There's an easy way of thinking to fall into with Chris Archer.
"He's a two-pitch pitcher," we say.
"Yes, his fastball and slider are great," we say, "but what happens when good hitters see him for the third time?"
"To take the The Next Step, Archer needs to work on his changeup," we say.
Well, today Archer continued his fantastic start to the season as he showed us what The Next Step might look like. It was not about the changeup (of which he only threw six). It was all about fastball and slider command. Chris Archer showed us that he does not only have two pitches. A fastball up is not the same pitch as a fastball down. A sinker running onto the batter's hands does something different than one running back towards the outer edge of the plate. And an unhittable slider that falls off the table plays a different role than the one that drops into the zone to steal a strike.
Chris Archer had all of them working, and he mixed them to his plan. And it was good.
Archer started off his day by getting Jose Reyes to ground out, and then shattered the bats of both Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista with identical sliders that moved off the sweet spot and onto the end of their bats. Donaldson's actually went for a hit, but Bautista's erased him with a double play, so no harm there.
In the next inning, Archer produced a popup and two strikeouts (not to mention a strike three that wasn't called), but he also missed up and in with a 99 mph fastball that caught Russel Martin squarely in the back or shoulder. I mention it here only because it looked painful and this would come into play later.
There were plenty of examples I could pull of Archer's dominance, but a good one came in his third inning at bat to Donaldson.
- Pitch one was a slow 86 mph slider (not slow for a slider; slow for Archer's slider) that started out high but dropped into the heart of the zone for strike one.
- With the slider fresh him in Donaldson's brain, Archer threw it again but brought it to the bottom of the zone. Donaldson got just a bit of bat to it for a foul (he actually dropped to one knee to get to this).
- Now, with Donaldson's eyes down in the zone, and his bat slowed with two sliders, Archer came back with a 98 mph fastball in the upper portion of the zone. It probably wasn't quite as high as Archer should have taken it, but it's still a tough pitch to get to given the setup. Good job by a good hitter to get a piece.
- Next, Archer doubles up on the pitch and once more doesn't get it as high as he probably should, but when you throw 97 mph with movement, you can get away with this. Foul ball.
- This is one of the more interesting pitches in the at bat. PITCHf/x calls it a fastball at 90 mph, but I think it was a changeup that Archer didn't get quite right. If he was in fact going for a changeup down and in, it shows that he believes in the pitch, even if he didn't execute it.
- Here finally is the putaway pitch. It's 1-2, so Archer doesn't have to throw something in the zone. There's also been three pitches since he's shown Donaldson his slider, so it's time to go back to it, and this time it's the hard kind. It's 90 mph with real bite to it. Yes, it's nowhere near the strike zone, but Donaldson is confused and guessing. He tries to swing, but is nowhere close.
In the fifth inning, Archer flashed the glove and the athleticism when he snagged a comebacker to the mound. The embed code isn't up yet, but until it is, this is a link worth clicking on if you couldn't watch the game.
After mostly cruising through the first six innings, Archer finally labored a bit in the seventh. He started by hitting Edwin Encarnacion with a pitch to lead off the inning. Let me make something clear here, since I think it's important. Archer was not throwing at Blue Jays hitters (despite the fact that you could make a case that he might want to after Dalton Pompey clubbed Bobby Wilson with his backswing earlier in the series). He was pitching inside. He did it all day. A few times the pitch went further inside than he meant it to, and two of those times the result was a hit batter. I understand why the Blue Jays might grumble about it, but none of it was intentional.
Archer struck out Justin Smoak who was up next, but then got a bit wild and walked Russel Martin to put two men on with one out, prompting pitching coach Jim Hickey to take a trip to the mound. I think what he said was something along the lines of "this is the bottom of the order, so challenge them," because that's exactly what Archer did, and the results were good. He struck out both Pompey and Kevin Pillar and then sauntered off the mound with a stat line of 109 pitches thrown over seven innings in which he only gave up two hits and two walks while striking out eleven batters. Not bad.
While Archer was doing his work, the Rays offense managed some production against Aaron Sanchez, a young starter with an absolutely electric fastball and curveball combination but suspect command.
The first run came in the third inning when Kevin Kiermaier took a low fastball back up the middle for a leadoff single. Rene Rivera was treated to a fastball within the zone in an 0-2 count and lined it into center field, and David DeJesus worked a six-pitch walk to load the bases with Steven Souza due up.
The first pitch was high and wild, and flew over Martin, but it took a Toronto carom right back to the catcher, and if Kiermaier had tried to score he'd have been out easily. That would have been a shame because Souza brought him home on the next pitch with a ground ball (that would have been a double play had not DeJesus broken up the turn with a hard slide).
