Olympics prepared Rays’ Shane Baz for pressure of MLB debut

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ST. PETERSBURG — Rays right-hander Shane Baz said he has been pitching since age 5. “It’s what I was meant to do,” Baz said. When he makes his major-league debut Monday night against the Toronto Blue Jays at Tropicana Field, it’s the culmination of a dream.

It’s also the latest stop in what must be described as a warp-speed summer.

Baz, the No. 11 overall prospect in the minors according to Baseball America, began this season at Double-A Montgomery. He advanced to Triple-A Durham (where he was 3-0 with a 1.76 ERA in 10 games, including 69 strikeouts and just 11 walks in 46 innings). He won a silver medal with Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics.

And now, at 22 years, 95 days old, he will become the youngest pitcher to make his major-league debut for the Rays as a starter since Scott Kazmir (20 years, 212 days) in 2004.

When Baz got the news from Durham manager Brady Williams, he called his parents, Raj and Tammy, in Cypress, Texas (Houston area).

“They were both at home, so I got to talk to both of them at the same time,” Baz said. “Definitely a very emotional phone call. They will definitely be here (Monday). I’m sure you’ll hear them.”

Baz said he has “a little crew coming” to the game, including his trainer, former teammates and friends.

Facing the offensively-potent Blue Jays might be a difficult assignment for a major-league debut, but Cash said he believes Baz is up to the task.

“I don’t think that weighs too much into Shane and how he goes out and attacks,” Cash said. “It’s a pretty simple approach. It’s very much what we try to get all of our young pitchers to do … fill up the strike zone.

“We want to see him pitch. For us to make some decisions about him, we probably need more than one (start). I don’t know if we’ll slot him back in the rotation. We’ll piece all that together as we get through the next few days.”

Baz, the 12th overall pick in the 2017 draft and acquired from the Pirates in the deal that sent Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow to the Rays, said he doesn’t expect to be nervous. Playing in the Olympics was good preparation.

“The Olympics were definitely nerve-wracking,” Baz said. “Kind of even more with no fans there, so you didn’t really have the buzz of the crowd to keep you into it. It was strange, but it was great. I think I was more nervous for that than I am now. So I think it will be good.”

KK is okay

Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier was reinstated from the COVID-19-related injured list and used as a pinch-runner in the eighth inning. Kiermaier, who tested negative for the virus, was removed from Friday night’s game for a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning.

“I feel like a new person,” said Kiermaier, who recovered at home Saturday. “I had some sinus issues. I couldn’t breathe. I was sleep-deprived as well. I was just in a really weird frame of mind.”

Kiermaier drove home Friday night and watched the finish of a 7-4, 10-inning victory (Brett Phillips’ walk-off homer) on television with his wife, Marisa, who excitedly was standing on the couch and cheering on the Rays.

“That comeback, it brought me back to life somewhat, even though I didn’t have any emotion,” Kiermaier said. “I hated not being there for that. But Friday was definitely my breaking point. I couldn’t do it.

“I knew it was going to be a battle. I didn’t feel comfortable out there. I didn’t feel like I could help the team win. I feel bad admitting that, but there comes a point when you have to make a line and swallow your pride.”

Miscellany

After reinstating left-hander Shane McClanahan and Kiermaier, the Rays optioned right-hander Louis Head to Triple-A Durham and designated right-hander Joey Krehbiel for assignment. … Designated hitter Nelson Cruz, who missed two games after being hit by a pitch on the right forearm, returned. … Shortstop Taylor Walls, who was scratched from Saturday’s lineup due to “general illness,” was available but did not play. … The Rays were shut out for the seventh time (four at home). … Their last seven losses at home have come by a combined 13 runs. … They are 35-34 in games decided by two runs or fewer. … The Rays lost a season series (3-4) against the Tigers for the first time since 2016.

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