually went on the 60-day IL due to his right elbow sprain.
“Honestly, I would have liked to have been here all year, helping the guys as much as I could. I didn’t really have a set time on when I wanted to be back,” Anderson said. “I just wanted to get healthy, and I’m not good to the team and everybody if I’m not feeling good and I can’t go out there and help. To come back now, they've done an awesome job. To get here at this point and hopefully provide some support, it's awesome.”
Anderson began his rehab assignment on July 23 and made two appearances before pausing due to what the team called “COVID-related issues.” He then joined Triple-A Durham on Aug. 12 and pitched in 11 games. Across 13 total rehab outings with the Florida Complex League Rays and the Durham Bulls, Anderson posted a 4.26 ERA with 16 strikeouts in 12 2/3 innings.
By all accounts, Anderson’s stuff improved as his rehab went on, with Cash noting that the righty showed more swing-and-miss fastballs at the top of the strike zone in his final few outings. His stuff didn’t seem to be all the way back in Monday’s outing, with his fastball averaging 92.1 mph (down from 95.2 mph in 2020) and the Blue Jays not registering a whiff on any of the nine swings they took against him, but he still managed to get out of a 23-pitch inning unscathed in his first big league outing in nearly 11 months.
Anderson said Sunday he was “super excited” to be back, and the Rays are just as thrilled to have one of the game’s top high-leverage relievers back in the fold.
“I'm sure there's probably going to be a little bit of butterflies getting ready and getting back out there, but hopefully, it's just like riding a bike,” Anderson said. “The mentality is the same as always. I'm going to go out there and throw my stuff and compete and do what I’ve always done. There's no tentativeness, or like, ‘Oh, I need to work on this,’ or anything. That was in Triple-A on my rehab. It's time to go now."
Around the horn
• Second baseman Brandon Lowe did not play for a second straight game, with Monday’s absence being more notable against a right-handed starting pitcher in Toronto’s Alek Manoah. Cash said Lowe’s “legs are a little beat up right now,” though he was available off the bench for both games.
• One fun connection in this Rays-Jays series: Nelson Cruz once shared a clubhouse with Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero Sr., his Rangers teammate in 2010. Eleven years later, he’s sharing a field with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The 41-year-old Cruz recalled Monday that Vlad Jr., now 22, was “always” around the clubhouse in Texas that season, then laughed as he added, “Now that you mention it, it makes me feel old. But that’s a good thing.”
Like everyone else, Cruz has been impressed by the Blue Jays’ slugger this season, as he entered Monday with 44 homers, 102 RBIs and a .319/.408/.610 slash line.
“I guess he’s a more patient version of his dad,” Cruz said. “He’s more aware of the strike zone. He doesn’t swing at pitches out of the strike zone. I mean, it’s really remarkable what he’s doing.”
• Right-hander Drew Rasmussen, coming off his first career win as a starter last Tuesday in Boston, will take the mound Tuesday night in Toronto. Considering he never pitched more than 4 1/3 innings in the Minors in 2019 and worked out of the Brewers' bullpen before joining the Rays, Rasmussen proudly noted that it was his first “big boy win” -- the first time he pitched five innings as a starter and earned the victory.
“To actually go five innings and pick it up the hard way was awesome,” said Rasmussen, who kept a few authenticated balls from that start. “It was a great experience.”