Commentary

Matt Moore, Rays don't know any better

Team nobody expected in playoffs won Game 1 thanks to a young arm, good attitude

Originally Published: September 30, 2011
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Matt Moore is so young and inexperienced, Crash Davis should be instructing him not to wear shower shoes with fungus and that the rose goes in front.

When September began, Moore was still with the Durham Bulls, pitching for a minor league team that has a billboard with a snorting bull that reads "Hit Bull, Win Steak.'' His parent team, meanwhile, was 8½ games behind Boston in the wild-card race -- and about to fall back even further. But things have changed a little in baseball since then, as Terry Francona could confirm.

For one thing, the Rays -- shock! -- are in the postseason, not the Red Sox, thanks to baseball's greatest comeback that didn't involve signing Kelly Leak as a midseason free agent. And that's partially due to Moore, who joined the Rays in mid-September with a promotion that caught even his new teammates a bit off guard.

[+] EnlargeMatt Moore
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezRookie Matt Moore rolled the Rangers' order in Game 1. It looked like he'd been in the majors forever.

"His nameplate said Matt Moore and I said, 'Who is Matt Moore?' I thought we had an Adam Moore in our system,'' Tampa Bay catcher Kelly Shoppach said after he homered twice and Moore shut down the Rays 9-0 in the opener of their division series Friday. "Nobody will forget his name now. That's a huge stage.''

Actually, Shoppach said he had just been momentarily confused by the nameplate, that he had been aware of Moore as one of the game's best prospects for several years. Still, he said he didn't know whether Moore threw a curveball or a slider until catching his pregame warm-up Friday. "I knew nothing about him.''

It's fair to say he knows Moore much better, as do the Rangers and the rest of baseball. In just his second start as a big leaguer, the lefty pitched seven scoreless innings, holding one of the game's best offenses to two hits while striking out six. He looked so smooth and dominating, he should have been breathing through his eyelids like the lava lizards of the Galapagos Islands.

In his two starts as a big leaguer, Moore has thrown 12 scoreless innings, allowed six hits and struck out 17. You might want to keep him in mind for your fantasy draft next spring. But that's getting ahead of the story. First, there is this postseason.

Tampa Bay pitching coach Jim Hickey said the Rays could use Moore in the bullpen for Game 4 or 5. That is, if those games are necessary. Which they might not be, what with James Shields going in Game 2, David Price in Game 3 and rookie Jeremy Hellickson in Game 4. And with the way Tampa Bay has been playing.

Moore's victory continued a Tampa Bay stretch so tense, so dramatic, that first baseman Casey Kotchman had to leave the park one night with chest pains. In just this week alone, the Rays rallied one night by turning a triple play and rallied the next night from a 7-0 eighth-inning deficit before winning on a walk-off homer in the 12th. And then a rookie shut down the Rangers.

A triple play? A seven-run rally in the eighth? A walk-off home run? A nine-game comeback? A rookie starter's postseason-opening victory? What's next with this team? The Rays place another call to Durham to call up Nuke Laloosh for Game 2?

Who is writing this script anyway, Aaron Sorkin or Ron Shelton?

Johnny Damon, who gave Morris the only runs he needed with a two-run homer in the second, says this comeback run tops Boston's in 2004 when he and the Red Sox became the only baseball team to ever rally from a 3-0 postseason deficit. Those Red Sox were termed "Idiots'' and the Rays have a slogan as well that will soon no doubt be available on official T-shirts. Thursday's clubhouse chalkboard cited Kotchman's analysis of the 2011 Rays: "Dumb just enough.''

"[Kotchman] has this theory that we're just dumb enough to win it all,'' right fielder Matt Joyce explained. "He means we weren't supposed to be here in the first place. We shocked everybody. We even almost shocked ourselves by being in this situation. We're not supposed to be here so we might just be dumb enough to win the whole thing. And then he writes it that way because we're dumb.''

Well, a little ignorance can go a long way when,18 days after your big league call-up, you're taking the mound for the postseason opener at a sold-out Rangers ballpark and facing John Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler and a bunch of other guys who can ruin your night in a hurry. The Rays told Moore he was starting Game 1 on Thursday evening, less than 22 hours before the first pitch.

"They didn't give me a lot of time to get nervous and think about it a lot,'' Moore said. "At that point it was just a matter of getting to sleep and getting some good rest.''

Shoppach His nameplate said Matt Moore and I said, 'Who is Matt Moore?' … Nobody will forget his name now. That's a huge stage.

-- Kelly Shoppach on Matt Morre

Price was in a similar situation three years ago when the Rays brought him up in September and tossed him right into the deep end in the 2008 American League Championship Series. He said it probably helps you handle the situation to not completely understand it -- i.e., to be dumb just enough.

"You really don't even have time to grasp it while you're doing it,'' Price said. "He'll have more time to reflect on it during the offseason when everything is said and done. Right now he's doing what he loves.''

Moore was 12-3 with a 1.92 ERA in the minors this year, then he pitched five scoreless innings and struck out 11 in a crucial victory against the Yankees in his first big league start last week. Rays manager Joe Maddon said starting Moore over Wade Davis in Game 1 was a risk but that the Rays are a team that has to take risks (that's the way it is with a budget so tight you almost must charge for your clubhouse sodas). He also said the Rays liked the matchups, Moore's skills and felt he could handle the emotional pressure. "You have to be able to handle the moment,'' Maddon said. "You have to have the right pulse or the right heartbeat. He does.''

With an easy, Cliff Lee-like motion, Moore threw mid-90s fastballs while mixing in curves and changeups to hold the powerful Rangers lineup to just two hits -- both by Hamilton -- and no runs in seven innings. Moore was so tough that Hamilton resorted to bunting against the shift in the sixth inning when the Rangers trailed 8-0.

"He's above me where I was at the same time period,'' Price said. "His changeup and his breaking ball, his slurve at 84, 85, 86. His fastball and his changeup are so good he probably doesn't need that breaking ball. ... He has easier gas than I have. That's the easiest 97 I've ever seen."

Somewhere in Durham, Annie Savoy must be proud.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Follow Jim Caple on Twitter:

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com