PEORIA, Ariz. — When Robbie Ray signed with the Mariners in late November, he said he was motivated to do so by the excitement he witnessed from afar as Seattle battled his Blue Jays for a wild-card berth.
Ray also said he embraced the challenge of helping to lead the Mariners there, as both teams fell short on the final day of the season.
Nearly four months later, neither sentiment has changed. And on Tuesday Ray gave a tantalizing sneak preview of what the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner can bring to the Mariners on the field.
Ray worked four strong innings against the Cubs, giving up just one hit — a two-run homer to journeyman Ildemaro Vargas that followed one of his two walks, both to left-handed hitter Alfonso Rivas. It was the walks that irked Ray the most.
“I should never walk a lefty,” he said with disgust.
Ray’s perfectionist spirit and perpetual intensity are among the traits manager Scott Servais hope will filter by osmosis to the rest of the staff. And Ray is eager to be that role model and mentor, as Zack Greinke, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Randy Johnson were for him at various stages of his career.
“If I can push guys any way possible, push them deeper into games … you know, they all come to me and say, ‘How do you strike guys out?’ ” Ray said. “It’s like, ‘Well, don’t try to strike guys out.’ I’m trying to get deep into games. That’s how you end up striking guys out.
“I get to the point where, 0-2, 1-2, I take a shot at it. And if I get it, great. And if I don’t, I’m looking for contact. So early outs is what I preach to these guys, being in the (strike) zone. And that’s just kind of my mentality. I’ve tried to relay that message for sure.”
That’s a symphony to Servais’ ears, particularly as it relates to the younger members of the Mariners’ rotation, now and in the future — the likes of Logan Gilbert, Matt Brash, George Kirby and Levi Stoudt. Gilbert is in the rotation, and the latter three are battling for the No. 5 spot.
The two more-veteran members of the Mariners’ rotation, Marco Gonzales and Chris Flexen, are kindred spirits when it comes to intensity — minus Ray’s trademark grunt, of course. That was in full aural display to the crowd of 5,107 at Peoria Stadium on Tuesday — not to mention visual flash of the new teal glove he unveiled.
Assessing his rotation mates, Ray said, “This is a good group of guys, this rotation. These guys can do something special. I’m just really happy to be a part of it.”
Ray has a presence about him that is palpable, and it’s not just his success on the mound. On Tuesday he threw 57 pitches and struck out five by utilizing a wicked, biting slider that he said “was about as good as it’s ever been.”
That meant a rough day for catcher Cal Raleigh — Servais estimates that 15 to 20 pitches will dart into the dirt in every Ray start that have to be blocked — but a migraine for hitters.
Ray’s presence also manifests itself in the full effort he puts into everything from bullpen sessions to live batting practices — and then amps it up even more in games.
“I like to have fun. I like to enjoy it,” Ray said. “But then when it’s time to work, it’s time to work. And when I get in between the lines, it’s all business. I think we have got a good balance of that in the clubhouse, where guys know how to have fun. But once we get on the field, it’s go time.”
It will be “go time” for real April 7 in Minnesota, with Ray looming as a strong candidate to be the Mariners’ opening-day starter. But Servais deflected the question after Tuesday’s game, a 5-5 tie, saying he first wants to see all his starters go through one more turn. Last year’s opening-day starter, Gonzales, is a possibility as well.
Ray, who has never started on opening day, also deflected the question, saying, “I’m just here to win. And whatever game I go out there for, I’m trying to win that game.”
What Ray really wants is to be pitching in must-win games in September, October and even beyond, as the World Series will drift into November this year. That might seem a fanciful notion for an organization that hasn’t even made the playoffs since 2001. But Ray has reached the postseason twice — with Arizona in 2017 and Toronto in 2020. That’s enough for him to crave a return visit.
“Man, it’s a whole different animal,” he said. “I mean, so much fun that it’s every single pitch. Everybody in the stadium is on the edge of their seat, if they’re not standing. In 2017 when we played the wild-card game, that place was absolutely insane.
“It’s just a really fun experience. It’s almost like everybody resets to zero. And it’s like the beginning of the season. Everything’s feeling good. So it’s just really cool.”
That’s all a dim memory in these parts, but Ray sees the outline of a team that can make it happen again. It’s why he came to Seattle — along with $115 million over five years, of course.
“It felt really good to be on the mound wearing a Mariners jersey,” he said. “This team is built to win. There’s a lot of big personalities. They’re young, and they’re hungry, so it’s going to be a really fun year.”
Ray said at his introductory news conference the day before the lockout began, “I want to be the guy that’s counted upon.”
And now he’s being counted upon to help navigate the Mariners back to the “insane” environment that has been dormant in Seattle for two decades.