McClanahan leaves no doubt he's back at full strength

September 16th, 2022

TORONTO -- Rays manager Kevin Cash was hesitant to set any expectations before  took the mound Thursday afternoon at Rogers Centre, but he was hopeful that the Rays’ top starter would look like himself in his return from the 15-day injured list.

“If his stuff is right in line [with where it was] before the injury, that's going to help us all feel a little bit better,” Cash said two hours prior to first pitch.

Suffice to say, then, the Rays felt great as they headed home Thursday night.

McClanahan pitched like a healthy ace in the series finale, allowing only three hits and one walk while striking out five over five strong innings in Tampa Bay’s 11-0 win over the Blue Jays. Pitching for the first time in three weeks, McClanahan led the Rays’ 10th shutout and lowered his ERA to 2.13, second lowest in the Majors behind Justin Verlander.

“Today was so nasty,” catcher René Pinto said. “ We are not machines, but he looks like it.”

McClanahan grinded through a 23-pitch first inning and struggled to find the strike zone early in the second, but he made the most of his limited workload the rest of the way. Coming back from a left shoulder impingement that forced him to miss his scheduled start in Miami on Aug. 30, McClanahan cruised through his final four innings, retired 11 of the last 12 hitters he faced and threw only 69 pitches on the day.

“He walked off in the fourth inning saying, 'I'm good, I'm good, I'm good,' letting us know that he wanted to go back out there,” Cash said. “Because of his efficiency, it felt like it made sense.”

As for his stuff? McClanahan’s fastball maxed out at 100.1 mph in the first inning and clocked in at 99 mph or higher seven other times. His first slider of the day spun in at 92.3 mph. He generated 14 whiffs on the 35 swings the Jays took against him. 

Yes, he was back in All-Star form.

“I just didn't want to leave any doubts. I’m healthy, I felt good. I felt strong,” McClanahan said. “The first two innings, I was trying to harness it. I didn't do a good job of that. … Once I got my groove and harnessed that, I felt like I was competing better.”

The Rays still own the third American League Wild Card spot with the victory, but they are only a half-game out of the top spot with a 4 1/2-game cushion over the Orioles for the final postseason bid. The Rays would hold the tiebreaker over the Mariners, as they won their season series, and they are 8-7 against the Blue Jays this season with four games between them remaining.

The Rays’ historic all-Latino lineup put on their No. 21 jerseys and provided McClanahan with plenty of support. Yandy Díaz delivered the biggest blow, a three-run homer to left field off Toronto starter Kevin Gausman. Isaac Paredes clubbed his 19th home run in the seventh, then the Rays blew the game open with a six-run ninth.

“When we do that,” McClanahan said, “we're going to win a lot of games.”

It’s a lot easier to imagine the Rays making a late-season push and deep run come October if they have a fully operational McClanahan leading their rotation.

“We're better with him than without him, no doubt about it,” Cash said. “He's such a talented pitcher, and we know how talented this [Blue Jays] lineup is. … He can pitch, and he's got his stuff as good as anybody in baseball.”

McClanahan said there was no doubt in his mind he could get back on the mound. He went on the injured list on Aug. 31, received a cortisone shot in his left shoulder the next day and felt strong only a few days afterward. He was eager to return, especially in meaningful games like Thursday.

So McClanahan bypassed a rehab start in the Minors, instead throwing a few bullpen sessions and an extended simulated game last Friday at Yankee Stadium. Cash felt they’d done the right thing at every step and checked every box, but he was still curious to hear from pitching coach Kyle Snyder about how McClanahan looked warming up in the bullpen. 

Then McClanahan threw his first three fastballs of the game at 99.1, 97.8 and 99 mph. The Rays’ ace was back.

“It was nice,” Cash said. “I felt like he was all right.”