ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays are watching Chris Archer closely for any signs he might be overworked as he heads into his first significant September. The rookie right-hander has given them no cause for concern, as he showed again with seven solid innings in Wednesday's much-needed 4-1 win over the Angels.
More impressive is how the 24-year-old has handled the mental aspects of pitching in a pennant race, relishing an opportunity that could be overwhelming to others.
"He's got such a strong mental game," manager Joe Maddon said. "This guy really understands routine and process. That's what he's all about."
There have been a few moments in previous games when Archer has shown his youth and inexperience, getting a little too quick in critical late-inning situations. But Archer is aware, and Wednesday, battling with his teammates to put the staggering defeat from the night before behind them as they sought to stay within 2½ games of the American League East-leading Red Sox, he showed he could handle it.
The 4-0 lead the Rays had built thanks primarily to newcomer David DeJesus and mainstay Ben Zobrist and preserved with what Archer called "exquisite" defense was in jeopardy in the seventh inning, the first two Angels reaching base.
But Archer has techniques to calm himself down, and the awareness to recognize the moment was necessary.
"Sometimes you do feel a little bit off, and it's not always physical," Archer said. "For me most of the time it's mental. I just step off, find a place in the stadium and just focus my mind on the task at hand and not the previous pitch."
He focused, all right, limiting the Angels to just one run and preserving the bullpen by getting through the seventh inning, making for another solid night's work — five hits, no walks, five strikeouts, 92 pitches — while improving his record to 8-5 and lowering his ERA to 2.81.
"He kept himself together really well today," Maddon said. "That's what he's really been doing well. That's been the impressive part."
Or, as DeJesus said more succinctly, "He's a stud."
After blowing a 5-1 seventh-inning lead Tuesday in a loss Maddon admitted stung a bit more than others, the Rays (75-56) needed something. While the sight of ace David Price running around and throwing his between-starts bullpen in a full Vanderbilt football uniform lightened the mood, Maddon noticed a very business-like approach among the group. "They did not like what had happened (Tuesday) night, and they did something about it," he said.
DeJesus, hitting .438 in his five games, got them started with a leadoff double that led to a run, and he was in the middle of the three-run rally in the fourth. And after Archer left, the bullpen was back to form, Joel Peralta zipping through the eighth and closer Fernando Rodney — who Tuesday blew his eighth save — sizzling through the ninth. "Very reassuring," Maddon said.
Archer is approaching his career high of 157? innings, but neither he nor the Rays are worried about any physical issues. And he seems to have the mental part down.
"Honestly," Archer said, "I feel like I'm at home."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]bay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.