By Ashley Dunkak
COMERICA PARK (CBS DETROIT) – As Robbie Ray headed to the dugout for the final time Tuesday after allowing just one run through five and one-third innings, tears filled his eyes as fans rose from their seats and applauded. He left the game to a standing ovation.
Even with all the nerves associated with making his major league debut – particularly for a Detroit Tigers team whose fans largely wanted to keep the player for whom he was traded – Ray soaked in the moments, the atmosphere.
“I did enjoy it,” Ray said, all smiles as he stood in front of his locker after the game, ready and willing for his second batch of interviews. “Started tearing up a little bit because it was my major league debut and fans are always – it’s great.
“I was glad for their support tonight,” Ray added.
The Comerica Park crowd approved of the rookie’s inaugural outing, and so did Tigers manager Brad Ausmus.
“He pitched very well,” Ausmus said. “I think part of it was expected. I thought his fastball played well, played up a few miles an hour from the radar gun. I thought his curveball started out not great and then came around nicely, and his change-up was consistent all day. It was certainly an excellent outing – first outing, for sure – for Robbie.”
Since Detroit’s starting rotation is currently stacked with talent and experience, Ray is not expected to have a regular role with the Tigers this season, unless he is moved to the bullpen. With Anibal Sanchez on the 15-day disabled list, however, the Tigers and their fans got something of a sneak peek of the pitcher for whom general manager Dave Dombrowski sent steady starter Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals this offseason.
One aspect of Ray’s performance that impressed teammates and coaches was his composure.
Veteran outfielder Torii Hunter has seen scores of players experience their major league debut. Some throw up. Some pray. In general, jitters reign. Hunter thought Ray seemed relaxed, however, and so did catcher Alex Avila. Ausmus had the same impression.
“It did seem that he was able to stay calm,” Ausmus said. “He didn’t seem rattled. He didn’t seem overwhelmed. That part I sensed in spring training, and it seemed to carry through, but you just never know how it’ll play out. I thought he was very calm on the mound.”
Ray did not feel particularly anxious during the day or during his bullpen session. After his warmup throws, he stepped back and looked around, taking in the moment. When the game began, however, keeping the nerves at bay did not come quite so easily.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the first batter dropped a double beside the first base line. The second batter reached when Ray botched a play at first base by taking the wrong route to the bag. While both hits were not particularly alarming ones, the beginning of the inning was less than auspicious.
“I was just telling myself, ‘Calm down. Collect yourself,'” Ray said. “‘That runner on third, he’s probably going to score. Just get a ground ball, get a double play and get out of it.'”
Ray got the next two batters swinging, and a ground out ended the inning, helping the rookie escape an early two-on, no-out jam.
After giving up those back-to-back hits to start the game, Ray sailed through the next five innings, retiring 15 of the next 17 batters. Through five innings, Ray had struck out five, walked one and allowed three hits and no runs.
In the sixth inning, Ray found himself in the same situation he did to start the game – runners on first and third with no outs. The runner on third scored on an RBI fielder’s choice after second baseman Ian Kinsler dropped a pop-up. Reliever Evan Reed replaced Ray and induced an inning-ending double play on his first pitch.
Ray got run support while in the game, but after he exited the Tigers poured on the offense even more, eventually winning 11-4 against the hapless Houston Astros.
That Dombrowski brought Ray to Detroit at the expense of Fister showed the level of belief Dombrowski has in Ray, and the young pitcher knows plenty well that both pride and pressure accompany that distinction.
“It’s a huge confidence boost,” Ray said. “It also puts kind of a load on your shoulders. You need to come out and you have to produce, but at the same time you’ve got to just go out there and do what you’ve been doing this whole time.”
So far, Ray is off to a good start.