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Ray's laser focus leads to career season

D-backs teammates impressed by lefty's improvement
Dbacks.com

The scowl began early on a Robbie Ray game day.

"It's become a running joke in the clubhouse," said the D-backs southpaw and 2017 National League All-Star. "'Robbie's pitching today … can't talk to him.'"

The scowl began early on a Robbie Ray game day.

"It's become a running joke in the clubhouse," said the D-backs southpaw and 2017 National League All-Star. "'Robbie's pitching today … can't talk to him.'"

But more important, opposing teams couldn't hit off of him -- at least with any regularity.

The club leader with 218 strikeouts in his fourth MLB season, the 15-game winner rattled off a series of career bests through 2017, including two six-game winning streaks and a 27.2-inning scoreless streak -- the third longest in franchise history -- as well as six of his 10 double-digit strikeout performances coming prior to his first trip to the Midsummer Classic.

"He [was] dominating all year,' said fellow first-time All-Star Jake Lamb. "He's is one of the best pitchers in the Majors, so he definitely earned the All-Star honor."

While Ray didn't see action in the All-Star Game, the overall experience had the southpaw pumped to build upon his eight first-half wins with his usual every-fifth-day intensity. It started on the drive to the ballpark with some NF blaring from the speakers before "shutting off" once he walked through the clubhouse door. No talk, and the headphones went on until his pre-start strategy sit-down with pitching coach Mike Butcher and that night's starting catcher.

"The guys give me grief about it all the time," said Ray. "The next day I'll start talking, and they'll say, 'You must not be pitching today.' It's extreme focus to the point where I don't see anyone else, and I envision what I need to do that night.

"God gave me these talents, and it's up to me to maximize them. I don't want to squander it or take it for granted. My mantra is one pitch at a time. It allows me to focus and be able to carry that into the game. That mindset stays with me on the mound."

Ray's intense game-day demeanor was reminiscent of D-backs great Randy Johnson's focus. Ray joined the Hall of Fame southpaw as just one of four D-backs to tally 200-plus K's in a season and has considered MLB's all-time left-handed strikeout leader a mentor since being traded to the club in 2015.

"Robbie is buying into his ability and what he's capable of doing," said Johnson. "Watching him for the last three years, there has been gradual progress. That comes from confidence."

Ray added, "RJ has always stressed two mindsets to me: Pitch every game like it's the last game, and you will never know what your best game will be until you're finished. That's because you build off every start, getting better and better."

It wasn't always so easy for the Brentwood, Tenn., native. Self-described as "the kid never selected first for anything growing up," Ray started pitching as a freshman in high school, building off his dream at 12 years old to eventually play in the Majors. Fast-forward eight years, and while he was a step closer to his goal after being drafted by the Nationals, reaching the Majors still seemed like a million miles away after early struggles in the Minors.

"It was first-time failure for me, but it was a blessing and it humbled me," said Ray. "I realized I couldn't just show up at the ballpark and go from there. There are no shortcuts in this game. That's when the lightbulb went on. That started the hardest offseason work I had ever put in up to that point. This past offseason work was actually reminiscent of that.

"It also helps to have the catching staff we do here [Chris Herrmann, Chris Iannetta and Jeff Mathis]. To have two catchers like that is good. To have three is almost unheard of. Herrmann has caught me the most this year, and there was a stretch where whatever he wanted pitch-wise, I threw. The confidence for both of us has grown whether it's my confidence in him or vice versa. His mindset has been 'we can throw whatever pitch we want in this situation to get the out.' That was our biggest advantage -- trusting each other and trusting the process."

Herrmann refused any credit for his batterymate's success on the mound, maintaining the lefty's improved control was a catalyst for success this past season, which included a career-high 14-strikeout performance on the road against the Dodgers on Sept. 4.

"Last year, he was striking guys out but he wasn't throwing a lot of strikes," said Herrmann. "Now he goes late into ballgames, striking out even more guys and throwing more strikes. He [had] an All-Star year. He's found something that works for him, and he's maintained that. He throws strikes, puts it all together and that makes for a pretty good year."

Butcher added: "It goes back to last year with all the work Robbie put in to get a delivery he could repeat over and over again. He's added a little more tempo to his delivery. The fastball, the curveball, the slider … they are all working. The exploding fastball he already possessed, but he's really matured from game to game. He understands what he has to do to get ready. He follows his game plan and pitches to his strengths."

While teammates have grown accustomed to steering clear when Ray goes into tunnel-vision mode hours leading up to his latest start, they understand -- especially when they know what their power-pitching lefty brings, come game time.

"Robbie's locked in the minute he walks into the clubhouse," said Herrmann. "He did it last year, so it's just part of his routine to help get him mentally into games, and it works for him. He takes his starts very seriously, and he wants to get the job done. He has a lot of confidence in himself. He has a plan, and he sticks with it throughout a game. He knows what he wants to do with each hitter he faces. When you are that prepared, you will be successful."

Josh Greene is the D-backs' director of publications.

Arizona Diamondbacks