BALTIMORE — Jake McGee started throwing a curveball in spring training so he'd have something instead of a slider that didn't slide enough to at least show batters who were used to his steady arsenal of blazing fastballs. He was pleased enough with the progress to start mixing it in a little more frequently.
But here? Now? With what had been a comfortable Rays lead for most of Saturday afternoon suddenly a tense one-run battle with the Orioles, McGee, one strike away from a victory the Rays couldn't dare let slip away, wanted to throw the curve?
At first, catcher Ryan Hanigan said no. McGee went along and threw another fastball — clocked at 98 mph — that Manny Machado took another good cut at and fouled off. This time Hanigan agreed to the curve, quickly put down two fingers, and McGee calmly delivered, spinning off a 77 mph curve that Machado could only wave at helplessly.
The strikeout sealed a 5-4 victory for the Rays, who have won 10 of 17 but still have the majors' worst record at 34-49, leading manager Joe Maddon to say today's series finale is pretty much a must-win on June 29.
What the strikeout can do for McGee, having an All-Star-caliber season, could be significant as scouting reports are quickly amended to warn hitters of another weapon in key situations.
"It was huge," Maddon said. "I loved it. That's the kind of stuff that makes a guy beyond good. He can become great.
"Jake's got that kind of stuff. He's got that pulse, that slow way about him in a good way, and so he's able to do those things. And now all of a sudden (the curve) becomes part of the packaging. It becomes really difficult for a hitter."
McGee didn't expect to be pitching the way the day started. Erik Bedard looked strong, and the Rays grabbed a 5-0 lead with three homers off Baltimore's Wei-Yin Chen, the first leadoff blast of the year by Desmond Jennings, then two-run shots by Logan Forsythe (his first) and Kevin Kiermaier (off a lefty).
Bedard, relying on his slow curve, was masterful in his longest outing this season. He had allowed only a sixth-inning homer to Nick Markakis before things changed quickly in the eighth, when J.J. Hardy's leadoff single, then Machado's two-run homer made it 5-3.
Maddon turned first to deposed closer Grant Balfour, who got an out, allowed two singles, then got a big out, Steve Pearce popping up. Maddon summoned McGee, who allowed Adam Jones' RBI single before getting the eighth's final out.
In the ninth, McGee threw nine fastballs — clocked from 95 to 100 mph, per mlb.com — to get the first two outs, then four more to get to 2-and-2 when he decided on the curve. A pitch later, he got Hanigan to go along.
"I didn't like it (at first)," Hanigan said. "And then Machado took another swing, and I was like, 'You know what? He's right.' "
In the dugout, Maddon said the thought of the curve crossed his mind. In the bullpen, Joel Peralta said he was thinking McGee might try it. Forsythe saw Hanigan flash the sign "and I was like, huh, let's see how this works out."
McGee said he knew that if he hung the curve, Machado could hit it out to tie the score, but he was confident he could keep it down, and he did just that.
"It worked out well," McGee said.