Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays need next step for Moore

ST. PETERSBURG

Expect more wins. Expect more innings. Expect more command.

Most of all, expect more Moore.

For the Rays, this is where the potential improvement starts, deep in that electric left arm of Matt Moore. Even now, even after a season in which his fastball took some lumps, Moore's improvement remains directly linked to that of his team. Even now, Moore leads his team in untapped potential.

Funny thing, baseball. Too often, fans seem to look to the new faces when they talk about improvement, whether it is the key free agent signing or the big trade acquisition. Spring training is very big on the new kid in town.

Around here, it is different. Throughout its history, the biggest steps the franchise has made have been when one of its young players — David Price, Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria — has turned potential into production.

If that is to happen again this year, whose progress is more important than that of Moore?

Who else can guarantee the Rays' starting rotation remains among the best in the major leagues? Who better to fill the void left by the trade of James Shields? Who is more important in keeping the load off the bullpen?

Say this for Moore. He looks a little older, even if the 23-year-old jokes that he may be a five-year veteran by the time that scruffy beard of his fills in.

It is Saturday afternoon, and Moore sits behind a blue curtain at the team's annual FanFest, picking at his food and waiting for his turn at the autograph tables. He talks about how much more comfortable his second spring feels. He talks about his new dog, a golden doodle (half retriever, half standard poodle) named Griffin. And he talks about a season of highs and lows.

"Sure, it was frustrating," Moore says. "I would be cruising along in the third inning, and I would make a mistake or two, and suddenly, I was at 70 pitches or so.

"If you twisted my arm and made me answer, I expected more from myself, especially when it came to how many innings I pitched and how many batters I walked. I knew there were going to be some nights I had my butt handed to me because that's happened with me from Little League to the minors.

"There were times I would think about how close we were to the playoffs (three games), and I would think about what I could have done to have made up that difference. I guess all pitchers think that way. You think about what you could have done."

To be fair, there is nothing wrong with winning 11 games as a rookie. Heck, Felix Hernandez once won a Cy Young after winning 13. Price, who knows something about expectations, won 10 in his first year as a starter. Shields won six. For that matter, Roger Clemens won nine.

Nothing wrong with striking out 175 batters, either, which set a club rookie record. Only two other pitchers have struck out more as a rookie.

Ah, but coming into the season, the expectations of Moore were big enough to ski down. He had been dominant in a couple of late-season outings in 2011 and because of it, people seemed to expect Verlander-in-a-Can.

Instead, Moore lost five of his first six decisions and four of his last five. Worse, he had nights when he simply didn't go deep enough into games. He completed seven innings only four times among 31 starts. He completed eight innings only once. In September, Moore had a four-inning start, a three-inning start and a 2⅔-inning start.

"I left too many innings for the bullpen," Moore says. "I wanted to pitch 200 innings. (He pitched 177⅓). I wasn't doing enough with my first three pitches to each hitter."

It wasn't all bad. From June 3 to Aug. 24, Moore went 9-2 with a 2.89 ERA.

This year, Moore expects more, too. He believes he will be a better pitcher. He has analyzed last year, and he has worked hard in the offseason. The frustration has not worn on his confidence.

"I don't have to go out there and be Nolan Ryan," he said, "throwing it 102 miles an hour past people. I don't have to win 20 or 30 games. I just have to compete every five days."

Picture it. Can Moore get to 185-190 innings? Sure he can. Can he turn those 11 wins into, say, 15? Sure he can. Can he look like the next big thing all over again? Sure he can.

All it takes is a little more.

Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 9 a.m. until noon on 98.7-FM the Fan.

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