BOSTON -- Everything is about to come full circle for Rays starter Drew Rasmussen. It was here, at Fenway Park, exactly two months ago when the Rays realized he had the chance to be their next secret weapon -- just how they imagined it could be four years ago.
Tampa Bay will soon learn if Rasmussen’s regular-season dominance will translate to the biggest stage baseball has to offer, as he’s set to start in Game 3 of the American League Division Series on Sunday at Fenway Park.
“I know the feel of the postseason. [There] will probably be a little bit more adrenaline than what there normally is,” Rasmussen said, “but just going to try to look to minimize that to the best of my ability and actually use it to my advantage more than anything.”
The 26-year-old righty has only been part of the Rays’ organization since May 21, but the team had its eye on him since 2017 when it drafted him as a starter in the first round of the MLB Draft (31st overall) out of Oregon University. Instead of signing, he had to address his elbow yet again, undergoing a second Tommy John surgery before returning the next year to be drafted in the sixth round by Milwaukee.
In 2019, he quickly moved up to Double-A -- still as a starter -- and was with the Brewers in 2020, but made all 12 of his appearances in relief. He returned this season to make 15 relief appearances, posting a 4.24 ERA before Milwaukee traded him to the team that once fancied him a first-round draft pick in the deal that sent Willy Adames to the Brewers in May.
The Rays clearly were familiar with Rasmussen, but they wanted to ease him into their mix. He began in Triple-A Durham, where he didn’t allow a run in eight games (one start). He was called up to the big leagues on June 19 and tossed 1 2/3 scoreless innings before getting optioned back to Durham on June 21 to clear space on the roster for the highly-touted prospect in Wander Franco.
But Rasmussen was not going to get lost in the shuffle. He came back up just three days later and spent the next month and a half working out of Tampa Bay’s bullpen. The Rays knew that they wanted him to be a starter in the long-term, but it seemed as though that plan wouldn’t be put in motion until next season. It wasn’t until injuries to the rotation forced the team to turn to Rasmussen this year.
And in typical Rays fashion, he’s turned into a weapon.
In his limited time as a starter, Rasmussen posted a 1.93 ERA while holding opponents to a mere .171 average, and he will now have the chance to start on Sunday at Fenway Park -- the same ballpark he made his first start of the year on Aug. 12, in which he allowed one run on one hit in four innings.
“With Ras,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said, “the way he's shown his composure throughout all of those and doing that in Fenway Park, in Toronto, that was kind of the thought process on having him pitch in the first road game, maybe to help Shane [McClanahan] and Shane [Baz] a little bit.”
Rasmussen’s ability to quickly settle in to a starter’s routine has been one of the biggest reasons his transition went so smoothly. Aside from the two and a half hours of work he puts in before his outings, he shows up to the park even earlier to make sure he has his meal at the same time, sits down with a crossword and tries to play some cards, according to pitching coach Kyle Snyder.
“I do think that the starting role, knowing the day that he's going to pitch in terms of keeping his life in order, is certainly helpful in some regard,” Snyder said in September. “But he's just been impressive all the way around. From the acquisition to his performance in Triple-A, to kind of a scripted two-inning role, to coming up and doing that for us, to ultimately finding himself in the rotation, all of it.”
A quick glance at his Statcast page may cause many to scratch their heads. Rasmussen doesn’t have crazy strikeout numbers, and his hard-hit percentage is high (50.2 percent, ranking in the bottom one percent of the league), but that hasn’t deterred him from attacking the zone. He’s above average with his in-zone percentage (51.7 percent, 48.5 percent league average) and well above average in first-pitch strike rate (68.7 percent, 60.6 percent league average).
So, when he catches too much of the plate, hitters make solid contact. But he's worked around it with his lethal slider, holding opponents to a .159 average with a .205 slugging percentage. His heater averages around 97 mph. And let's not forget he has one of the best defenses behind him, which can help when hard-hit balls are put in play.
“He does it with pitch efficiency and just constantly attacking in the strike zone and just making quality strikes,” Cash said in September. “It's not like he's just center-cutting pitches. He is executing pitches about as well as any of our pitchers can do, especially with his fastball.”
“We're going to attack guys, and we're going to put hitters on the defensive,” Rasmussen said after his last start. “And if we can consistently do that, we're gonna like where we're going to be at the end of the day.”
The Rays limited his innings to just four or five in each start during the regular season to be mindful of his workload as he makes this transition. It’s likely that will remain the same, at least for the first round of the playoffs, but it’s certainly worked so far, including three strong outings against Boston.
And the Rays are confident that the momentum he established at Fenway Park just two months ago can roll into the postseason.
“It's going to be a dogfight tomorrow,” Rasmussen said. “We already know that. It's a quality team, and at the end of the day, it just comes down to executing."