Here is what Robbie Ray missed by spending the first five weeks of the minor league season at extended spring training in Florida, rather than at low Class A Hagerstown: He missed the Bryce Harper circus. He missed the Suns’ eight-game winning streak and their surge to the top record in the South Atlantic League. He missed a lot of 10-hour bus rides.
But here is what the Suns missed during those same five weeks: A 6-foot-2 lefty with a sneaky-fast 91- to 92-mph fastball, a filthy slider and a nice change-up. A fearless strike-thrower who works fast and who only mixes in a ball when he thinks it serves a greater purpose. A 19-year-old who looks like he’s been doing this forever.
Those impressions, mind you, were formed on the basis of just one outing. But what an outing it was. On Monday night, Ray made his professional starting debut for the Suns, pitching five shutout, one-hit innings against the Delmarva Shorebirds. He carried a no-hitter into the fifth, gave up a leadoff double — the only well-struck ball he gave up — then went ground out, strikeout, strikeout (his fifth and sixth of the night) to close out the inning, before departing due to a predetermined innings limit.
But here are some even more impressive numbers: Not only did Ray not walk a batter — he also never faced a three-ball count and never fell behind 2-0 in the count. He threw only 13 balls among his 59 pitches.
“He almost threw more pitches in the bullpen [during warm-ups] than he did in the game,” joked Hagerstown pitching coach Chris Michalak.
Ray’s slider was particularly impressive, and he used it after getting ahead to finish off the majority of his strikeouts. On his final strikeout of the night, he actually hit the batter in the midsection, but the poor guy (a right-handed batter) was fooled so badly he couldn’t stop his swing. I thought the pitch must have been a high slider, to have gotten so deep into the right-handed batter’s box (from the pressbox vantage point, and without benefit of a radar-gun readout, it was difficult to tell), but Ray said it was just a fastball, and figured the guy must have been looking for a change-up.
“The command of his fastball is what stood out,” said Hagerstown Manager Brian Daubach. “Even when he missed, he missed where he wanted to miss.”
(Incidentally, in 2009 Ray pitched for the 18-and-under U.S. national team that won the world championship. His catcher? Bryce Harper.)
It has been a particularly stellar week for the Suns. Ace Cameron Selik (3-0, 0.31 ERA in five starts) was promoted to high Class A Potomac. Harper was named “Sally” League player of the week (12-24, one homer, four doubles, dour RBI). And within a span of three days, two of the top arms in the Nationals’ organization, Ray and right-hander A.J. Cole, made their professional starting debuts. (Cole, 19, gave up five hits, including a homer, and two earned runs in 3 2/3 innings on Saturday.)
Cole and Ray, both of whom signed above-slot deals with the Nationals out of high school last summer, were kept in extended spring training until this week in order to get them acclimated to the every-fifth-day rhythm of professional baseball, without subjecting them to the volatile weather of April in the northeast.
“It was difficult,” Ray said, “because you’re pitching in front of about four guys, and all of them have got a radar gun. But once you get up here it’s a different story.”
I’ll repeat the disclaimer from above regarding Ray: This was just one outing, and on its own it doesn’t mean anything. But it is a rare treat to stumble upon a debut so impressive, and I thought you all would care to know about it.