CLEARWATER — Perhaps sharper than Matt Moore's curveball and changeup is the contrast between the spring he's having now and the one he had a year ago.
Twelve months prior to taking the mound against the Phillies for his third spring start, the Rays left-hander was almost a year removed from Tommy John surgery that kept him out of all but two games during the 2014 season. But Moore knew he was still months away from contributing on the mound.
That timeline was pushed back even further when he stumbled in his first starts back last July and was optioned to Triple-A Durham to put in more work.
Through it all, though, the 26-year-old was determined not to lose confidence in himself. So when he stood in the clubhouse after a 6-1 spring training victory against the Phillies on Thursday, fresh from an eight-strikeout outing, Moore wasn't the least bit surprised by the results.
"I'm just throwing the same pitches I normally would throw," he casually stated. "Sometimes they hit them, and sometimes they don't."
But there have been times during the past year, Moore admits, when that confidence got the best of him.
Nearly 15 months after his last major-league appearance, Moore returned to the mound on July 2, 2015, against the Indians, giving up six hits and four runs in 42/3 innings. And right off the bat, he didn't get much better.
In his first six starts back, Moore posted an 8.78 ERA and never made it past the fifth inning.
"I felt better than what was coming out. I believed in my ability to go out there and compete and win a ballgame, probably a little more than what was actually coming out," Moore said. "It's something we all have to develop as young players and continue to rely on as we get to the big leagues, because there are struggles around everybody's corner."
After his string of bad outings, Moore was optioned to Durham on Aug. 1, sending the Rays into a four-man rotation. Moore admits he was disappointed, but he refused to let the situation get worse.
Moore went on to pitch 401/3 innings during his time in Durham, posting a 3.57 ERA. On Aug. 23 he broke the Durham Bulls' strikeout record, fanning 16 in six innings.
The results only got better when he returned to Tampa Bay for the last month of the regular season.
"All of us are super excited for him. It doesn't really surprise any of us, because we know all the hard work he's put in," outfielder Brandon Guyer said of Moore's healthy return. "As an outfielder, I love playing behind a guy like that, because he goes after guys. It's just really good to see him back out there as a part of the team again."
Moore said he felt good about his third start of the spring, adding that his changeup and curveball have been progressing nicely. His eight strikeouts came just five days after he retired nine straight batters in a 32/3-inning performance against the Yankees.
Rays manager Kevin Cash couldn't wait to give a glowing review of his patient starter.
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"(The Phillies) pitcher was actually pretty impressive, watching him, but not quite as impressive as ours," Cash said. "Matt Moore has been just tremendous … just controlled the entire strike zone, the lineup, the whole time. (He's) probably the brightest spot of camp, and there's been a lot of bright spots."
Next week, he'll have even more eyes on him.
Moore was selected to start the Rays' exhibition game against the Cuban national team Tuesday, a game at which President Barack Obama will be in attendance. But that fact doesn't make Moore nervous.
Instead, he plans to rely on the same confidence that delivered him from the pangs of disappointment right back to the place he belongs — on the mound, dialed in.
"There's really not a lot of words that can describe just having the game not available to you," Moore said. "It was just a different chapter that hopefully we learned a lot from and can be better for it moving forward."
Contact Kelly Parsons at email@example.com. Follow @_kellyparsons.