Tough end to 2022 just a blip on Ray's radar

February 17th, 2023

PEORIA, Ariz. -- It was the most brutal, backbreaking moment of the Mariners’ drought-ending season, perhaps among the most gut-wrenching in the franchise’s limited archives of postseason play. And fair or not to , it was in many ways the lasting image of his first year in Seattle.

Four months after Ray surrendered that massive walk-off homer to Yordan Alvarez in Game 1 of an eventual AL Division Series sweep by the Astros, the veteran arrived at Spring Training in true trademark form: long locks, trendy trucker hat, tight jorts, big smile -- and the professionalism to discuss the challenging moment.

“For me, it was that once I had processed it for a couple of days, I got over it and didn't think about it again,” Ray said.

The stakes have been well-chronicled, with Mariners manager Scott Servais turning to Ray against one of the game’s most dominant hitters despite it being Ray’s first career save opportunity and in Minute Maid Park, a ballpark that was particularly unforgiving to him in the regular season.

“I have a good group of guys around me that helped me process it,” Ray said, "because I was in a situation that I'd never been in before, walking off the mound and the game's over. So for me, I leaned on those guys to help me process that. And once I was done processing, I was done with it. Guys hit walk-off homers all year. I mean, it happens. It just gets magnified because it was the playoffs.”

Ray also pitched in the 18th inning in Seattle’s Game 3 loss as the last available arm, lessening the blow of how his season was shaping up to finish. But by that point he’d turned the page, which he admitted might not have been possible in his younger days.

“There have been times where I thought I was out of baseball, so that's definitely not the hardest thing I've ever had to deal with,” Ray said. “I think it's just helped me learn how to stay even-keeled and not get too high or get too low, just kind of stay right there in the middle. And it just helped me learn how to process things a lot quicker and kind of flush them and get over it.”

Before Ray became the Mariners’ $115 million pitcher, he’d gone from Top 100 prospect to All-Star to losing his feel for absolutely everything over a multiyear stretch to a renaissance that propelled him to the 2021 AL Cy Young Award with Toronto. He also accomplished many of these feats without external help from coaching or psychological specialists, opting instead to do it mostly on his own.

Ray’s baseball makeup is wired to rebound, but it’d be wildly imprudent to suggest that he needs some sort of elongated -- and cliché -- “bounceback.” He ranked among the AL leaders in strikeouts (fourth, 212), innings (seventh, 189) and lowest opponents’ batting average (10th, .231). During an eight-start stretch from mid-June to mid-July, he had a 1.75 ERA and limited opponents to a .177/.248/.337 (.585 OPS) slash line.

“There was about a 100-inning stretch where he was one of the best pitchers in the American League and really carried us,” Servais said. “I know people tend to get caught up in a bad pitch here and there, and things didn't work out. But he was awesome for us all year long.”

Beyond putting together some of Seattle’s best performances, Ray became more confident leading -- an attribute that high-salaried free agents typically preach, but don’t always carry out in the clubhouse. Specifically, he spoke up in a team meeting during the final week of the regular season, when Seattle was slipping. It was a career first.

“I'm just like, ‘Something needs to be said, and it needs to be said by a player,’” Ray recalled. “‘And I don't know if anybody else is going to say it, so I think I'll say it.’ ... I think I'm at the point in my career as well where I've been around long enough to where I’ve kind of gained that respect, if you will.”

There could be more leading moments from Ray, both in the clubhouse and on the mound, as the Mariners look to win their first AL West title since 2001.

As for stereotypical spring commentary, Ray arrived at camp in terrific shape and is toying with a new pitch, though he wouldn’t reveal specifics. For that, just like those curious on his performing response to last year’s sour finish, folks will have to wait a little longer.