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Rays’ Taj Bradley is diving headfirst into second big-league season

TAMPA — Taj Bradley did not want to just dip his toes in this spring. He wanted to dive right into the deep end.

So the Rays right-hander was excited to take the two-hour bus trip from Port Charlotte Wednesday to face most of what will be the Yankees’ opening-day lineup.

“That’s why I was happy I was on the road,” Bradley said after the Rays’ 4-3 win at George M. Steinbrenner Field. “Like, most people aren’t happy to go to the away games, but if I can get an A-Team like that, I’m excited for it.”

It’s the same way Bradley, 22, approached preparing for his second big-league season.

He spent the offseason reconnecting with his delivery, developing a cue that allows him to reset himself on the mound. He also worked on refining his cutter to add more depth.

Even after only one spring start, Bradley already sees growth.

Wednesday, he faced a lineup that included Juan Soto, Aaron Judge, Anthony Rizzo, Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres. Bradley did not allow a run in three innings of work, allowing just two hits. He did not walk a batter and struck out one. He threw 29 of is 43 pitches for strikes and generated a lot of weak contact.

It showed Bradley he’s where he needs to be at this stage of the spring.

“I am in a good spot,” he said. “I felt like my pitches are doing well, the velo was good, the shape I had coming in was good, and a lot of stuff I worked on in the offseason I showed out on the field and in a live game.”

If Bradley can stay in that spot, it will be a relief for the Rays, who entered the spring with questions surrounding their rotation.

Zach Eflin is now their ace, with Tyler Glasnow traded and Shane McClanahan expected to miss the season following 2023 Tommy John surgery. Aaron Civale is looking to rebound from a mediocre debut in Tampa Bay after being acquired from Cleveland at last season’s trade deadline.

Zack Littell is in camp for the first time in his career as an expected starter after earning his way out of the bullpen last year. Shane Baz, who essentially has missed two seasons, will be working on a strict innings limit.

Bradley admitted his rookie season felt like an amusement park ride, but Wednesday he looked confident on the mound and handled a lineup full of heavy hitters. He gave up singles to Soto and Rizzo in the first inning, then retired seven straight batters.

Rays manager Kevin Cash said the outing gave him increased confidence in Bradley.

“That was really encouraging, and I felt like he might have gotten better as the outing, more pitches, tacked on,” Cash said. “So I was just happy with the game. We played a better baseball game than we’ve been playing. But Taj certainly set the tone going against that lineup. We know how talented those hitters are, and felt like he kind of went toe to toe with them.”

That work started in the offseason with Bradley’s cut fastball, against which opponents hit .312 last season. According to Baseball Savant, the cutter had 2.3″ less vertical movement than the average major-league pitcher throwing the same pitch.

“Last year, I just felt like a (batting-practice) fastball with my cutter, just cement mixing,” Bradley said of the wobbly movement on the pitch. “So now I just get a little bit more depth to separate the fastball from the cutter so I can get under swings and people swing over it and I get weak contact.”

Bradley also worked on getting himself settled in his mind and in his delivery.

“You go up and you go down like a rollercoaster (during a season), but you have to feel calm and confident and know that your game can compete on the highest level,” Bradley said. “That will take me through a season.”

Bradley plans to take that same mindset out to the mound. He’s working on some fundamentals to help him reset amidst the intensity, excitement and noise of the game.

“I’m working on my delivery, like, every day,” he said. “I’d been doing that in the minor leagues a lot, but I kind of got outside of it when I got to the big leagues. Just a lot of stuff was running through my head, so I just put that on the back end.

“But these past few days I worked on my mechanics, and it helped a lot. I’ve got a cue or trigger to where I can find myself.”

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