- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 14, 2014

BALTIMORE — Robbie Ray was on the road home to Nashville after a happy Thanksgiving weekend when the call came that uprooted his professional life.

Engaged five days to his girlfriend, Taylor, and driving back from her family home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Ray learned that the Washington Nationals — who drafted him in the 12th round in 2010, gave him a healthy $799,000 signing bonus and groomed him through four minor-league seasons — had traded him to the Detroit Tigers for veteran starting pitcher Doug Fister.

The shock hit hard and that feeling lingered into the winter. But it didn’t take long for Ray see the benefits, either. He was headed to a perennial American League contender just a two-hour drive from his fiancée’s hometown.

“It worked out perfect,” Ray said.

But at age 22, never having pitched above Double-A, Ray couldn’t have known how quickly he’d arrive in Detroit. A hot start at Triple-A Toledo led to a promotion when Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez went on the 15-day disabled list with a blister on the middle finger of his right hand.

And so Ray found himself on the mound May 6 against the Houston Astros. His major-league debut came three days before Fister even made his first start for Washington thanks to an elbow injury during spring training.

SEE ALSO: Nats score 4 in 9th to take series from Diamondbacks

Always known for his calm demeanor during his minor-league days with the Nats, Ray has burnished that reputation so far with Detroit. He has made two starts, allowing just one earned run in 11 1/3 innings. Ray has struck out seven batters, walked two and given up nine hits.

In the first inning of his first game, the Astros put runners at first and third with none out. Instead of succumbing to rookie jitters, Ray struck out the next two batters swinging and induced a ground out to shortstop to end the threat. He retired 15 of the next 17 with the only runners reaching on an infield single and a walk. His new teammates took notice.

Robbie’s always been a very crafty lefty that can throw strikes and hits his spots,” said Detroit third baseman Nick Castellanos, who played with Ray on the USA Baseball under-18 national team in 2009. “He never threw 93, 94 [mph]. He’s learned how to use his legs and his body more. Whatever he’s doing, keep it up because he’s been lights-out so far.”

It’s not a bad start even if Sanchez’s imminent return likely means a trip back to Toledo. Detroit could keep Ray on the roster as a left-hander out of the bullpen, as depth at that spot has been a problem for the Tigers this season. But for now, the organization appears content to keep Ray on a starter’s schedule.

That provides insurance for a quality rotation led by co-aces Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, a pair of Cy Young Award winners. The rest of the crew includes Sanchez, the steady veteran with a sparkling 2.57 ERA last season, and Rick Porcello, a former top prospect who at 25 is showing signs of reaching his vast potential with a 3.22 ERA and a 6-1 record so far.

Then there is versatile reliever Drew Smyly, whose ability to adapt to the rotation allowed the Tigers to part with Fister in the first place. There didn’t seem to be much place for Ray in the short term when the deal was announced on Dec. 3.

Detroit took heat at the time for trading a solid veteran starter for Ray, reliever Ian Krol and utility man Steve Lombardozzi, who was later flipped to Baltimore during spring training. Ray was the key part of the deal for the Tigers, which comes with its own kind of pressure.

After three consecutive seasons with an ERA of 3.67 or lower, Fister was a proven commodity. He was durable. He won in the postseason. Those aren’t assets major league teams part with willingly unless they believe a minor leaguer can be a contributor sooner than later on the big league club.

“[Fister] was a pretty big deal here in Detroit,” Ray said. “Being traded for him, it makes you feel good, gives you some confidence. But you also know that you have to produce and give the fans what they want.”

Krol, 23, has done well so far himself. In 17 games and 12 1/3 innings, the lefty has a 2.19 ERA out of the bullpen. It remains to be seen if he and Ray can keep this going the rest of the season. The track record on both is short, after all.

Ray, who entered last season as Washington’s fifth-best prospect, according to Baseball America, has been better this season at “burying” his curveball, though that remains a work in progress. Castellanos admitted there are times Ray’s fastball tops out in the high 80s, but that his command makes it appear faster to opposing batters.

In five starts, six appearances total, at Toledo, Ray had a 1.53 ERA with 21 strikeouts to five walks. When Sanchez comes off the disabled list, Ray says he will simply return to Triple-A, continue working on that curveball and stay ready. The Tigers might need him again soon.

“I honestly wasn’t expecting it this early,” Ray said. “I’m not really concerned about when [Sanchez] comes back. When somebody goes down, someone else has to come up. I’m just out there doing what’s asked of me.”



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