Blue Jays' Ray makes adjustment, flashes velocity in second spring start

Robbie Ray struck out 6 in just 2 1/3 innings of work, giving up 1 earned run but the Toronto Blue Jays fell to the Detroit Tigers 5-1 in Grape Fruit League action.

Sunday’s goal for Robbie Ray was simple: pitch in three innings. At this point in spring training, as starting pitchers continue to increase volume and workload beyond 50 pitches, a key benchmark is testing how velocity and sharpness carries from frame to frame with extended rest periods in between. Because who knows what will happen come the regular season? Maybe your offence goes off for a big inning; maybe the opposition makes a pitching change. No matter how long you’re sitting in the dugout, you’ve got to have the ability to return to the mound and pitch just as effectively as you were the inning prior.

But when Ray came off the mound Sunday after his second inning of work against the Detroit Tigers, he thought he might not get the opportunity. He’d needed 45 pitches just to get through those two, and he was budgeted to throw only 50. So, he went straight up to his pitching coach, Pete Walker, with a message. He wanted that third inning. Another batter at least.

“Coming off the mound, I felt really good. I felt like everything was still coming out really good,” Ray said. “So, I was just letting him know that I'm good — I can go another inning.”

Not that his afternoon had been easy. Ray packed quite a bit of action into those first two frames. After getting ahead of his first batter of the game, 0-2, he threw eight of his next 10 pitches for balls, issuing back-to-back walks. Three pitches later, he left an 0-2 slider up to Willi Castro, who sliced it into the right field corner for a double.

But then he made a mid-inning mechanical tweak following a mound visit from his catcher, Danny Jansen, and struck out the next three batters on 16 pitches, all but two of them strikes. Back out for his second inning, Ray went three-up, three-down on 14 pitches with a couple more strikeouts. And after getting the green light to return for a third, Ray responded with his sixth strikeout in the span of seven batters, punctuated by an 88 m.p.h. slider he got Robbie Grossman to chase outside the zone.

“That’s the biggest thing. Having that time of sitting down and then trying to ramp it back up, seeing no velocity drop after you come out from resting,” Ray said. “And today it was a little bit extended because they ended up having a pitching change. And I felt like I came out just as crisp as I did in the second inning. So, I felt really good about that.”

His velocity didn’t only hold — it increased. He went from sitting in the 94-95 m.p.h. range while pitching to his first two batters of the game, to 96-97 through the rest of the inning. Ray even touched 98 twice to Spencer Torkelson, the final batter he faced in the first. Something about that mechanical adjustment tapped into a little more juice.

“It just kind of happened,” he said. “I wasn't trying to throw any harder. I feel like my mechanics were just a little more on time.”

The adjustment had to do with Ray’s posture as he delivered pitches. He felt himself flying open rather than keeping his torso closed and moving efficiently in a downward motion toward the plate. He finds it happens sometimes due to the head turn at the height of his delivery. Considering the the odyssey he’s been on with his delivery and mechanics over the last two seasons, it has to be encouraging for the Toronto Blue Jays to see him recognize that in-game and find such a quick fix.

“That’s huge how he made that adjustment,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. “His stuff looked really good today. We were really happy with what we saw.”

Ray says his command this spring feels as reliable as it has in a while — certainly much more so than at this time last year when he was regularly missing up and away. For a pitcher who led MLB in walks last season with 45 (the second-place finisher had 34), it’s liberating to take the mound knowing he can attack with more confidence.

“Honestly, I felt like I was around the plate — even with the walks. I feel like I was really close,” Ray said. “I feel like my misses are more a tighter group. Whereas before, if I missed, it was just a guaranteed ball out of the hand.”

In his spring debut a week ago, Ray couldn’t miss, living on the plate while throwing 24 of 26 pitches for strikes:

His pitch chart against Detroit Sunday wasn’t quite as impressive thanks to the early walks. But in the end, it wasn’t that far off:

Plus, the ability Ray showed Sunday to make an adjustment and not let his day tailspin is important — because there will always be walks. At his best, Ray’s effectively wild. He throws high octane stuff with maximal effort. His slider has over 30 inches of vertical movement. On game broadcasts — especially last season when he was pitching in empty stadiums — you can clearly hear him grunting to put more English on his pitches. It’s really difficult to control stuff like his.

But if he can make his inevitable misfires more competitive, missing the zone by inches rather than feet, he’ll get plenty of swing-and-miss. His stuff’s that good. Sunday, he got four whiffs on 11 sliders, and even mixed in some early-count curveballs and a new look changeup he’s been working to develop into a more reliable weapon after shelving the pitch for several seasons.

Ultimately, he allowed a run on a hit with a couple walks and six strikeouts over his 2.1 innings, throwing 33 of his 50 pitches for strikes. He gave up an extra-base hit and made a bunch of batters look foolish. He got swinging strikes over the heart of the plate and well beneath the zone. He managed a mechanical issue and argued his way into a longer outing. He had moments he couldn’t find his command and moments of utter dominance. And it doesn’t get much more Robbie Ray than that.

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