Did you wonder what team you were watching when you saw the Orioles score 20 runs in three games? Did you worry that perhaps The Rays Way had departed for Kansas City with James Shields? Did you hear all of the many predictions for a breakout year from Alex Cobb, look at the Rays’ rotation, and think, "This is what we’re reduced to? Excitement over an unheralded finesse pitcher with a funky changeup?" Did it seem that perhaps this team was just not as talented as they’ve been for the past couple years? Well, to that I say "Matt Moore."
Moore wasn't perfect. His fastball only touched 95 mph once or twice all game, and he lost command for two brief spells, but despite all that, he was dominant. Over six innings, he threw 100 pitches—18 changeups, 22 curves, and the rest fastballs—and struck out eight batters while allowing two walks and two hits. He threw both of his secondary pitches with confidence and for strikes, and when he wasn't getting empty swings out of them, they produced light, awkward contact for easy outs. If not for lapses of command in both the third and fourth inning, Moore would have been able to pitch deeper into the game, but I think that a description of those two innings can best describe just how good he was tonight.
Moore started the third inning off which a slightly wild five pitch walk to Mike Aviles. He then loosed a fastball too far up and away from the number nine hitter, Drew Stubbs. It was the kind of arm-side miss Moore struggled with last year, and Jose Lobaton immediately came trotting out to the mound to talk over what was going wrong and get his pitcher back in line. Moore immediately responded with a fastball down and away for a strike, a fastball in for a strike, and then a curve ball on the inside corner to strike Stubbs out looking (Stubbs would be victimized for a strikeout three times this game).
Next, Moore grooved a fastball to Michael Bourn that Bourn laced for a double, but with runners at the corners, Moore raised his level, inducing a weak chopper to third (off of his changeup) that caught Aviles in a run down, and then striking out Jason Kipnis on what was probably his best sequence of the evening. He started Kipnis off with a frontdoor curve that had him flinching away from the called strike. He then threw a high fastball above the zone, and followed it with a curve in the dirt that left Kipnis unable to check his swing. He tried to pound Kipnis with another frontdoor curve, but this one wasn't as good and was fouled off. Sensing that Kipnis was perhaps getting the measure of his curve, he set him up with a fastball away, and then completely flummoxed him with a changeup right on the inside edge of the plate that tied Kipnis up for an ugly swinging strikeout.
In the following inning, Moore gave up a four pitch walk to Michael Brantley, and then with his fastball missing its spots, turned once again to his changeup to induce a weak grounder from Carlos Santana and a strikeout from Mark Reynolds. All the trouble Moore got into in this game was of his own making, and both times he calmly worked himself back out of it. There is really no limit to how good he can become.
The Rays got on the board in the bottom of the fourth inning when Sam Fuld knocked an 0-2 fastball back up the middle for a single. Ben Zobrist then lined a double into the right field corner to easily score the speedy Fuld from first. Evan Longoria hit a breaking ball back up the middle for a single, and for a moment it seemed like Zach McAllister might unravel. A wild curveball in the dirt advanced Longoria, and McAllister’s fastball came unhinged, being yanked into the dirt once and then flying up and away several times. Matt Joyce just missed his pitch, though, before hitting a soft groundball to the mound that couldn’t score the run. Yunel Escobar grounded Zobrist home, and Loney worked a good at bat before flying out to end the inning.
Baseball is cruel to struggling pitchers, though, and after Matt Moore worked an efficient 1, 2, 3 inning, the rules of the game and Terry Francona required McAllister to go back out to the mound for the fifth. Both Jose Lobaton and Kelly Johnson worked dangerous looking at bats that resulted in outs. Jennings got down 0-2 but battled back to work the count full. He then scorched a liner to third base that Mike Aviles bobbled for a hard-luck error. Fuld lined a single, into right to bring Zobrist up to bat, and this time, the third time through the order, Zobrist was in control. He calmly looked at two pitches, a ball and a borderline strike, and then pounced all over a hanging changeup, lining into the right field corner to score both the (fast) runners. Longoria launched a foul ball home run before striking out looking for the third out.
It was a great demonstration of how a patient approach can put an offense in the position to succeed. That doesn’t mean that the offense always will succeed, but the Rays clearly put McAllister on the ropes, and he was lucky to escape with only four runs of damage.
Jake McGee came on in the seventh inning to relieve Moore. He worked an uneventful inning with three groundball outs, but there was something extremely interesting about it—a second pitch, and not usual, lame-duck slider. He threw four pitches in the 90-92 mph range, and all of them had between 5 and 10 inches of both vertical rise and arm-side run. That looks a whole lot like a changeup. Or maybe, it’s just a REALLY horrible slider. Either way, it’s something to keep an eye on.
In the eighth inning, Maddon sent on the newly arrived Brandon Gomes, who set about immediately proving that he belongs in the majors. He got a popup with his first pitch of the night, struck out Drew Stubbs on three pitches, and got Bourne to ground out in a 3-2 count. The balls he threw to Bourne were two nasty splitters slightly down and away and a slider just below the zone that a lesser batter would surely have struck out on.
Joel Peralta rounded out the night with a dominant two-strikeout ninth.
Some additional notes:
- In the top of the first, Matt Moore threw a fastball right down the middle to Jason Kipnis, who sent it for a ride to the wall in center. Desmond Jennings, who had been playing even with the starburst and slightly on its left field side, tracked a long way back and made a smooth catch just a bit over his shoulder. It was the type of catch we came to expect as routine with BJ in center, but there was nothing routine about it. For anyone still doubting DJ out there in center field, now’s the time to stop (actually, the time to stop was back when he was still in the minors, but whatever).
- Speaking of Kipnis, he looks big, and not at all like a second baseman. He’s young and a good athlete so I guess it works, but every time I see him bat I do a double take.
- McAllister throws a cutter, but uses it only to same-handed batters, throwing it frontdoor (inside, breaking back over the plate for strikes). This is different than how the Rays’ Price and occasionally Hellickson use their cutters. The Rays pitchers throw them backdoor to opposite handed hitters (off the plate, breaking back in for strikes). I much prefer the Rays’ way. In both cases, the cutter is a pitch without any real depth that’s relying on the batter misreading it as a ball for its effectiveness. But when it’s thrown backdoor, the stakes are a lot lower. On the backdoor version, the batter’s decision is between taking it for an uncertain ball/strike call, or swinging at it in an area where he’s likely to hit a weak grounder or an opposite field single. In the frontdoor version, there’s still the uncertainty about a strike call, but if the batter reads it right and decides to swing, it’s located where he can pull the ball with authority.
- Steve Kinsella said to save your ticket stubs. The Rays struck out 11 Indians tonight. Nice work, Steve.