14 Dec 2021 | 01:51 | Baseball
ST. PETERSBURG — Former USF pitching ace Shane McClanahan, the Tampa Bay Rays left-hander, remains on major-league baseball’s fast track.
He had an outstanding rookie season (10-6, 3.43 ERA, 141 strikeouts and just 37 walks over 123.1 innings). He’s expected to start Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Thursday night when the Rays meet the Boston Red Sox.
“What a cool story,” USF coach Billy Mohl said. “Our guy pitching for the hometown team, doing so well, with a shot at helping his team get through the playoffs and win the World Series. It’s just awesome to see.”
“I don’t think you could ask any more than what Shane has given us this season,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Any time there has been adversity — whether it’s a start or an inning — he has bounced right back. He has built a solid foundation.”
McClanahan, 24, said that foundation rests upon his three collegiate seasons (2016-18) at USF, where he established himself as a top prospect. As a redshirt sophomore, McClanahan recorded 120 strikeouts in 76.1 innings, while ranking second nationally with a 14.1 strikeout ratio over nine innings. The Rays made McClanahan the 31st overall selection in the 2018 amateur draft.
“If I look at what really made the difference for me as a pitcher, it’s what I learned at USF,” McClanahan said. “I don’t think I would’ve been ready for pro ball out of high school (the Mets drafted him in the 26th round out of Cape Coral High School in 2015). I was immature. I needed to grow. USF really made all the difference for me — as a pitcher and as a person.”Shane Mc2018 BSB South Florida v Connecticut
Mohl, then the Bulls’ pitching coach, remembers seeing McClanahan for the first time as a high-school junior, when his fastball topped out at 84 miles per hour. One year later, he was blossoming with speeds in the low 90s. McClanahan chose USF over Miami.
But in McClanahan’s second USF bullpen session, he felt elbow discomfort. He was on the shelf with Tommy John surgery.
“You never know,” Mohl said. “When he got back, when he was full go, he was putting 95 and 96 (mph) on the board. That’s when we said, ‘We got something here.’ And he hasn’t looked back since.”
It became clear that McClanahan had a professional baseball future, but he remained rooted in the present, wanting to enjoy every moment of his USF experience.
“I was a political science major and I honestly enjoyed all the classes, the back-and-forth banter, learning the interesting points and views from both sides,” McClanahan said. “That’s what college should be, a chance to expand your mind and meet people where they are to experience their unique perspectives.
“As a baseball player, as a pitcher, I got some maturity. I learned how to handle things and how to overcome adversity. I figured out who I was as a person.”
McClanahan was ranked as the No. 8 overall player for the 2018 draft by Baseball America, so he anticipated a top 10 selection. He was initially disappointed at slipping into the supplemental round, but his MLB destination has been ideal.
“It worked out perfectly,” Mohl said. “When you go back and look at the other first-rounders, the (11) pitchers who went ahead of Shane, how many are in the big leagues (three) and what are they doing right now? The Rays get the most out of you, so it has turned out so well.”
“This is a team on and off the field,” McClanahan said. “We’re always together on off-days, exploring cities together, laughing and joking. This team is so special in that way. Some teams might have guys out only for their individual accolades. We don’t care about that stuff. Our only mission is to win and that’s why I love this team so much.”
McClanahan raced through the minors, accumulating just 127.2 innings pitched in two seasons from the rookie leagues to Double-A. In the 2020 COVID-19 season, when minor-league ball was wiped out, McClanhan mostly worked at the alternate training site in Port Charlotte, then became the first pitcher in MLB history to debut in the postseason, where he worked 4.1 innings and appeared in the World Series.
This season, he earned a spot in the starting rotation and has been a mainstay for the Rays (100-62), who set a franchise record for victories and captured their second consecutive American League East title. McClanahan was 5-0 in August with a 2.15 ERA. He surpassed 100 mph on 18 of his pitches this season, making him one of MLB’s hardest throwers.
“Aside from his success between the lines and his overall maturation, it’s easy to forget that Shane is still just 24 years old and he hasn’t pitched a lot of innings in the last few years,” Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder said. “Where he is now is a testament to his stuff and his work ethic.
“The moment is never too big for him. He doesn’t get caught up in the trappings. He just pounds the zone and throws strikes. He has handled this situation tremendously. He’s got about as bright a future as anybody in the game.”
There’s obvious excitement over where he could be going in baseball.Shane & Billy resized bsb2021
But for McClanahan, there’s a deep appreciation for where he has been.
“USF was playing the (American Athletic Conference) tournament and we were working out in the weight room,” McClanahan said. “I made them turn the TV on and I was screaming my butt off. We beat UCF to win the tournament. It was so cool.
“Then to see them win the Regional in Gainesville, beating Florida and Miami back-to-back, and go to the Super Regionals at Texas, how awesome was that? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a little choked up over it all. There’s no reason why this program can’t be everything we want it to be, getting to Omaha and having a top 25 program, year-in and year-out.”
McClanahan said he and his USF teammates helped to re-establish a winning tradition — including a near victory against the Florida Gators, the ultimate national champions, at the 2017 Gainesville Regional — and believes the Bulls are building on that.
“We all want USF to be known as a national baseball powerhouse,” McClanahan said. “To see those guys last season, doing what they did, they were living our dream. We got to live it vicariously through them.
“I’ll be honest. If you’re a good baseball player in the Tampa Bay area and you’re not considering USF, you’re crazy. Statistically speaking, it’s a superior academic school. The baseball facilities are top notch, the coaches are great and the program is on the way up. I am really proud to have USF by my name.”
In turn, everyone at USF is proud to be following McClanahan’s MLB exploits.
“It’s going to be fun to see where Shane takes this,” Mohl said. “We can’t wait to see our guy in the spotlight.”