ST. PETERSBURG -- Shane Baz has already done a lot this year.
He completed the leap from Double-A Montgomery to Triple-A Durham. He pitched in the All-Star Futures Game. He skyrocketed up prospect rankings, landing at No. 19 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100, and was named the Rays’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year. He pitched for the silver-medal-winning Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics. Oh, and the 22-year-old right-hander shut down the high-powered Blue Jays and earned his first big league win in his Major League debut on Sept. 20.
Where does a postseason start fit in all that?
“I think this wins probably,” Baz said Thursday afternoon. “This is probably the biggest one.”
Baz, the Rays’ top prospect, will be in rare company when he takes the mound to start Game 2 of the American League Division Series against the Red Sox on Friday night at Tropicana Field. He will be just the fifth traditional rookie starter (non-opener) in club history to start a postseason game, joining Wade Davis, Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and Game 1 starter Shane McClanahan. Baz will be Tampa Bay's second-youngest starter in postseason history, at 22 years and 113 days old, behind only Moore in Game 1 of the 2011 ALDS at Texas. Baz will share one more thing in common with Moore, the lefty who took his electric stuff from the Minors to the postseason in a hurry a decade ago.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Moore had the fewest regular-season appearances (three) before making his first career postseason start in AL/NL history. He’ll share that honor with Baz on Friday, as Baz will take his place on baseball’s biggest stage after only three starts in September.
For the Rays, Baz’s age and level of experience aren’t an issue. They think he’s ready for this moment.
“He showed us enough in his three outings that we felt good about it. The funny thing about Shane is his three outings up here were definitely as good, probably better, than anything that he had shown in Durham this year,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “He really took to the alternate site last year and made himself better, and this year he has just skyrocketed with the strike-throwing and the stuff. Very confident that he is fully equipped to go out there and pitch well against a very good Red Sox lineup.”
Baz said he wasn’t necessarily expecting this assignment when he was called up to face the Blue Jays 2 1/2 weeks ago, but he wanted to be prepared if the opportunity arose. He proved himself on the mound, allowing only three runs on six hits and three walks while striking out 18 over 13 1/3 innings in his three starts, and the way he handled a raucous crowd at Yankee Stadium last Saturday stood out to Cash.
Baz said getting the Game 2 nod wasn’t a “crazy surprise, but definitely an honor on this team.”
“Very thankful, just for the organization believing in me, and I think that helps so much,” he added. “It's an honor to get to start one of these games -- and on such a great team -- so it's been cool so far.”
The Rays will become just the second team in postseason history to start a rookie pitcher in each of the first two games of a playoff series, as the A’s previously did so with Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone in the 2012 ALDS. Tampa Bay has stated a belief in talent over experience, but Baz’s teammates and coaches have also been blown away by the righty’s poise as much as his stuff. As left-hander Dietrich Enns said after Baz’s first career win, “The kid might have the slowest heart rate I've ever seen. The game comes slow to him.”
“He is as calm and collected as anybody as I've seen,” pitching coach Kyle Snyder said. “He has a Charlie [Morton] heartbeat.”
Before his debut, Baz said he wasn’t as nervous as one might expect -- especially not compared to the jitters he felt before taking the mound in the Olympics. The Rays hoped to mitigate any potential anxiety by having McClanahan and Baz start in more familiar confines at Tropicana Field, where Baz will have his parents -- Raj and Tammy -- in attendance.
“Obviously being at home is a little less pressure, just in the moment, because you’ve got all the fans behind you and everything,” Baz said. “I think it's a good thing. I think it's going to be a good atmosphere and everything, so it should be good.”