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Still learning, Moore has raw ability to amaze

Rays lefty up against Red Sox for first time since July shutout at Fenway Park @RichardJustice

BOSTON -- There was a time when he made everything look easy. Remember that Matt Moore?

The left-hander was 22 years old with three big league appearances under his belt when Rays manager Joe Maddon handed him the ball for Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Rangers two years ago.

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Not many other managers would have had the guts to do something like that. Yet Maddon handled it masterfully.

Regardless of how good Moore actually was at the time, Maddon convinced the lefty he was as good as he wanted to be. Maddon -- and Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey -- got Moore to relax, trust his stuff and throw strikes.

That day, Moore was almost perfect, showing off a 95-mph fastball with a knee-buckling curveball in throwing seven stellar innings as the Rays won, 9-0. At that point, there was no ceiling on Moore's potential. He was oozing with talent and had a calm demeanor that spoke volumes about his confidence in himself.

If he knew then what he knows now ...

In the two years since that incredible moment, Moore has not become an overnight superstar. Instead, he has taken the usual route to the big time. He has made steady progress, established himself as a reliable Major League starter good enough to make the AL All-Star team in 2013.

He's also only 24 years old and probably has his best days in front of him. Moore has discovered that the road to greatness has some bumps. He has had moments when he's been as good as he was that afternoon in Arlington. He has had other days when his control has escaped him, making even the simplest difficult.

So here we go again. Maddon will again give Moore the ball at Fenway Park when the Rays and Red Sox play Game 1 of the ALDS at 3 p.m. ET Friday, a game airing on TBS.

Moore is getting the start because Maddon's top two guys -- David Price and Alex Cobb -- pitched the games that got the Rays here. He's also handing the ball to Moore because he still believes in him. He believes in Moore's stuff, in his makeup, in everything.

Moore has been at his best when the stakes are their highest. The Rays went 14-2 in Moore's road starts this season. And here's the key stat: Moore threw a shutout the last time he faced the Red Sox. That was on July 22, and it was the one and only complete game of Moore's three-year career.

Moore will be facing a Red Sox team that got dramatically better against left-handed pitching in the second half of the season. Boston's batting average against lefties improved from .255 in the first half to .278 in the second.

Other numbers improved across the board, and so did many of the individual stats. For instance, Dustin Pedroia hit .333 against lefties in the first half, .378 in the second. Shane Victorino's average jumped 80 points, from .272 to .352. Mike Napoli hit one home run off lefties in the first half, seven in the second. They were just beginning their turnaround when Moore threw his shutout at Fenway Park.

When Moore struggles, it's because he has bouts of wildness. For instance, he has thrown more wild pitches than allowed home runs. On the other hand, he's sometimes at his best when he's wild.

"The awkward thing there is, 'Be careful what you wish for,'" Maddon said. "When he's kind of like this controlled wildness, they don't get hits. He may walk a couple of guys, but they don't hit him.

"And sometimes he'll get over the plate, which you perceive to be better command, and he gets hit. That's the problem. So he walks this different kind of tightrope."

Asked about that, Moore said, "I would agree with that to a certain extent, absolutely." He calls those pitches "random, erratic misses."

Moore might be the wild card to the entire series for the Rays. They're confident in what they'll get from Price and Cobb, and they know how good and how deep the Red Sox's pitching staff is. If Moore is the same guy he was on July 22, this series suddenly looks a lot more even.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

Tampa Bay Rays, Matt Moore