NEW YORK -- The Rays were not concerned that right-hander Taj Bradley was hit hard after he was demoted to Triple-A Durham in late April. Before being recalled to the big leagues on Thursday to face the Mets at Citi Field, Bradley had allowed 16 earned runs in nine innings over three outings for Durham, amounting to a 16.00 ERA. Opposing hitters had a 1.138 OPS against him.
But as Bradley returned to the big league mound, Rays manager Kevin Cash was confident that he was going to see the pitcher who gave Tampa Bay three strong outings in April before his demotion.
“He has been in a unique situation -- has three good starts [in the big leagues],” Cash said before the game. “I don’t want to speak for Taj. But I trust we are going to see a guy with good stuff. He is excited to be back.”
At first, it looked like Bradley wasn’t going to last long: he threw 30 pitches in the first inning, allowing a run before escaping. It didn’t help that he was moving too fast with his delivery. The early results prompted pitching coach Kyle Snyder to tell Bradley that he had some mechanical issues with his front shoulder.
It also didn’t help that the Rays made some head scratching decisions that inning. With Francisco Lindor on second base, Jeff McNeil hit a routine single to left. Outfielder Randy Arozarena was too slow throwing the ball back into the infield, which allowed McNeil to advance to second base.
After Pete Alonso walked to load the bases, Brett Baty grounded out to first baseman Luke Raley, bringing home Lindor. It looked like Raley had a chance to turn a double play and prevent the Mets from scoring, but Cash said Raley did the right thing by instead taking the ball straight to first base.
“It’s very tough to turn a double play there with a left-handed batter getting down the line pretty good. We are going to guarantee the out [at first base],” Cash said.
After the walk to Alonso in the first inning, Bradley went on to retire 14 of the next 16 batters he faced, his only blemish being an Alonso home run in the fourth. He picked up four strikeouts and allowed three hits.
“I’m really impressed with Taj,” Cash said. “I don’t know if we could have expected that performance, the way the first inning started. The strike zone wasn’t here for him easily, but he did a nice job for a young pitcher to come in, reset himself and really gave us four good innings of work. So you have to be pleased with that.”
Bradley put himself in elite company on Thursday. He became the fourth Rays starter in franchise history to allow three earned runs or fewer in each of his first four career starts, joining Jake Faria (seven), Jeremy Hellickson (six) and Brian Stokes (four).
Bradley also has 27 strikeouts in the first four games of his Major League career, the fourth-most by a Rays pitcher behind Faria (29), Chris Archer (28) and Wade Davis (28).
A trip to the Minor Leagues did nothing to deter Bradley from getting back to the Show. The key was maintaining a positive attitude even while getting hit hard at Triple-A.
“I was down there happy,” Bradley said. “I had a good time laughing. I’m going to be mad? For what? I can’t change anything. I can’t tell anybody what to do. I just went down there and made what I can of it. Like they said, I had some things to learn down there and did it. Here I am. Being upset wouldn’t have done anything.
“The numbers [in the Minor Leagues] didn’t look great, but the cutter was better. It was harder. We were working on the fastball. It feels better. The curveball was more consistent. If you define that diamond in the rough, that was mine.”
Bradley said he is expected to be in the Major Leagues for the foreseeable future. He will replace Drew Rasmussen in the rotation. Rasmussen will miss a lengthy period of time because of a flexor strain in his right elbow, which he suffered against the Yankees last week.
“This time was a little bit better,” Bradley said. “When I first got called up for my debut, I was told, ‘You are going to the big leagues and make a spot start. This time, [they said], ‘You are not going back [to the Minor Leagues].’ Just to hear those words … it’s reassurance. I’m here to stay and I can work on my stuff up here.”