Ray shoulders load in Opening Day win

April 9th, 2022

MINNEAPOLIS -- Robbie Ray wanted to “set the tone” with his first career Opening Day start, treating it as more of a lead-by-example barometer to his new teammates than an individual benchmark of success.

He talked all spring about becoming a leader, pitching deep into games and laying the foundation for the rest of Seattle’s pitching staff. And on Friday afternoon, he put those words into action while looking as advertised as the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner.

Seattle’s prized offseason acquisition became the Majors’ first pitcher to complete at least seven innings in a start, getting that deep on 96 pitches while leading the Mariners to a tense, 2-1 win over the Twins at Target Field. The league’s strikeout leader a year ago had five in the opener, and he gave up just three hits. Most of his baserunners came via four walks, a vexation, and the only run was via a solo homer from Gio Urshela on one of only three curveballs he threw, another frustration.

But those few labors underscored Ray’s ability to overcome midgame challenges, one of the many reasons Seattle signed him to a five-year, $115 million contract in December.

1. At 87 pitches after six innings, Ray lobbied Mariners manager Scott Servais for one more frame. After some consultation with pitching coach Pete Woodworth, Ray was granted the chance -- but on a strict three-batter threshold. Ray proceeded to retire the side.

“I don't know a starting pitcher that wants to come out of the game,” Ray said. “I'm definitely one of those guys that's going to just keep pushing, keep pushing, and build that trust with my manager.”

Said Servais: “I think he and I are going to have quite a few conversations towards the end of games as [the season] goes along, and I look forward to it.”

2. In both the third and fifth innings, Ray faced a one-out jam with runners on first and second and the lineup turning over to Byron Buxton and Carlos Correa. He escaped the first by retiring Buxton on seven pitches, capped by a 92 mph fastball jammed near his hands, and igniting a 1-4-3 double play to Correa, a longtime Mariners nemesis from his Houston days. Then in the fifth, he again punched out Buxton and got Correa to line out. Damage averted.

“I think just being in that position before, just understanding that guys are on and I’m one pitch away or a strikeout and a popup away,” Ray said. “I think just understanding and trying to make the situation too big.”

3. In the first inning, Ray worked around a single to Correa and finished with a mere eight pitches, all strikes. For the day, he threw 63 strikes, 65.6% of his pitches, just shy of the 66% he posted last year, when he ranked near the top of the league. The Mariners’ mantra has long been “dominate the zone.”

“He owns the inner half, inner third of the plate,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He pitches in there really well, kind of gives you an alternative kind of view that you don’t see a lot from lefties.”

Another one-run win
Ray may be the shiny new addition, but he actually meshed right in with Seattle’s bullpen-driven formula. No team in the Majors won more one-run games than the Mariners’ 33 last year, which was a big contributor to them overcoming a minus-51 run differential to 90 wins.

Paul Sewald and Drew Steckenrider took it to the finish line, with Sewald pitching the eighth because of matchups against the top of the order, and Steckenrider closing the door -- albeit with a scare of a flyout to the warning track by Gary Sánchez that ended the game.

“As soon as we got into that one-run ballgame, I go, ‘We’re probably going to win just because of how last year went,’” right fielder Mitch Haniger said. “It was just a lot of confidence.”

Haniger’s power in midseason formThe veteran outfielder picked up right where he left off in his epic final weekend last season, crushing his second pitch of the season for a booming, 411-foot, two-run homer that, as it turned out, carried far more weight to the game’s outcome than it initially appeared.

Haniger was one of just six players last year to hit at least 39 homers and collect 100 RBIs. The others? AL MVP Shohei Ohtani, AL MVP finalists Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Marcus Semien, and All-Stars Matt Olson and Salvador Perez.

Haniger wasn’t happy with his 6-for-32 (.188) showing in Spring Training, but he feels like Friday was a validation that he’s steering back on track.

“I think numbers-wise, how I felt, too,” Haniger said of his spring woes. “But I have a really good idea of what I need to do now, especially with my swing. ... Everything's been feeling really good the last couple days.”