BALTIMORE — It is both silly and intuitive, both counterproductive and inevitable, to evaluate an offseason trade involving three pitchers based on 19 appearances, just three of them starts. But here we go.
Doug Fister makes his second start for the Nationals Wednesday afternoon in Arizona following a month on the disabled list and a shellacking in Oakland in which he allowed three homers and five earned runs in 4-1/3 innings.
And Wednesday afternoon at Camden Yards, Robbie Ray sat comfortably in the visitors’ clubhouse – uncertain when and if he would get another major league start, but comfortable that his first two had given the baseball world a clue as to why Detroit Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski would trade Fister for a package that included Ray and reliever Ian Krol.
“It’s nice to get a little recognition,” Ray said. “But at the same time, it really doesn’t matter.”
Ray is 22, left-handed and filled with promise – the reason Dombrowski called him the key to the deal from a Detroit perspective. With an injury to right-hander Anibal Sanchez, last year’s American League ERA champ, the Tigers turned to Ray, who hadn’t pitched above Class AA before this season. And in his first two major league starts, he has wowed, allowing just one run in 11-1/3 innings (0.79 ERA) while striking out seven and walking just two.
“It’s been everything I expected it to be,” Ray said Wednesday. “I’m just trying to throw strikes, stay in the zone, get early contact – all the stuff I always try to do. But here I have to try to stay calm on the mound and just keep doing what I do.”
For Ray, that is locate his fastball – which at 90-92 mph isn’t overpowering, but which apparently can more than get by in the majors. After posting a 1.53 ERA in six appearances, five of them starts, for Class AAA Toledo, Ray got the call to make a May 6 start against the (admittedly woeful) Houston Astros.
“I was nervous,” he said. The first batter he faced doubled. The next singled to put runners on the corners with nobody out. Ray’s response: strikeout, strikeout, grounder to short.
“I was able to get out of that, and that helped me a lot to just settle in and calm down,” Ray said. “It made that game a lot easier to get through. And it made my second game so much better.”
Ray went on to allow just one run in 5-1/3 innings to get the win against Houston. His next start was better, six shutout innings against Minnesota on Sunday.
“His fastball plays up,” Tigers Manager Brad Ausmus said. “That’s been the key.”
Ray has also effectively mixed in a change-up, but both Ausmus and Ray said Ray is still finding a feel for his curveball. “Sometimes it’s there, and sometimes it’s not,” Ausmus said.
But the two-start debut gives the Tigers, already with the best record in baseball, the best kind of dilemma. Sanchez is due back in the rotation on Sunday in Boston. “We don’t have to make a decision until Saturday,” Ausmus said, and there remains a chance Ray will remain in the majors as a reliever.
If he’s sent to the bullpen, Ray would join Krol, a lefty who has a 2.25 ERA in 16 appearances in which he has allowed left-handed hitters a .208 average.
The success of Ray and Krol, of course, would turn a Nationals fan’s mind back to the trade – which was initially and widely assessed as a clear win for Washington, what with Fister’s reliability as a starter (14-9, 3.67 ERA in 208-2/3 innings in 2013). Ray, though, was coming off a season in which he moved up significantly in the Nationals organization, going 11-5 with a 3.36 ERA in 27 starts with Class A Potomac and Class AA Harrisburg.
“I didn’t expect to get traded, but I knew that it’s part of the business,” Ray said. “And I knew I was coming to a good team with a lot of history. But my initial reaction was I was definitely shocked.”
(The trade also included utility man Steve Lombardozzi, who was subsequently traded to Baltimore and has since been sent to the minors.)
Neither the Tigers’ impending decision on what to do with Ray nor the results of Fister’s next start will finalize the winner or loser of the trade. But Ray’s initial major league appearances reveal a lot about what the Tigers were thinking.