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How Rays' Taj Bradley has grown into a potential future ace

Marc Topkin, Tampa Bay Times on

Published in Baseball

MINNEAPOLIS — The improvements Taj Bradley has made to his actual pitching, such as refining his splitter, making better use of his full repertoire, and working deeper into games while sustaining his velocity, have been significant factors in the success he has had this season.

But the progress he has made in other aspects of being a major-league pitcher — such as handling adversity in a game, bouncing back from a rough outing, restructuring his between-starts routine, interacting with teammates — has also been impressive.

Especially for a 23-year-old who on Wednesday is slated to make his 29th career start.

“One hundred percent,” Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder said. “I think it’s been very apparent to everybody how much he’s beginning to mature and believe in himself and believe in his ability and slow the game down when it could very easily have sped up on him or maybe sped up on him in the past. …

“Seeing him go out there and compete pitch to pitch is a lot of fun.”

Snyder said there are numerous factors playing into Bradley’s progress. Notably, he cited Bradley’s relationship with new process and development coach Kris Goodman, who worked previously as a mental performance coach in the minors, and Bradley’s increased comfort around the clubhouse with teammates and staff.

Bradley’s more veteran teammates also rave about his progress from his up-and-down 2023 rookie performance (5-8, 5.59) to now (2-4, 4.23).

“Taj’s grown so much," said top starter Zach Eflin. “To just go out there with confidence each time, to be able to face lineups, and good lineups, with his stuff and just overpower people and not think and go pitch, has been fun to watch.

“He’s definitely on the right track, and he could literally be a superstar.”

Two recent examples stand out as measures of Bradley’s progress.

One was how he responded to facing the Orioles for a second straight start after giving up nine runs and getting knocked out in the fourth inning on June 1.

His strong one-run-over-five-innings performance seven days later against the potent O’s lineup showed a lot.

“To be able to flip the script, chalk it up to a bad game, which we’re all going to have, to not let that dwell into the next one, that shows growth,” said starter Ryan Pepiot. “That shows kind of veteran stuff that, for a 23-year-old, you don’t see that very often.”

Bradley said it meant a lot to show how well he could respond.

“Knowing that things didn’t spiral, that nothing about me changed so much,” he said.

But, also, how he did so.

“That’s just me though. I’m going to attack. I’m not going to shy away from anybody,” Bradley added. “I felt I attacked even more the second time around instead of beating around the bush so much.”

The other example came in his last start Thursday as he was dominating the Cubs through four innings, with six strikeouts and one hit.

 

After opening the fifth of the scoreless game with two singles, the Cubs resorted to an unusual strategy — having three consecutive batters bunt — which, combined with a Rays error, gave them a 2-0 lead.

Some young pitchers, or even a few veterans, would have gotten frustrated, and maybe tilted off their game. But Bradley worked through it and ended up throwing a career-high seven innings and 103 pitches (with his last pitch, impressively, being his hardest at 98.4 mph), as the Rays came back to win.

“That’s going to tick anybody off. He handled it a heck of a lot better than I did," manager Kevin Cash said.

“He was pitching well, and he wasn’t going to allow that to derail him. I don’t know if he does that last year in that moment. So we’re better for it with his experience."

Bradley had a mature response, saying he didn’t see the bunts as an issue and was more focused on limiting the Cubs to those two runs.

“That’s how baseball is played, so you’re not mad about those," he said. “They did well and executed their plays."

The Rays see plenty of encouraging signs from Bradley, who was drafted in 2018 as a 17-year-old out of Redan High near Atlanta and has grown up in their organization.

“He’s definitely a special talent on the field,” starter Aaron Civale said. “And his ability to process what’s going on, it’s impressive. To not let things get to him. That’s a skillset that a lot of people work really hard to acquire.”

Snyder cited the regular work he does with the athletic trainers and the strength and conditioning staff — building off his rehab process while missing the first two months of the season following a spring pectoral muscle strain — that has allowed him to pitch for the first time (though not all the time) on a five-day schedule.

“I have a new routine going now to where I’m (doing) active recovery every day, strengthening and stuff like that," Bradley said. “It’s like the same rehab process that I did … we’re still taking into the season to keep me healthy and strong."

Cash and Snyder noticed increased interaction and a better connection with other players and staff around him.

“He’s having a little bit more fun," Snyder said. “I think he’s gotten to know his teammates a little bit better this year.

“You’ve got to take into account sometimes these kids that are in their early 20s, that age group is Double A (minor-league players). So when guys get up here and the game wasn’t all too familiar to him, given that he started playing it at a late age in his high school, and then having to make other adaptations that he just wasn’t used to making in how quickly you move through our system.”

Snyder has worked with many young, promising pitchers in the minors and majors during his 13 years as a coach, and is willing to put Bradley’s potential into most elite company — with former Ray Blake Snell, a two-time Cy Young award winner.

“It could be very special, honestly, at 23," Snyder said. “Blake was a year or two behind this kid and this kid’s trajectory.

“I know (Snell) was left-handed versus right-handed. But there are some similarities. I think Taj is scratching the surface. I think he’s starting to be aware of that. I think everybody’s excited to see what comes."

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©2024 Tampa Bay Times. Visit tampabay.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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