The Rays got things going again in the fifth inning when Kiermaier once again led off. This time he flared an outside fastball the other way for a ground-rule double (it landed fair and then bounced over the low wall on the left-field line). This was impressive as the ball was actually pretty well-hit despite being off the end of his bat. Rivera struck out on one of Sanchez's nastier curves, which brought DeJesus to the plate.
DDJ hit a fly ball to short left field. Kevin Pillar charged it. He couldn't quite get there, but it was close enough that Kiermaier couldn't be sure until the last moment, and hence needed to stay at second base. The play probably should have ended as a single with no runners advancing, but Pillar decided to sell out to try to make the catch. He slid, came up two feet short, and let the ball bounce over him, allowing KK to score from second and put the Rays up by two.
The final Rays runs came in the next inning when Longoria lead off by driving a fastball on the outside edge the other way into the gap for a double. Jennings grounded out but advanced Longoria to third, and with Allan Dykstra up and Sanchez wild, John Gibbons thought it was time to pull his starter. He chose the sidearming lefty-specialist Aaron Loup. Kevin Cash countered with righty Tim Beckham as a pinch hitter.
Loup busted Beckham in on the hands for a foul ball, and then got strike two with a fastball taken in the zone. The third pitch was a slider that was supposed to be inside, but never got there. It just hung over the heart of the plate, and Beckham crushed it. This was one of those true line drive home runs that never gets more than 30 feet off the ground and streaks down the line just fair of the pole. 4-2 Rays.
Longoria is hit
There's really only one other thing to talk about with this game. In the eighth inning, down four runs, the Blue Jays threw at Longoria. They hit him in the hip or the buttocks. It appeared to be painful as Longo took his base, and he was removed from the game.
Archer did not like it, clearly exclaiming "That's bullshit" from the top step of the dugout, which prompted Mark Buehrle to engage him in an exchange words from across the field before the umpires told everyone to calm down.
Steve Geltz came on to pitch the bottom of the eighth inning, but he had none of the command he's shown in the first week of the season, and he walked both Travis and Goins (on four pitches) to put two on in front of the heart of the Jays lineup. At this point, Geltz appeared to bear down and to find his release point. He took Donaldson to a 2-2 count, and then threw what looked to be a breaking ball that didn't break. It came up and in at 83 mph and sent Donaldson sprawling. Laz Diaz said that the ball had hit Donaldson and awarded him first base, and Kevin Cash challenged.
There was very little contact, but with a super-slow-motion replay, it did appear that the pitch grazed the tip of Donaldson's forefinger. The replay officials confirmed the call, and they had it right. Kevin Cash was having none of that, though. He came flying out of the dugout, incredulous, and got himself immediately tossed
I don't know if he was actually upset. He sure looked it. Maybe he felt the game slipping away and he wanted to get his team fired up. Maybe he just wanted to give Kevin Jepsen a little bit more time to finish getting warmed in the bullpen. Whatever Cash's intention was for first ejection of his managerial career, call it a success. Jepsen came on and sat down Bautista, Encarnacion and Dioner Navarro, all with weak contact, to get the Rays out of the jam (giving up one run on a sacrifice fly). Brad Boxberger closed out the game to give the Rays the 3-1 series win.
I understand why the Blue Jays threw at Longoria. It's not totally ridiculous for them to have gotten a bee in their bonnet. They're not at Red Sox level or anything. But I do think they're on the wrong side of this. I have a strict rule: it's okay to throw at the opposing team when and only when they've done something to intentionally hurt one of your team's players. Hitting a catcher with a loopy back swing does not qualify. Pitching inside and missing does not qualify. Breakup slides at second base don't make the cut (as long as they're not especially late or especially high), and a middle infielder blocking second with his knee doesn't do it either. All of those things are just baseball, and sometimes baseball hurts.
But throwing at a team's best player as retaliation for competitive baseball plays does check the boxes. The game state allowed no retaliation, and I don't know that the Rays will or even should carry this over to their next meeting. But make no mistake -- right now Jose Bautista owes Longoria a bruise, and it's up to the Rays to decide whether or not to collect.
Some other notes:
- Souza takes very big leads off first. His leads seem a full step bigger to me than Jennings's (yes, I know he got thrown out despite the big lead).
- Oh man this Toronto infield is slow. Also, there were a few times I thought the grounders took funny bounces where their trajectory changed slightly. I'm not one to make fun of a dome, but for the sake of the fans up there, I hope they can improve that.
- Aaron Sanchez's curve is legit. It's a big curve with lots of drop, but it also has almost 10 inches of horizontal movement. And it's pretty hard as curves go. Really impressive to go with a plus sinker.
- Sometimes Rivera wears yellow nails, and sometimes he wears pink ones. I like the pink better.
- In his first at bat, Jose Reyes grounded into a shift, but then left the game to start the second inning with an oblique injury. The situation seemed familiar, so I went digging in the archives. Sure enough, with the Rays playing the Jays in the first game of the season last year, Reyes pulled his hamstring running to first in his first at bat.
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