Ray stung by nemesis Astros: 'Need to figure it out'

July 25th, 2022

SEATTLE -- It was against these Astros nearly two months ago when Robbie Ray made a significant mid-game adjustment, turned his season around and emerged as one of the Majors’ most dominant starting pitchers since.

Yet the formula that prompted Ray to add a two-seam fastball in that June 6 outing in Houston, being hit hard early and often, was again manufactured by Seattle’s first-place rivals -- and this time, he didn’t have another answer in an 8-5 loss on Sunday.

Ray lasted just three innings in the series finale at T-Mobile Park, his shortest start since 2019, surrendering a career-high-tying 10 hits and a season-high-tying six runs. And with Astros All-Star starter Framber Valdez going scoreless through the first six innings, the Mariners were unable to climb out of that big hole and were swept for the first time in two months and the second time against the Astros this year, putting a bow on a disappointing weekend that began with the club on a 14-game win streak.

“It's just one of those days where it didn't go my way,” Ray said. “And it's obviously frustrating, because you never want to get swept by a team. I’ve just got to look forward to the next one. I’ve got to pitch again in five days, so I just need to figure it out.”

Seattle still holds the third AL Wild Card spot, but the more pressing concern is where their $115 million ace goes from here against a division rival that he’ll likely see again next weekend for the final time in the regular season -- possibly in October, too -- and for the next four years.

In eight innings over his two starts against Houston in 2022, the swing-and-miss specialist has surrendered five homers and generated just 16 whiffs, including a season-low six on Sunday. To be sure, two starts is a wildly small sample size, but there’s actually a longer track record dating back to before he signed with Seattle in December.

In eight career starts against the Astros, Houston’s batting average (.323), on-base percentage (.390), slugging percentage (.601) and OPS (.991) against Ray are each of his highest allowed to a single opponent in his career. They’ve hit .462/.500/.923 (1.423 OPS) in 42 plate appearances against him this season, including 10-for-17 on Sunday. 

“I threw too many pitches, missing spots,” Ray said. “They took some really good pitches. They swung at some really good pitches and hit them when I didn't think they should have. So I mean, it's just how it goes sometimes.”

The Astros are a tough matchup for anyone, but particularly for pitchers who rely heavily on whiffs, like Ray. The lefty entered Sunday generating misses on 33 percent of the swings against him, tied with Max Scherzer for sixth highest among 119 qualified starters. Yet Houston, conversely, whiffs just 24.3 percent of the time, tied for MLB’s sixth-lowest rate. Ray has more strikeouts than all but five pitchers since he debuted in 2014, but the Astros entered Sunday striking out just 20.1 percent of the time, the third-lowest mark. He had just one on Sunday.

Coupled with some mislocated pitches that caught too much plate, consistent traffic and hard contact, and it’s been a recipe for runaway innings. That, and the Astros swinging aggressively early in counts -- Jose Altuve homering on the game’s very first pitch being a prime example, then rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña immediately following with a solo shot in the next at-bat.

“Unfortunately, they’ve got his number,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “They’ve swung the bats really good against him this year. To lead off the game with a home run [on the] first pitch and the other guy follows with a home run and after that, you're kind of searching.”

That said, Ray’s seven starts in between outings against the Astros can’t be ignored. The Mariners won six of them, and their lone loss to Boston on June 12 was one in which he threw seven scoreless innings, but the offense was shut out. In that stretch, he had a 1.36 ERA and .490 OPS against -- MLB’s second- and third-best rates, respectively.  

Yet these games against Houston stand out more because, well, they mean more. And he has another one looming, likely the next time he takes the mound next weekend.