Orioles' Ray Is Shining in Closer Role
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
NEW YORK, April 24 -- Chris Ray was 10 when he began to throw with a delivery that worried his Little League coaches. It was more of a violent sneeze than a windup, with arms flailing and legs kicking, but it worked for Ray, so he kept it. And at every point in his baseball career, a coach has tried to change it, advising him to make it more compact, and sometimes, Ray has listened.
"Believe it or not, it's more compact than it used to be," he said. "I heard it can be really deceptive with everything going everywhere. It's how I've always thrown."
On Friday the windup made its primetime debut against the New York Yankees. Ray escaped a bases-loaded jam by striking out Hideki Matsui with a slider on a 3-2 count, a bit of audaciousness in a spot that typically demands a fastball. That he would have the ability to control a breaking pitch despite his unusual delivery was astounding.
"He throws his whole body at you and he's throwing 96 to 97 miles per hour," Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez said.
Orioles catcher Ramon Hernandez said he never hesitated to call the pitch. Ray had shown this year he was able to control his three main pitches: fastball, slider, sinker.
"If he's going to be a closer, you have to be able to throw all your pitches at any time," Hernandez said, "because he's going to come into tough situations in the game."
Ray never hesitated to accept Hernandez's call. After the umpire called Matsui out, Ray pumped his fist, a unique display of emotion.
"If you were looking for some fire from him, you saw it out there," Orioles Manager Sam Perlozzo said.
It was the breakthrough performance of his young season, his first as a closer. After the game, Ray said he had several congratulatory messages on his cellphone.
"It was probably the best game that I pitched in," Ray said.
There had been some concerns about Ray heading into the season. He had only 18 saves in the minors when he was thrust into the closer role for the Orioles because of B.J. Ryan's departure as a free agent. In fact, Ray had begun his Orioles minor league career as a starter and did not convert into a reliever until 2005. And Ray's statistics in the minors were not overwhelming. Until 2005 Ray did not have an ERA under 2.82 in his first two minor league seasons. Now those concerns seem silly.
Ray's early-season numbers are staggering. He has yet to allow a run in 8 1/3 innings, saving six games and holding opponents to a .107 batting average. He has not given up an extra-base hit and has struck out 11. He has drawn the praise of those who have faced him, and he is all of 24.