ST. PETERSBURG -- At what point does “hot start” evolve into “great season?” Three months in? Ten starts? No matter what you decide, Robbie Ray is in hot pursuit and closing in fast.
Ray was certainly the early star on Wednesday, but he was long gone by the time Wilmer Flores singled in the eventual game-winning run in the 13th inning of the D-backs’ 3-2 victory against the Rays. Between the alpha and omega marched quite a long parade of relief, and the three elements worked together to wrap Arizona’s road trip on a high note at Tropicana Field.
“That had some characteristics of September baseball, no doubt about it,” D-backs manager Torey Lovullo said. “We about got knocked out. We were at nine count in the corner, and we got to our feet, we straightened up, and we fought back, and we held off.”
It began with Ray’s 5 2/3 scoreless innings. Using a battle plan centered around a slippery slider Tampa Bay’s bats never could quite catch, Ray fanned a season-high 11 and permitted just four hits -- none of them in the same frame. He walked three, uncorked a wild pitch and calmly navigated past any potential trouble.
In short, he did once again what he’s been doing all season.
“That’s probably the best my fastball command and offspeed command has been all year,” Ray said. “I was able to elevate when I wanted to, and curveball-slider plays really well off of those [pitches].”
Ray opened his 2019 campaign with three consecutive starts during which he allowed three hits or fewer, setting a franchise record. Any talk of “luck” was quickly quashed as his string of dominant outings grew longer and longer. By the end of April, he was rolling: Ray struck out nine in his season debut, then 10 on April 10, and entered Wednesday having fanned seven in each of his two prior starts.
His teammates rewarded his Wednesday efforts by rekindling just enough offense to make things stick early. Arizona scored twice early, the second time on a line-drive single from Ketel Marte in the third inning, then was dormant for more than nine innings before Flores’ poke sealed the deal.
But the D-backs would likely not have gotten that far had not the bullpen come through in spades. Each pitcher who took the mound in relief left the recent shaky Colorado series in the past and held the fort until something gave. Andrew Chafin, Yoan Lopez, Yoshihisa Hirano, T.J. McFarland, Greg Holland, Archie Bradley and Zack Godley combined to throw 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball, no small feat at the end of a tough stretch for many.
“I felt amazing today,” said Godley, who earned the save with a perfect 13th. “Everything felt smooth, everything felt like it was coming out really well, so it was awesome and I’m glad we could come away with a win.”
McFarland inherited a bases-loaded situation in the eighth and didn’t bend. Bradley bulldogged his way through 39 pitches over three crucial innings to earn a win and struck out five along the way. Everyone, it seemed, knew their role.
“[The relievers] knew they wanted to get on the mound,” Lovullo said. “They wanted to chew on some nails and make it happen, and they came through in a big way.”
The win snapped a three-game losing streak for Arizona and allowed the D-backs to return home with a .500 record on the six-game road swing.