How USF’s Shane McClanahan rose to become Rays’ top starter

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ST. PETERSBURG — If you want to see Shane McClanahan squirm, catch him when he’s on the green at a Tampa golf course standing over a short putt for par or, less often, a birdie.

“Honestly, when I’ve got a 4- or 5-foot putt, that’s when the nerves start to get going,” the Rays pitcher said. “It’s definitely interesting. I’m asking myself, ‘Why are you nervous right now? There’s nobody around you.’”

The reason is that he, admittedly, isn’t very good at golf.

Put McClanahan on the mound, as he will be Thursday night at Tropicana Field for Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Red Sox, and you won’t see him break a sweat.

The reason is that he, obviously, is very good at pitching.

“As good of a left-hander as there is out there as a starting pitcher,” Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder said.

One-of-a-kind debut

Consider that a year ago, the 2018 first-round pick from USF was making his unprecedented major-league debut in the postseason, summoned from the Port Charlotte alternate camp despite pitching only four games above Class A in 2019, to add a power arm to the Rays’ bullpen.

Now, the 24-year-old lefty has the Game 1 playoff assignment for the AL’s winningest team, having been called up in late April and making an amazing and somewhat accelerated emergence as the most dominating starter in the Rays’ rotation.

“Considering I didn’t break with the team out of (spring) camp, I think it’s pretty cool,” McClanahan said Wednesday. “I think it’s a testament to the hard work and the effort that I’ve put in and the entire team has put in this year.”

McClanahan didn’t pitch particularly well, or much, in the playoffs last year, working 4 -1/3 innings over four games, allowing eight hits and four earned runs.

His hard work started shortly after the Rays returned from the World Series in October. By January, he made a pitch to Snyder about adding a new pitch, a slider, to his repertoire that had been mostly fastball-curveball with an occasional changeup.

“I always want to get better,” McClanahan said. “I kind of got hit last year when I got called up. I want to succeed more than anything in the world. I love winning. I love competing, and there’s always that next step in your evolution in development as a pitcher.

“I realized I wasn’t getting the job done with what I had. I told myself, if you want to stay in this league or get better, you need to work.”

‘A power starter with four pitches’

The results were impressive, even to McClanahan’s bosses, who had planned for him to at least open the season at Triple-A Durham, which was to begin play in May. Once McClanahan felt good about the slider, he refined the curveball, then got more comfortable with the changeup and the progress was obvious.

“Now you’re talking about a four-pitch pitcher who has a feel for strikes with everything he throws who can touch triple digits when he really lets it rip,” Rays baseball operations president Erik Neander said. “You’re talking about four pitches, quality across the board, strikes across the board. Someone who went from a power arm last year that was out of the pen just because of the power to someone that’s really refined his approach and now he’s a power starter with four pitches.

“It’s a big reason why we’re here. It’s a big reason why we’re excited about all that’s ahead. And he deserves a hell of a lot of credit for putting all that together that quickly.”

McClanahan (10-6, 3.31) said he felt like he had no choice once the Rays, who declined Charlie Morton’s option and traded Blake Snell, lost their top remaining starter, Tyler Glasnow, to injury in June.

“I love being where I’m at. Obviously, this year has been a big step for me I feel like in regards to my maturity on and off the field,” McClanahan said. “I feel like I had to grow up pretty fast on the mound when ‘Glas’ went down. It was just one of those things where it’s like, ‘All right, well, here we go. We’ve got to do it regardless.’”

No shortage of confidence

Though McClanahan insists he is still learning and figures most people don’t even realize he is still a rookie, he knows how good he is and has no shortage of confidence or cockiness, depending on how it comes across.

“I don’t know where that line is,” Neander said. “I know you need it to compete out here. ... Underneath it all is a belief in himself. However that needs to be packaged — everyone has their own way, and that’s a personal thing — but it works for him. I think without that belief and — however you want to describe it — without it, he’s not where he is.”

Snyder said he saw McClanahan’s confidence grow during the season as he got more comfortable and more successful, going 7-3 with a 2.81 earned-run average over his final 13 starts, including three against the Red Sox (1-1, 2.81).

“His stuff’s really good; he should be pretty confident,” manager Kevin Cash said. “You definitely would rather have it than not. And he’s performed well enough to continue to gain confidence throughout his rookie season.”

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