The emergence of Chris Ray as the O’s lockdown closer was put to the test on Friday night against the Yankees; Score one for the young gun
By Matthew Taylor
The Washington Post got it right. So did the Baltimore Sun. Even Comcast Sportsnet made the proper call. The story of Friday night’s series opener against the Yankees was Chris Ray.
Two years removed from the Single-A Frederick Keys, the 24-year-old Ray froze Hideki Matsui with a bases loaded, 3-2 slider that ended the game in the Bronx. Yankee fans who had been hoping to chant “Godzilla” were instead left muttering “God—-.”
Said Derek Jeter: “I don’t know if there’s anyone in baseball looking for a 3-2 slider in that situation.”
Alex Rodriguez: “Unbelievable.”
“Anna Benson watched nervously as her husband took on the Yankees in his return to New York.
‘He had something to prove,’ she said, ‘and he proved it.’”
The national media are missing the boat, but Orioles fans should get on board now, because it’s high tide for Chris Ray. (Just promise you won’t throw Anna Benson a life preserver. She’s already got all of the flotation devices she needs.)
Sure, it’s only April. The ghosts at Yankee Stadium are snowbirds; they never even left Florida after Spring Training. If Major League Baseball gave out pennants this early in the season the O’s would have one labeled “2005” hanging from the Warehouse. Not to mention that Chris Ray’s appearance on Friday was only his 49th game at the major league level. But the O’s pitching recovery has to start somewhere, and it may as well be from the back of the bullpen.
Consider the all-time leaders for saves in a season among the five current AL East teams. Division fans should be able to name two of them without much thought: (1) Mariano Rivera, the gold standard among closers, holds the Yankee record with 50 saves in 2001; and (2) Randy Myers leads the Orioles with 45 saves in 1997.
As for the rest of the AL East, Boston is led by Tom Gordon (46 saves in 1998), the Blue Jays by Duane Ward (45 saves in 1993), and – bonus points if you got this one – the Devil Rays by Roberto Hernandez (43 saves in 1999).
Now consider the success that each of these teams had during those record-setting seasons. The Yankees played in the World Series, the Orioles in the ALCS, the Red Sox in the Division Series, and the Blue Jays won the World Series. As for the Devil Rays, well, they’re still the Devil Rays no matter who’s closing games for them.
Granted, this proves little more than the fact that successful teams offer their closers more opportunities to save games. But there’s a strong argument to be made – one that has been made many times in recent years – for the value of a lockdown closer. Considering the $47 million the Blue Jays gave B.J. Ryan, Toronto sure thinks so. Ryan took his 36 saves (Myers is the only Orioles closer to ever have saved 40) North of the border in the off-season. The O’s should therefore consider themselves lucky (or smart?) to be in this position. It’s already clear that Chris Ray is a keeper, free agency and Peter Angelos’ low-ball negotiations be damned.
You’ve heard all the hype about Jonathan Papelbon, but it’s time to start getting hyped about Chris Ray. Right now Chris Ray’s stats are every bit as impressive as Papelbon’s. After Friday, Ray had one less save than Papelbon (unless you consider Ray’s “win” in Tampa Bay for what it really was – a save), three more strikeouts, one less hit allowed, and two more walks. Neither pitcher has given up a run so far this season.
The point is not to argue for Ray over Papelbon as much as it is to acknowledge Ray as a young closer who, like Papelbon, is worth getting excited about. And he’s a product of the Orioles’ farm system to boot. Hail the return of the Oriole Way!
If you watched Friday night’s game in the Bronx you know why I’m making this argument. There were the Yankees chipping away at the O’s lead in the eighth, stealing the team’s insurance run faster than you can say GEICO. Chris Ray had zero breathing room as he entered the game to face the top of the Yankee’s lineup: Damon. Jeter. Sheffield. Pass the oxygen.
How many times have we seen this before at Yankee Stadium?
As Jeff Zrebiec of The Sun describes it: “It is a place where young relievers tend to fold, where mystique and aura and one of baseball’s most vaunted lineups traditionally takes over, rendering pitchers powerless to avoid timely hits and clutch comebacks.”
Chris Ray didn’t fold. Instead, he provided another example to support Curt Schilling’s famous argument, made during the 2001 Word Series, that “Mystique and Aura are dancers at a nightclub.”
This wasn’t the World Series. Alex Rodriguez may have struck out in the clutch, but it is still only April. Nevertheless, the truth is that without Chris Ray on Friday the O’s ship would’ve sunk.
It’s time to get on board.