Rays 'could not be more impressed' with Taj in dazzling return

May 11th, 2024

ST. PETERSBURG -- Back in Spring Training, the Rays didn’t want to put any undue pressure on . Thrust into action earlier and more often than expected last season, the talented rookie had his ups, downs and moments to learn from. He was the youngest pitcher in the Majors to make at least 20 starts last season, and the Rays don’t want to make him feel like he has to take a huge leap in Year 2.

But as manager Kevin Cash said in February, “We’re optimistic it’s in there. And he’s capable of taking a big jump.”

Bradley’s elite ability was on full display on Friday night, although the Rays couldn’t capitalize on his terrific performance as they were shut out for the first time this season in a 2-0 loss to the Yankees before a crowd of 18,041 at Tropicana Field. The 23-year-old right-hander allowed just one run on four hits and two walks while striking out seven over six innings, powering through New York’s star-studded lineup with high-octane stuff throughout his injury-delayed season debut.

“I could not be more impressed with the way Taj threw the ball,” Cash said afterward.

Bradley sat out the first six weeks of the season due to a right pectoral strain he sustained in March. He said he initially “felt like I was in the principal’s office the first day” he was injured, and he essentially had to restart his Spring Training progression after being cleared to throw. But Bradley put his two months away to good use.

Working with assistant pitching and rehab coach Rick Knapp, Bradley worked to clean up his mechanics and refine his four-pitch mix. He already had electric stuff, but it still raised eyebrows when opponents went 2-for-35 with 15 strikeouts across his two Minor League rehab starts with Triple-A Durham.

That dominance carried into Friday’s start, his second career quality start.

“He’s impressive. He’s got a great arm,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “When you look at his ramp-up and those two outings in the Minor Leagues for his rehab, he was dominant.”

Bradley’s fastball averaged 97.3 mph against the Yankees, up 1.2 mph from last season. He topped out at 99.2 mph, the second-hardest pitch of his young career, on a fastball that Alex Verdugo could only flail at to finish the first inning. The velocity spike wasn’t just a result of him being amped up for his season debut, either.

“That’s just normal. I don’t know,” Bradley said. “I kind of learned to keep everything even-keeled, not get too excited, not get too lax or anything like that.”

“The stuff has been that way the entire build-up back,” Cash added.

And it wasn’t just his heater. Bradley’s revamped cutter was up 2.4 mph from last season. Of the 18 splitters he threw, the Yankees whiffed on three, took five for called strikes and put only two in play. He was especially pleased with his curveball, which finished off a pair of strikeouts.

“He threw the ball extremely well. We were on the same page the whole night. It was a lot of fun catching him today,” catcher Alex Jackson said. “He was executing all his pitches. He was putting them where he needed.”

The only run Bradley allowed came in the fourth. He walked Aaron Judge with one out, then yielded his first hit of the night with two outs: a 116.4 mph single to Giancarlo Stanton that was scorched just out of shortstop José Caballero’s reach. Anthony Rizzo drove in Judge with a single to left. That was enough for the Yankees, as starter Clarke Schmidt limited the Rays to five singles and two walks over 6 2/3 innings.

Back in their traditional Friday night Devil Rays throwback uniforms, the Rays had a few opportunities with runners on base, but they ran into three key outs. Caballero was caught stealing third in the third inning, Randy Arozarena was picked off at first in the sixth and Isaac Paredes was caught stealing second with two outs in the seventh on his first attempt of the season.

The Rays’ best chance came in the ninth against Yankees closer Clay Holmes when they were down by two. Yandy Díaz began the rally by working a leadoff walk. After Arozarena struck out, Josh Lowe drew another walk.

Paredes was called out on a third strike that appeared to be outside the zone. Pinch-hitting rookie Austin Shenton extended the inning with an opposite-field single to left, but Jonny DeLuca went down swinging to end the comeback bid and finish a hard-luck loss for Bradley.

“Couldn’t be more pleased with the way Taj threw the ball. Gave us every opportunity,” Cash said. “Unfortunately, Clarke Schmidt was really, really good.”