ST. PETERSBURG — Chris Archer was just a skinny ninth-grader, all of 13 years old, when Ron Walker noticed him for the first time.
Walker was coaching junior varsity high school baseball outside of Raleigh, N.C., when he saw a kid with what he called "exceptional talent." Someday, Walker thought, this kid has a chance to be a Division I college pitcher.
Turns out, Archer is even more than that. He's a big-leaguer. And a pretty good one.
The 24-year-old rookie is now a key piece in the Rays' drive to another postseason appearance.
Archer was brilliant again Friday, picking up his seventh victory of the season in a 7-2 victory over the Yankees in the first game of a crucial three-game series at Tropicana Field.
"To watch what he is doing is just awesome," Walker said outside the Rays clubhouse Friday after exchanging hugs with Archer. "I don't know that I can describe it in words. It has been a long journey. He has worked so hard, mentally and physically."
The payoff has been a superb rookie season. Archer is 7-5, including a masterful 3-0 with a 1.23 ERA against the Yankees this season. He is the first rookie in 24 years to beat the Yankees three times.
After tossing a complete-game, two-hit 1-0 shutout at Yankee Stadium a month ago, the right-hander responded with another strong effort Friday.
He scattered four hits over seven innings, allowing two runs and striking out four.
"I had my pillars here, and there was no way I could fail," Archer said. "There was no way I could fall because my whole support group was here."
That support group included Walker, Archer's adoptive parents and several high school buddies who made the trip from North Carolina. Walker typically talks to Archer two to three times a week, especially on game days, often just to shoot the breeze.
"It kind of relaxes him and gets him going," Walker said. "He finds it soothing, and I find it refreshing."
Relaxing has been less of an issue for Archer as this season has progressed. Criticized and, perhaps, hampered earlier this season for showing too much emotion on the mound, Archer has reined in his excitement of late.
He doesn't get too high or too low. Wriggling out of a jam doesn't send him over the moon, while giving up a homer doesn't send him into a funk.
"I'm going to show emotion, that's just me," Archer said. "But I'm staying more consistent with my thoughts than I was before. So if you want to call that less rattled, you can. But I just feel like I'm staying in more control of my emotions."
Example: Friday night. In a big game against a marquee team in the heat of a pennant race in front of a charged-up crowd, Archer scuffled through a 21-pitch first inning. It was the type of inning that often neutralized Archer's game. He walked the first batter, who eventually came around the score.
But Friday, as has been the case in recent weeks, one mediocre inning didn't turn into a bad inning. And that did not linger into two or three bad innings.
Even manager Joe Maddon said he no longer needs to keep such close tabs on Archer's emotions the way he did earlier in the season.
These days, Archer is more mature, more stable, more confident.
"Confidence comes with success," he said. "I've had a little bit of success. I've toned my energy down a little bit. I wouldn't say I'm a completely different pitcher."
Not completely different, but evolving.
"We talk about it all the time, about never getting too high or getting too low," Walker said. "You have to use your emotions as something that can help you focus instead of letting them control you."
Don't get the wrong idea. Archer suddenly hasn't turned into Ben Stein. He did unleash one big fist-pump Friday when, with two outs and a runner on, newcomer David DeJesus made a running catch up against the leftfield wall to preserve the Rays' comfortable five-run lead. It was just one of several outstanding defensive plays behind Archer.
"The defense was incredible," Archer said.
After DeJesus' catch, Archer settled on the bench and watched the bullpen lock down the victory. Not long after, he was hugging Walker.
"It has been great," Walker said. "But what you're seeing right now is just the beginning for him."
If that's true, that's certainly something that would make anyone excited.