Bowie Baysox right-hander Chris Ray dominated the Eastern League before a promotion to Baltimore, but stuck around long enough to earn MiLB.com's Double-A Relief Pitcher of the Year Award.
Although he was a closer for most of his college career at William & Mary, Ray spent the previous two years in the Baltimore Orioles system as a starter with some success, compiling a 10-6 record and a 3.45 ERA. But Baltimore asked its 2003 third-round draft pick if he could go back into the bullpen, and Ray had no problem complying.
"I actually enjoy being a reliever more," Ray said. "It gives you a chance to go out to the ballyard and play on a more regular basis than being a starter and having to wait around for days."
For Ray, closing was like riding a bike: you never forget how to do it, no matter how long you go between rides. Not only did he did forget, he got better. How much better? Consider this:
This season, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera posted a 1.38 ERA, limited opponents to a .177 average, had a WHIP (walks and hits per inning) of 0.87 and converted 43 of 47 save opportunities. Ray's numbers in the same categories were 0.96, .140, 0.64 and a perfect 18-for-18.
The 23-year-old Tampa native did not allow a run in his final 20 Double-A innings.
Granted, the talent gap between the American League and Eastern League is pretty wide, but the kind of dominance Ray enjoyed is seldom seen. The Orioles took notice and promoted him to the big club June 14.
In 41 games with Baltimore, Ray went 1-3 with a 2.66 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 40 2/3 innings. Not bad for someone in his third year of pro ball.
Ray has all the makings of a Major League closer, possessing an all-out delivery that fires mid-90s fastballs along with a hard slider and sharp splitter. He also discovered the kind of mind-set one needs to thrive in the ninth inning.
"Right at the beginning of the season, I relearned that you have to go right after the hitters and forget about nibbling. Be aggressive," Ray said. "You also have to have a little bit of arrogance out on the mound. Just go out there and think you're just flat-out better than the guy at the plate."
One of Ray's top priorities in 2006 is to make the Orioles out of camp. And with the looming departure of incumbent closer B.J. Ryan, the young right-hander might find himself in ninth-inning situations. Ray has the weapons and the mind-set. All he needs is his own intro music.
"I haven't really thought about that one just yet," Ray said. "I'll take whatever they give me."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.