May 7, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

In debut, Robbie Ray gives Tigers fans glimpse of the future

Detroit — This wasn’t so much a debut as it was a tune-up for Robbie Ray, with the Tigers’ rookie pitcher making his major-league debut against the Houston Astros, a team that’s still listed in the standings only as a courtesy, best anyone can tell.

And it was less an audition than a sneak preview, considering his stay in Detroit figures to be a short one, regardless of how he pitches here this week.

But the 22-year-old left-hander, the key piece in a controversial offseason trade that sent veteran starter Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals, certainly showed something Tuesday night.

Whatever it was — call it promise, not proof — it had everyone on their feet at Comerica Park. The crowd of 27,939 stood and cheered Ray as he left the mound in the sixth inning, carrying with him a three-run lead that’d later become his first big-league win. And he admitted to “tearing up a bit” at the ovation.

“I got a sense of that — that before today, they didn’t really know who I was,” said Ray, who also got a celebratory beer shower from his teammates in the clubhouse. “But I was glad for their support tonight.”

As introductions go, this was pretty memorable.

“It fulfilled everything,” said Ray, who had his parents and his fiancée – a Grand Rapids native – and her family all in attendance. “This was the greatest day. I don’t know. I’m kind of speechless.”

For a guy who had no major-league experience to speak of, this was a good start, no doubt. “An excellent outing,” in the words of his manager, Brad Ausmus, who’d seen plenty to like from the young lefty in spring training but now has something more to go on.

“This is for real,” Ausmus said. “The lights are brighter. But it did seem like he was able to stay calm. He didn’t seem rattled, he didn’t seem overwhelmed.”

Impressive first impression

Ray appeared to mix his pitches well Tuesday night. Catcher Alex Avila said he didn’t shake him off once all game.

That “sneaky” low-90s fastball Ausmus had advertised a day earlier was “playing up” from the radar gun on the hitters, as promised. A two-seam changeup was there as well, and the curveball that’s still taking shape started to come around late.

Against the Astros, who rank last in the American League in runs, hits, and team OPS, not to mention recognizable names, that was more than enough.

Especially with the way Detroit’s offense is clicking right now. The Tigers pounded out a season-high 18 hits Tuesday and now own the best record in the majors, sitting 10 games over .500 on May 5. (They didn’t reach that point until June 17 last year.)

They’ve won seven in a row and nine of 10, and with two more games against the Astros followed by a three-game series with the Twins, that American League Central lead could hit double digits soon, too.

But Tuesday night was about Ray, more than anything. And for a guy who struggled with his command early in his minor-league career, there’s little sign of that now.

He’d walked just five batters while striking out 21 in 29.1 innings at Triple-A Toledo this season, going 3-2 with a 1.54 ERA in five starts. Tuesday, Ray walked just one in 5.1 innings, working out of an early first-inning jam and then retiring 10 in a row at one point before exiting with a 4-1 lead in the top of the sixth.

In all, Ray threw 86 pitches — 55 for strikes — and allowed one run on five hits with five strikeouts.

The first two were timely, to say the least. Houston’s leadoff man, Jose Altuve, reached on a blooper that dropped on the foul line in shallow right field for a double. And when Miguel Cabrera turned a routine grounder into a single three pitches later, Ray was faced with his first big-league test — runners at the corners and no outs.

No problem, though.

Ray threw a fastball by Jason Castro for his first strikeout. Then he got cleanup hitter Chris Carter, who struck out a league-high 212 times last season, chasing a fastball away. And after inducing a groundout by Jesus Guzman to end the threat, Ray headed to the dugout breathing a sigh of relief.

“First inning, the nerves were pretty high,” he admitted. “But after I got out of that, I settled in and started throwing like I knew how to.”

And like the Tigers’ brass hoped he would, I’m sure, though Dave Dombrowski understands better than anyone the trade he made last December won’t be validated by a spot start by a rookie or a solid start by young reliever Ian Krol, the other remaining piece from that deal.

Expectations are high

Still, it was Ray whom the Tigers’ GM insisted made that payroll-pruning deal work for his team, calling him a “premium, young left-hander” who was “on the verge” of pitching in the majors.

Now that he has — Fister’s scheduled to make his first start of the season for the Nationals on Friday, by the way — I suppose the clock is officially ticking.

“It puts kind of a load on your shoulders,” Ray said Tuesday. “You know you have to come out and you have to produce. But at the same time you’ve just got to go out there and do what you’ve been doing this whole time.”

Ray says he’s well aware of the trade’s approval rating. His Twitter feed let him know almost immediately, in fact.

“Not to your face, but you hear them talking,” he said. “You just kind of push it aside and you just have to wait and see.”

We’ll see him once more in Detroit this spring, at least. Anibal Sanchez, out since April 26 with a nasty blister on his throwing hand, threw a bullpen session Tuesday and should be ready to come off the disabled list when he’s eligible Monday. So barring another injury, Ray figures to get another start Sunday at home against the Twins before heading back to Toledo.

But he’s gotten his feet wet now. His hair, too, thanks to his teammates’ suds. And now that Tigers fans can finally put a face to a name, for one night, at least, as Ray himself said, “It felt really good.”

Tigers rookie pitcher Robbie Ray puts on a sweatshirt after leaving his major-league debut in the sixth inning. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News
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