Robbie Ray had a rough month of May. And a rough first week of June.
At least, it was rough by the numbers.
Between April 30th and June 6th, Ray gave up at least three runs in every game except one. The reigning Cy Young winner’s ERA skyrocketed over that stretch, topping out at an unsavory 5.56. It was a credit to the Mariner offense that Ray’s record wasn’t worse than 3-5 during that time.
Time and time again, Ray pitched pretty well in those starts. Until that one inning.
As the Seattle Times’ Matt Calkins pointed out about a month ago, Ray’s struggles all seemed to come in just one inning.
The Ignominious Inning
|April 30th vs Miami
|All three runs given up in the fifth inning
|May 5th vs Tampa
|All four runs given up in the fourth inning
|May 10th vs Philadelphia
|Both runs given up in the fifth inning
|May 15th vs New York Mets
|Four of five runs given up in the fourth inning
|May 20th vs Boston
|All four runs given up in the third inning
|May 25th vs Oakland
|Two of three runs given up in the sixth inning
|June 1st vs Baltimore
|Three of four runs given up in the second inning
|June 6th vs Houston
|Three of four runs given up in the second inning
At the time, Ray surmised that he was just having a mental lapse. In reality, he was probably just getting unlucky.
Ray’s xFIP over those eight games was just 3.43 — his total on the year is 3.59. The source of his issues seemed to mainly stem from the fact that he was giving up dingers at exactly the wrong times. Were those dingers because he was giving up harder contact?
Whether it’s been luck, or whether Ray’s new-and-improved two-seamer has been the key to his success, Robbie has been much better. In his six starts since that stretch, Ray has experienced some merciful regression to the mean — he hasn’t allowed a single multirun inning, or even a single multirun start, since June 6th.
He came close last night. Facing 24-year-old ace Alek Manoah, Ray would have to be pretty much perfect in order to secure a win for the Mariners. For four innings, he was. Ray faced the minimum through those first four frames. His only blemish — a line drive single by Teoscar Hernández — was erased after Ray picked off Hernández. Overall, Ray looked utterly dominant, nearly hitting 97 MPH a few times (he’s sat around 93-94 for most of the year). Ray would attribute the extra velocity to adrenaline from the crowd.
Then Ray hit that one inning.
After getting ahead 0-2 against star catcher Alejandro Kirk, Ray lost some of his command and walked Kirk. Then he walked Hernández, with two balls coming mere millimeters away from being strikes. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. cracked a single into right field to load the bases, hitting it so hard that Kirk had no prayer of scoring from second base.
Ray found himself with the bases loaded around him and nobody out. Sitting in the opposite dugout, Manoah looked unhittable, having thrown four scoreless innings while using just 49 pitches to do so. Things looked grim.
Robbie took a few seconds to walk around the mound. After the game, when asked what he was telling himself in that moment, Ray said “Just get nasty. Throw my best pitch every single time. Just get nasty.”
Up came Matt Chapman, still dangerous despite his struggles over the past couple of years. Ray threw the first two pitches for balls. Uh oh. The stadium swelled with noise, delirium overcoming the legions of Blue Jays fans who were ravenous for a win after being denied the previous two games.
Ray took a deep breath, and pumped the next two fastballs on the inside corner for strikes. He came back with a slider, and Chapman barely fouled it off. Cal Raleigh called for another slider. Ray threw it on the upper-inside corner. It was nasty. Chapman wiffed.
Up next was second baseman Santiago Espinal. After missing once way outside, Ray painted the corners — first with a slider on the inside corner, then with a fastball on the outside corner. Espinal fouled off another slider inside, then swung at yet another. Again, it was nasty. Espinal barely made contact, pop-lining the ball directly at second baseman Abraham Toro. Two outs.
Last was left fielder Raimel Tapia, the only lefty the Jays started against Ray. Ray immediately pumped a nasty 95 MPH fastball inside to Tapia. Tapia bit, and grounded the ball to J.P. Crawford. For one horrible moment, it looked like Gurriel might beat Crawford to second base.
Crawford won the race.
Somehow, some way, Ray was out of the inning. The half of the crowd that had moments prior been screaming suddenly fell quiet. The other half rose to their feet, frenzied with adrenaline and joy.
Ray himself, who so rarely shows any hint of emotion on the mound, couldn’t stop himself from giving into the moment.
“It was just a moment where everything just stopped,” Ray said after the game. “The atmosphere tonight was just unbelievable. When everyone here is just hanging on every single pitch, it’s fun to play baseball.”
When the Mariners play like this, it’s fun to watch baseball too.