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Austin Pruitt's season-defining moment

Jake Odorizzi’s injury opened the door. Pruitt must break it open if the Rays want to continue their playoff push.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK- After the Rays' devastating 6-5 loss in extra innings on Thursday, tonight’s game became that much more of a crucial win. The Rays are placing their fate in the hands of rookie Austin Pruitt, facing the biggest start of his career in what will probably be a packed Yankee Stadium.

With Jake Odorizzi hitting the disabled list with back soreness, Pruitt will be recalled to start Friday's contest against the Yankees. Andrew Kittredge, who allowed Brett Gardner’s walk-off home run Thursday, will be sent down. After barely making the Opening Day roster in April, Pruitt must justify the Rays’ confidence in him with a respectable outing.

“It’s going to be exciting, honestly I can’t wait to be out there,” a confident yet soft-spoken Pruitt said to DRaysBay before the Rays played the Yankees on Thursday. “This is what you play the game for.”

MLB: Game One-Oakland Athletics at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Pruitt has appeared in 18 games this season, one of which was a start against the Orioles on April 25. In three innings of work, Pruitt allowed one hit and struck out three, combining with three Rays relievers to shutout Baltimore for a 2-0 win.

All told, the Texas native has posted a sterling 5-1 record alongside an unsightly 6.25 ERA through 31.2 innings. He has been demoted twice in 2017, accumulating a promising 2.55 ERA in nine games (four starts) at Triple-A Durham. Although he has spent much of 2017 in the bullpen, the ninth-round 2013 draft pick has been a starter during his professional career. Between five minor league levels, Pruitt has started 86 of his 94 games entering 2017.

Skipper Kevin Cash has been encouraged by Austin’s minor league work and his lone MLB start against Baltimore

“All the reports on Austin have been really solid since he transitioned back into the rotation,” Cash said to reporters, including DRaysBay, before Thursday's game. “We tried him in the bullpen but we thought that to allow us to have some extra depth in the rotation with Matt Andriese’s injury, it’s nice to have a guy we can pencil in there.

“He’s probably shown more a little comfort pitching in the rotation like he did last year, it’s benefited him. We saw him start in Baltimore and there seemed to be a lot of comfort that day so hopefully, it’s something he can build off of.”

Friday will also be a chance to rebound for Pruitt, as he pitched poorly in his MLB debut on Opening Day against the Yankees. The 5-foot-11, 165-pound hurler allowed an unearned run without recording an out, finishing that contest with an infinite ERA.

Now, he makes a start for a Rays squad that -- despite Thursday's excruciating loss -- only trails New York by 2.5 games in the American League East and the Royals by 1.5 games for the second A.L. Wild Card.

“The baseball world gets a little bigger and you’re under a microscope a little more than in the minor leagues,” Pruitt said in regards to the pressure of pitching in a game with playoff implications.

If Pruitt struggles, the Rays have reinforcements on standby. Brent Honeywell, the organization's top pitching prospect, and the 14th-best prospect in baseball (per MLB.com) has proclaimed himself ready and his Triple-A numbers prove it (10-8, 3.96 ERA).

“No, I definitely didn’t [expect to be in the situation],” Pruitt said of making a potentially season-defining start in the midst of a playoff race. “I didn’t think I would make the team out of Spring Training and it’s great to be back.”

Whether or not Pruitt gets to stay likely hinges on his performance tonight.