Ray makes long-awaited debut in hometown

Prospect grew up on South Side, keys win at Wrigley

April 25th, 2021

found out just before the national anthem. Judging from his text messages, he was one of the last to know.

The Brewers added the Chicago native and former first-round Draft pick to the active roster moments before Saturday’s first pitch, and Ray not only made his Major League debut in his hometown, but he contributed to a 4-3 win over the Cubs at Wrigley Field in ways that were subtle and significant all at once. It was another one of those days for the Brewers, who have played more than half of their games without Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain and Kolten Wong, yet stand atop the National League Central with 20 games in the books thanks to contributions from all players on the roster.

“A lot of guys did something to help us win,” manager Craig Counsell said.

There was Brewers starter Freddy Peralta, who battled the Cubs’ soft contact for four hard-fought innings before departing in favor of Ray and a scoring opportunity in the fifth. There was Keston Hiura tallying three hits for the first time in what has been a difficult season so far. There was Manny Piña coming off the bench in the seventh to deliver the third pinch-hit home run of his career, a two-run shot that wound up deciding the game.

And there was Ray.

He began the day on the Brewers’ taxi squad and finished it as a Major Leaguer.

“Right before the anthem, I got called into Counsell’s office, and he gave me the good news,” said Ray, who took the place of injured pitcher Josh Lindblom. “I think people had found out before I found out, because I came back to my phone after my conversation with ‘Couns’ and everyone was congratulating me. It’s really been an exciting day.”

Even better, it happened in Chicago. Ray, now the Brewers' No. 24 prospect, grew up on the city’s South Side, and before he became a top Draft prospect at the University of Louisville, he attended Simeon Career Academy about 17 miles from Wrigley Field. As Ray scrambled to prepare for the game, his wife, Lena, and best friend, Anthony, led an effort to alert Ray’s father, Corey Ray Sr., that he had to hustle to the ballpark.

It was a success. Dad was in the stands when Corey Jr. made his imprint on the Brewers’ win.

Counsell considered leaving Peralta in the game for a fifth inning of work, but when the pitcher’s spot came around in the top of that frame with the Brewers in a 2-0 deficit and Hiura in scoring position thanks to a double that snapped a streak of 12 consecutive Brewers batters retired by Cubs starter Adbert Alzolay, Counsell called for Ray to pinch-hit.

Ray fell into an 0-2 hole before stepping out of the batter’s box for a deep breath. He reminded himself of his primary aim this year: Don’t chase. Then he hung in there for a six-pitch walk that tilted the inning in the Brewers’ favor with a call to the Cubs’ bullpen for left-hander Rex Brothers, who walked left-handed hitters Wong and Omar Narváez to force in a run before hitting Tyrone Taylor in the front foot for another run and a 2-2 tie.

Since Ray helped extend the inning to Taylor’s spot, Counsell made it a double switch and kept Ray in the game as the right fielder. That changed the pitcher’s spot to the three-hole, which is how Piña came to pinch-hit amid another scoring opportunity in the seventh. Cubs left-hander Andrew Chafin hung a breaking ball, and Piña hit it to the bleachers for a 4-2 Brewers lead.

Ray’s teammates loved it. Peralta was Ray’s teammate at Low-A Wisconsin and High-A Brevard County in 2016, and he said he told Ray before the game, “You deserve it. We’ve been waiting for a long time.”

Hiura has known Ray since they were back-to-back Brewers first-round picks -- Ray fifth overall in 2016 and Hiura ninth overall in ’17. They were teammates for part of 2018 at Double-A Biloxi, when Ray was Milwaukee’s Minor League Player of the Year before a nagging hand injury and trouble with swing-and-miss dinged his prospect status beginning in 2019.

“He's a grinder. He has all the tools to be a successful player,” Hiura said.

There were times, Ray said, when he doubted whether he would make it.

“It’s been up and down,” he said. “I’ll never forget talking to my wife and my dad, and I’m saying, ‘I don’t know what’s next for my career.’ They were the two people who [talked] me down, who told me that I was going to do this, who reminded me that nobody works harder than me and at some point, that has to work for me. Just put my head down and keep working, and whatever happens will happen.”

On Saturday, it finally happened.

“My biggest supporter in my whole life has been my dad,” Ray said, “and for him to give everything that he’s gave me his entire life -- my entire life -- for him to be able to see me play was something that I couldn’t imagine.”