ST. PETERSBURG -- As Shane Baz began his Minor League rehab assignment with Triple-A Durham last month, his mom, Tammy, texted him a Spotify link. The song she wanted her son to stream? Aerosmith’s “Back in the Saddle.”
“I was like, ‘There we go,’” said Baz, who will make his season debut Saturday against the Twins at Target Field after being delayed by arthroscopic right elbow surgery in March. “I definitely was bumping that song a little bit in my first couple of games, just getting back into it.”
Baz proved he was back as he breezed through four build-up starts in Triple-A, as you’d expect from the Rays’ top prospect and one of the most promising young arms in baseball. He struck out 20 and walked four while allowing two runs on eight hits over 13 innings.
When it was obvious that Baz was ready to rejoin the Rays’ rotation, he received a GIF from Rays ace Shane McClanahan. It was a frequently used clip of “CSI: Miami” actor David Caruso putting on his sunglasses -- a reference the 22-year-old Baz didn’t understand -- and it came with a message from McClanahan: “It’s time.”
“This guy, he's special,” McClanahan said earlier this week. “[Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder] tells me a lot, 'Put them on notice,' and I think Shane's about to put a lot of people on notice.”
There’s no denying Baz’s talent. He showed it last September, mowing down the Blue Jays, Marlins and Yankees with 18 strikeouts, three walks and a 2.03 ERA in his first three Major League starts. Baz struggled in his postseason debut, but the poise he showed down the stretch -- especially against a hot Toronto lineup -- stood out to Tampa Bay.
“I don't even think he realized how good of a team he faced when he debuted. That Blue Jays team was stacked, and we were like, 'OK, here he goes. Let's see what he does,’” McClanahan said. “And he performed and he showed just how talented he can be, and [he’s] just scratching the surface.”
“He just kind of looked the part,” manager Kevin Cash added. “He looked under control every outing.”
Then, just when he was on the verge of establishing himself this spring, Baz had to hit the pause button. He had surgery during Spring Training, then had to start over his progression when his elbow felt right. Baz said it was the first time he’s ever missed a start, much less went on the injured list, and having the game taken away from him like that was instructive in its own way.
“I feel like you get a new little perspective on it, just not being here and being healthy, that you appreciate it a little more. Definitely excited and very happy about it,” Baz said. “Spent a lot of nights just praying about it and trying to not get overwhelmed and stuff like that and just taking it one day at a time.
“But definitely, you almost get a new perspective on it, of how lucky we really are to be here and all that. So just being grateful and trying to take advantage of whatever opportunities I can get.”