What is Taj Bradley’s status in the Rays’ rotation?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Slowly, the injured are returning to the Tampa Bay Rays’ lineup. The forecast ahead hopes for production and initial sightings are positive.

The first to return was outfielder Jonny DeLuca, brought over from the Dodgers in the Tyler Glasnow trade. Recovering from a broken hand in spring training, he was hitting .455 in his initial six games of the season and came off the IR on May 3.

Then, outfielder Josh Lowe returned to the lineup on May 6. From the start of the season, the veteran outfielder was sidelined with a strained oblique in his recovery from a rib injury and has since taken his customary position in right field and batting third.

The most impressive was pitcher Taj Bradley, who was sidelined since March 12. That’s when he suffered a right pectoral strain while warming up for start against Baltimore.

With the Tampa Bay rotation unstable, and the patient game underway in waiting for Shane McClanahan, Jeffrey Springs, and Drew Rasmussen to return, Bradley gave manager Kevin Cash, pitching coach Kyle Synder, and club decision-makers reason for encouragement.

In turning in six effective innings in his initial start of the season against the Yankees on May 10, Bradley displayed a crackling fast ball and devastating change. That combination kept Yankees’ hitters off balance and gave Bradley a noteworthy entry into the rotation.

The result was those six strong innings and a fate better than the 2-0 defeat he suffered. Against the Yankees, the 23-year-old out of Redan, Ga. allowed just four hits, one run, struck out seven, and threw 93 pitches, 59 for strikes. His fastball measured consistently in the mid-90s and peaked at 99.2 mph during the first inning strike out of Alex Verdugo.

“Everything felt good, my body felt good, and the pitches were working the way I wanted,” he said afterward. “It was during the rehab process that I worked on mechanics and being consistent with everything. Now, it’s just refining everything a little bit.”

Bradley was throwing in the mid-90s and told reporters that is his method. Explaining no surprise with the velocity, he pronounced himself ready to stay in the rotation.

“The velocity for me is just normal,” he added. “I learned to keep everything even keel and not to get too excited.”

From the perspective of club officials, the effort Bradley gave was promising. Then again, the velocity of his fastball and his ability to command the strike zone were the essential elements of his successful outing.

“Could not have been more pleased with the way (Bradley) threw the ball,” said manager Kevin Cash. “He gave us every opportunity and unfortunately (Yankees’ starter Clark Schmidt) was really, really good. For Bradley, his stuff is generally there, but it was the way he commanded the baseball. He was able to make big pitches in big situations.”

Should Bradley remain in the rotation, and there is every reason to believe Cash will give him the baseball every fifth day going forward, his next start is scheduled for Tuesday night against the Red Sox in Fenway Park.

How important are games in May? … at this point of the season, there is typically not much credence place in games during the opening weeks. If the first six weeks of the season are any indication, the struggling Rays need to find ways to gain separation from AL East rival.

Over the coming weeks, they have such an opportunity.

Beginning with a three-game series with the New York Yankees on May 10, the Rays have their next 13 games against the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays. Some argue this is a critical junction of the season for the Rays.

“You definitely take it one game at a time, day-by-day kind of thing,” said reliever Garrett Clevinger, who was 3-0, and had a team-leading 1.98 ERA in his first 15 appearances. “It’s a good opportunity to gain some ground and continue the momentum we built. Yeah, you just have to take it one game at a time.”

One reason for success … coming into play on May 10, the New York Yankees were one-half game behind the Baltimore Orioles in American League East.

With significant firepower in the lineup from Juan Sota, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Anthony Rizzo, the bullpen has carried this team.

So acknowledged Aaron Boone, the Bombers manager, before the opener of a three-game set with the Rays. With due praise on middle relievers, Boone cited the core reason why the Yankees continue to challenge for the division lead.

For success, the closer must be dynamic and productive. The Yankees have both in Clay Holmes, who leads the American League in saves (with 11 before the series with the Rays began) and one behind Kyle Finnigan of the Nationals and Robert Suarez of the Padres, each with 12.

Coming into the series opener with Tampa Bay, Holmes had a 0.00 ERA, and that continued when he struck out Jonny DeLuca, with the bases loaded, to end the game. That preserved a 2-0 New York win before 18.041, and put the Yankees 12 games over .500.

“You have to have a competitive bullpen,” Boone said, “The starters have given us good opportunities to win every night, but the bullpen is a big reason why we have been able to close out. Obviously, Clay has been outstanding, and closing things down. Everyone leading up to him has really done their job well. If you are going to have a good bullpen, it takes more than two or three guys on which you can hang your hat. It’s been a little bit from everyone and each has really done their job.”

This date in history … with the New York Yankees in town, there is an interesting historical correlation. On May 10, the opening day of the three-game series, the Yankees dusted off the history books. On May 10, 1936, Joe DiMaggio made his major league debut against the Philadelphia A’s. In his opening game, Joltin’ Joe went 1-for-4 and his first major league homer off George Turberville.

Next … the series continues on Saturday afternoon. That’s when righty Zack Littell (1-2, 3.00) opposes lefty Nestor Cortes (1-3, 3.72). The set concludes with a Sunday matinee. Righty Luis Gil (3-1, 2.92) goes for New York. At the start of the series, the Rays did not name their starter.

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