Detroit — It’s way too early to say that Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski knew something we didn’t.
But maybe he knew something we didn’t.
What looked like the worst trade in Tigers history is actually working out for the Tigers. Doug Fister gave up seven runs, five earned, in 4.1 innings in his first start of the season with the Washington Nationals Friday. And Tigers rookie pitcher Robbie Ray, who came over as part of the Fister trade, mowed down his second straight opponent even though the Tigers lost 4-3 to the Twins Sunday at Comerica Park.
He should be 2-0 today, but Tigers setup man Joba Chamberlain blew a two-run lead by giving up three in the eighth inning.
The reward for two outstanding starts for Ray is a trip to Baltimore that begins Monday night. How long will the trip be? That all depends on what happens with Anibal Sanchez (blister), who is set to pitch a simulated game on Tuesday.
If the Tigers like what they see, then Ray heads back to Toledo to pitch. If Sanchez remains shaky, Ray’s trip could be extended to the weekend Boston series. A decision has not been made on if he will pitch. But for now Ray is a luxury for the Tigers. With an off-day this week, they won’t need a fifth starter until next week.
“We have discussed (his future),” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “The truth is he probably has to pitch regardless of where he is. If and when Anibal Sanchez comes back, a decision has to be made. The best thing for Robbie Ray would be to continue to pitch and continue to work on that curve ball and polish up his other pitches so he can be a Major League starter. The big picture is he needs to pitch. He’s still a young kid.”
Ray has shown a lot during his brief stay with the Tigers. He’s hardly overpowering, but kept the Twins off-balance with a fastball-change-up combination that caused a lot of lazy fly balls to the outfield and grounders to second base. His best pitch is a change-up that makes his 93 mph fastball look quicker than it is. The change-up is his out pitch, but in order to be an every-fifth-day starter Ray needs to work on his curveball.
He’s not confident in it, which is why he rarely throws it.
“To start at the major league level you need three pitches,” Ausmus said. “He certainly needs that third pitch to put him over the top. It’s going to be the curveball eventually. It comes and goes. It is coming along slowly but it has to be consistent.”
Chamberlain felt bad about blowing the game for Ray and left the stadium impressed.
“It’s unbelievable, his mound presence — he works quickly, gets the ball and has a game plan,” Chamberlain said. “He’s just really relaxed. It’s just unbelievable to see the way he goes about his game and the mound presence and the way he attacks guys.”
Ray also showed cat-like reflexes. He snagged two hot grounders and turned them into easy flips to first base. When he got into a jam in the sixth inning, he deflected a ball to shortstop Andre Romine, who turned a quick double play to end the only threat of the day against him.
The only glove quicker than Ray’s belongs to Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard.
Let’s throw in a disclaimer before we move on: Ray has mowed down two of the worst teams in baseball during this brief march to stardom. The Houston Astros (12-26) are the worst hitting team (.220) in the American League and the Twins (17-19) are just three spots higher (.242).
However, there is another way to look at it. In his two starts, Ray has given up one run and nine hits in 11.1 innings. In those same games, the Tigers bullpen has given up seven runs and 10 hits over 6.2.
The bullpen, especially Chamberlain, let the Tigers down. It’s why they were just 4-3 in a seven-game home stand against Houston and Minnesota.
When Sanchez is healthy, Ray should return to Toledo and work on that curveball. However, Ray can be an important cog out of the bullpen when the playoffs begin.
The Tigers bullpen is too inconsistent, and I don’t trust these guys to make big outs against better teams.
Help is on the way. Prior to his meltdown Sunday, Chamberlain had a 1.54 ERA over his last 11.2 innings, giving up eight hits and striking out 16 batters.
Possible future setup man Joel Hanrahan is about a month away from trying to bolster the Tigers bullpen. The Tigers could use Smyly as the situational lefty with Ray and Chamberlain as wild cards to get to Hanrahan in the eighth and Joe Nathan in the ninth.
Ray wants a future here and wants to be a starter, but he does not care how the Tigers use him.
“Whatever they ask me to do,” he said.