By Ashley Dunkak
COMERICA PARK (CBS DETROIT) – The Houston Astros hitters had a hard time against Detroit Tigers rookie Robbie Ray, whose sneaky fastball proved especially effective in his major league debut Tuesday. Tigers catcher Alex Avila can understand the challenge posed by Ray’s deceptive pitch; Avila had some struggles handling it too.
“It’s hard to pinpoint,” Avila said. “I had a tough time following the ball in to catch it. It’s tough to pick up out of his hand, and then there’s not much of a difference between his fastball and his change-up as far as the release point, the arm speed and the rotation of the ball, so for a hitter I can imagine that’s pretty tough to pick up.”
The Astros got just five hits off Ray in five and one-third innings. He struck out five and allowed one run.
Like Avila, pitching coach Jeff Jones said the trickery of Ray’s fastball originates in the delivery, when Ray hides the ball from the hitter.
“He’s got a real quick arm where the ball kind of jumps on you quickly,” Jones said. “That’s what Alex had told me after the game. He said he’s really not that easy to catch because he’s that deceptive.”
The fastball and the change-up, a combination buoyed later in the game by an increasingly spot-on curveball, turned out to be enough to more or less stump the Astros offense following two early hits.
“Right from the get-go because two guys got on quickly, we went right to his change-up because it’s a very good pitch for him, and he’s got a really deceptive fastball,” Avila said. “We were able to keep them off-balance with those two, and the first few curveballs that we threw, obviously because it was a little cold out there, tough to get a grip sometimes, but it got better as he figured out what adjustment he had to make, and it got better, we were able to incorporate that a little bit.
“It worked out because we were throwing so many fastball-change-ups over the first … two, three innings, and then probably later in the third and then fourth and fifth, we started dropping in some curveballs for strikes,” Avila added, “and I think it kept them off-balance a little bit.”
That it took Ray a few innings to get a feel for the curveball did not surprise Tigers manager Brad Ausmus.
“For the most part he was good at repeating his mechanics,” Ausmus said. “Got out of sync a few times on the curveball, but the curveball, the grip is relatively new for him, something they were working with in spring training and carried into the season, so understandably it broke down a little bit more.”
Even with one of his pitches taking time to reach full effectiveness, Ray threw well, albeit against one of the least imposing teams in baseball. In addition to looking good individually, Ray appeared to work seamlessly with Avila.
When Avila and Jones went over the game plan with Ray prior to his start Tuesday, Avila made it clear Ray could throw what he wanted to throw. Given Ray’s a 1.53 ERA in six games in Toledo, Avila figured he would let Ray go and just add his two cents if need be.
“This is how we should try to attack these guys, but at the same time, stick to your strengths,” Avila recalled telling the rookie. “What I’m calling are suggestions. If you want to shake me off, that’s fine.”
Ray never did.
“We were on the same page the whole night,” Ray said. “We had a game plan before the game and knew what we needed to do, and we went out and executed it.”
As did Ray, Jones wore a big smile after the game, pleased with how Ray pitched and how he improved his mechanics since spring training.
“I think it’s a lot better, a lot cleaner,” Jones said. “What we did in spring training was just try to move his hands a little bit. He had a tendency to set his hands real far back on his body, and we just moved them to the middle. A little bit closer to his body, tighter and more in the middle of his body. It was very impressive.”