August 9, 2014 at 5:34 pm

Blossoming slider puts Robbie Ray back on short list of Tigers callup candidates

Tigers prospect Robbie Ray could get the call if Anibal Sanchez's side injury requires them to use a spot starter. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Toledo — When Anibal Sanchez went on the disabled list in May, the Tigers called up left-handed starter Robbie Ray, who went 1-1 in his three mazjor-league starts. But when they needed somebody to make a spot start July 19, they chose right-hander Drew VerHagen.

Should the Tigers need somebody to replace Sanchez again — he had an MRI on his injured pectoral muscle in Detroit on Saturday — Ray has served notice that he is ready, perhaps more ready than he was back in May.

“I knew I needed to come (back) down and work on things,” Ray said. “I knew I needed to work on my breaking ball, especially. But it has been coming along really well.”

Ray, who gave up seven runs and nine hits to the Rangers in his final start with the Tigers, scuffled mightily when he first went back to Triple-A Toledo. In nine starts, he was tagged for 53 hits and 27 runs in 43.2 innings. Opposing batters were hitting .310 against him.

That’s why VerHagen got the call, even though he wasn’t on the 40-man roster at the time.

But in the four starts since — he is scheduled to pitch Sunday in Toledo — Ray has given up eight runs and 21 hits in 23.2 innings, with 19 strikeouts. Opponents hit .304 in those four starts. Ray has given up two runs or fewer in three of the four starts.

The improvement came after Tigers roving pitching coordinator A.J. Sager strongly encouraged Ray to scrap his curveball and focus on developing a slider.

“After the All-Star break, A.J. came up to me and said the slider would be a lot better,” said Ray, who came to the Tigers from the Nationals system as part of the Doug Fister trade this offseason. “It keeps me in the same arm slot as my fastball.”

The curveball was killing not only his secondary pitches, but his fastball, as well.

“You’ll see this a lot with curveball guys,” Mud Hens manager Larry Parrish said. “They tend to stride shorter with the front leg. It allows you to get over and out front so you can pull the curve ball down.

“But with him, it was transferring to all his pitches, to the point where he was throwing his fastball and not striding. He was trying to do it using all arm because the legs were never really involved.”

Instead of developing a much-needed secondary pitch, he lost his fastball and he was putting his valuable left arm at risk.

“He lost command and he lost zip, too,” Parrish said. “You could just look at him and see his delivery was out of whack. He would have had just as much chance hurting his arm throwing the fastball out of that delivery — all arm and no legs — as he would throwing a slider. You can’t take the legs out of your delivery.”

With the slider, his stride stays long and the arm powers through the pitch. And now all three of his pitches — fastball, slider and changeup — come out of the same arm slot.

“It’s a relief seeing the progress with all my pitches,” Ray said.

Parrish called the slider a “work in progress,” but it was Ray’s featured pitch last week in a seven-inning, four-hit, one-run outing at Indianapolis.

“That was the best I’ve thrown it,” Ray said. “I actually didn’t throw my change-up enough because the slider was working so well. I am starting to get a better feel for it.”

Parrish said the next hurdle with Ray is to get him to trust all three pitches.

“Early in the year, he didn’t have a breaking ball, so he threw the change,” he said. “Now that he’s been working on a breaking ball and the slider, he’s gotten away from throwing the change. He still needs to work on being a three-pitch pitcher. He’s been having trouble taking that mindset into the game.”

Ray won’t be the Tigers’ only option if they need to replace Sanchez for any length of time.

Left-hander Duane Below, who in previous yeras pitched in 41 games with the Tigers with three starts, is 3-0 in his last seven games, allowing 13 runs and 33 hits in 38 innings.

Left-hander Kyle Ryan, recently promoted from Double A, has been virtually unhittable in two starts at Toledo. In 14.1 innings, he’s allowed two runs and nine hits, while striking out six with just one walk.

But, with his work the last four starts, Ray has put himself back in the call-up conversation.