Ray back in Cy Young form, K's 12 in masterful outing

Rodríguez powers Mariners' offense with homer, double

July 4th, 2022

SEATTLE -- If it wasn’t clear already, Robbie Ray is firmly back in Cy Young form. 

The Mariners’ prized offseason acquisition dazzled in perhaps his best Seattle start yet, striking out a season-high 12 batters and holding Oakland scoreless until his final hitter in the seventh inning. He also threw 105 pitches, his most all year, surrendered just four hits, walked two and put Seattle’s struggling lineup on his shoulders in a tight, 2-1 victory over Oakland on Sunday afternoon at T-Mobile Park.

All of the Mariners’ run production came via Julio Rodríguez, one day after the 21-year-old was named the AL Rookie of the Month for the second straight month, thanks to a solo shot on the very first pitch in the bottom of the first off Frankie Montas, and a 112.4 mph double into the left-center gap that scored Dylan Moore in the sixth.

Those two were the vessels behind the Mariners’ fifth win in their past six games and 10 in the past 13, as they’ve now won four straight series and climbed back to three games under .500 (39-42) for the first time since May 15. 

It’s been a promising trend, but the grander development is that the $115 million arm that they signed in December to be their ace has finally -- and truly -- looked every bit the part.

"We'll keep riding the Robbie Ray train,” manager Scott Servais said. “That's what we'll continue to do because he's really good."

Over his past five starts dating back to June 12, Ray has a 0.80 ERA with 40 strikeouts, and Seattle has won all but one of those games. The more telling benchmark for his turnaround was the start prior, when he added a two-seam fastball to his repertoire and has since seen incredible results. 

Yet the two-seamer took a marginal backseat on Sunday, when he turned more heavily back to Public Enemy No. 1, the elite slider that he rode to five strikeouts and 11 swings and misses. Ray, despite his sky-high strikeout rate, isn’t necessarily hunting the K early in counts, instead trying to induce whiffs out of the zone to set up the punchout. But the A’s weren’t biting early on Sunday, especially against the slider when it was below the zone, which prompted -- stop if you’ve heard this before -- a mid-game adjustment with catcher Cal Raleigh. 

“The first couple innings, they weren’t really biting on the slider that was going down and in, backfoot,” Ray explained. “So we just tried to make an adjustment and stay on the plate a little more. I backdoored some sliders that I thought were really good. But just really focusing on, if we were going to go for the 0-2, 1-2, still keep it on the plate, but below the zone.”

Ray zeroed in more intently on landing the slider in the zone and trusting that it would generate whiffs and help set up his four-seam fastball for strikes near the top of the zone and above. He landed the latter for three punchouts in those quadrants, but it was also the culprit for his lone blemish, which came via a solo homer to Elvis Andrus, his final batter.

“Even last time we faced him, before I think it was a lot easier to get an approach on him because it was mainly fastball in and the slider, so you can kind of take that middle-away strike zone out of the map,” Andrus said. “But now with the two-seamer and the curveball, I think he’s way more effective, especially when he gets you to two strikes.”

These in-game adjustments are typical and necessary for any big league starter to have success and navigate deeper into games, but the Mariners have marveled at Ray’s aptitude to do so and how it’s rubbed off on younger arms like Logan Gilbert and rookie George Kirby. Seattle’s rotation over its past 35 starts has an MLB-best 2.88 ERA dating back to May 27, right before Ray got back on track.

“When we talk about guys leading, you have to do it within the realm of your personality,” Servais said. “You can't try to fake it or be somebody that you're not because that doesn't work. And I think Robbie's very genuine. He's very down to Earth. But he wants this whole team to do well, and he knows that starting pitching has a lot to do with it.”

When Ray signed in the winter, he talked about wanting to lead by “setting the tone” when describing his approach with his new teammates. The credibility of being the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner certainly carries weight, but it was nonetheless a new clubhouse. Collective success certainly helps, and the Mariners’ rotation -- and their No. 1 starter -- are on a roll. 

“It’s been a pretty special run,” Ray said. “To watch all the guys and go in one after another, I feel like we're just looking to build on each other's outings and encouraging each other. It's just been really fun.”