Bradley's 'wow' growth shows in K-count, endurance

June 14th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Adam Berry’s Rays Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. PETERSBURG -- had a lot to be proud of Thursday night.

He struck out 11 Cubs hitters, matching the Rays’ season-high total (set by Ryan Pepiot on April 7 at Colorado) and the career-high mark he set on June 15, 2023, in Oakland. Bradley allowed only two walks and three hits, all singles, while giving up two unearned runs. He earned his first win since May 15 and his first at Tropicana Field since June 21, 2023.

But after the Rays’ 3-2 win, Bradley was most pleased with his endurance. The 23-year-old right-hander threw a career-high 104 pitches -- breaking the previous mark of 99, which he set Saturday against the Orioles -- and worked a career-high-tying seven innings, his third time recording 21 outs in the Majors.

As if to validate the Rays’ trust in him and put an exclamation point on his best big league outing yet, Bradley’s final pitch of the night was his hardest: a 98.4 mph fastball that Yan Gomes whiffed on.

“From pitch one to when he was done, he's out there competing and he's giving it his all,” catcher Alex Jackson said. “That's all you can ask for.”

“I mean, that was pretty much a 'wow' outing,” manager Kevin Cash added. “It was just an impressive outing.”

Bradley’s previous start was impressive in a different way. He bounced back from arguably his worst performance in the Majors in Baltimore, where he gave up nine runs on nine hits and four homers in 3 1/3 innings, by grinding through five one-run innings with seven strikeouts against the same Orioles lineup. Nothing came easily in that game, as 42 of his 99 pitches came with two strikes, but Bradley didn’t give in.

What Bradley did Thursday was on another level, another sign of his growth from a touted top prospect to the more well-rounded pitcher he is now.

Bradley has become a four-pitch starter, complementing his high-octane fastball (40.5% of his pitches this season entering Thursday night) with a splitter (24.6%), a cutter/slider (22.7%) and a curveball (12.2%). But he shut down the Cubs as essentially a two-pitch pitcher in the series finale at Tropicana Field.

Bradley threw 52 fastballs and 38 splitters on the night, mixing in eight curveballs and six cutters that the Cubs mostly brushed aside. He recorded nine swinging strikes on his splitter and eight on his fastball. He finished eight strikeouts with his splitter, tied with Jordan Hicks, Cristopher Sánchez and Tarik Skubal for the most in a game on offspeed pitches this season.

Keep in mind that Bradley’s splitter accounted for only 13.6% of his pitches last season. But there he was, using it as a devastating out pitch to baffle the Cubs’ struggling lineup.

“I'm happy about that,” Bradley said. “Just putting the other two [breaking balls] on its back real quick.”

The Rays encouraged Bradley to throw that pitch more often as he acclimated to the Majors last season, and it’s easy to understand why. It has generated a 33% whiff rate this season, and opponents are batting just .140 with a .220 slugging percentage against it.

“He was commanding it the whole night, throwing it how he wanted to and using his other pitches to set that up and established a good area and get them to swing at some things out of the zone,” Jackson said. “The more you can get out there and you can do it, you gain experience. That's a big thing in this game is being able to understand yourself, understand game situations and put all the practice to work.”

Coaches and teammates rave about Bradley’s stuff, with first baseman Yandy Díaz proclaiming via interpreter Manny Navarro after Thursday’s game that Bradley “has the ability to strike out 20 in a game.” Josh Lowe offered similarly high praise.

“I think when he's in the zone like that, he's got some of the best stuff in the game,” Lowe said. “When he trusts himself, he can go out there and mow through lineups like that. So that was pretty cool to see from him.”

And he’s still getting better, too. While recovering from a pec strain that forced him to miss the start of the season, Bradley said, he developed a new between-starts routine focused on daily “active recovery” and strength work. He stuck with it even after coming off the injured list, believing it will keep him healthy and, ideally, as strong as he was in his last inning Thursday night.

“His stuff was really, really electric,” Cash said. “Really, really impressed and proud of Taj.”