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Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: Rays’ Archer is just getting started

TAMPA — He pitched two shutout innings in his spring debut against the Red Sox lineup. Sunday afternoon, it was the Yankees at Steinbrenner Field. The first five New York hitters: Jacoby Ellsbury, Derek Jeter, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Alfonso Soriano. Ellsbury and Jeter struck out to start the bottom of the first.

“They had a pretty good lineup in there and he came after them, he threw strikes,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

Mark it up: three-plus innings, more shutout baseball for lively Rays right-hander Chris Archer.

Can they start the season tomorrow?

Yes Network, which carried Sunday’s game, consistently clocked Archer’s fastball at 97 mph in that first inning. It’s been there early for Archer, all of it: fastball, slider, all the other pitches, location, all there. Archer was Archer excited over his first game with new Rays catcher Ryan Hanigan. Archer threw to Jose Molina against the Red Sox. All of this after 2013.

“It was fun that reality surpassed any dream that I had for my rookie season,” Archer said.

His fresh face makes him look a lot younger than his 25 years, but he’s trying to follow up on that rookie season by looking beyond even that, like much more than the fourth starter in the Rays’ rotation.

Maybe it’s that Archer knows he has a job. This isn’t last season, when he occasionally looked over his shoulder in spring training while trying to make the Rays, which he didn’t at first. He’s locked in this spring.

“It allows me to not be afraid to make mistakes, which allows me to be successful,” Archer said.

He didn’t join the Rays until June, but by the end of the season he was third in voting for American League Rookie of the Year (Archer’s teammate, Wil Myers, won the award). Archer went 9-7 with a 3.22 ERA. The enemy hit .226 against him; right-handers batted a feeble .176. According to FanGraphs, Archer averaged 95 mph on his fastball, making him the hardest-throwing starter in the AL. Then he hit 97 Sunday.

“It’s nice to know that it’s there,” Archer said.

In July, he was AL Rookie of the Month and AL Pitcher of the month, going 4-0 with a 0.73 ERA, with a pair of complete-game shutouts, including a near spotless two-hit gem at the Yankees. Hello, world.

Now it’s about the follow-up, no March worries about making the team.

“Until someone tells you that you have a spot on the team, it’s always going to be in your mind, you’re always going to think you have to do more than you’re capable of doing,” Archer said. “They’ve communicated to me that they only want me to be myself. … I’m in a growth state of mind right now.”

Archer is always thinking. Or reading. Or talking. Or thinking some more. He’s a cosmic interview, a wonderful, engaging kid.

“He was the first guy to call me after I signed,” Hanigan said. “He’s 25, which shows a lot of maturity. He’s got a thirst to learn and to get better. He’s not just a thrower. He’s a pitcher.”

“Fastball velocity isn’t everything, but it gives you a little comfort that your stuff plays, that you don’t have to hit every single corner, every single spot,” Archer said. “To know that I’m among the elite as far as my velocity goes, now I’m trying to elevate my game and be an overall pitcher, kind of like the Verlanders, Scherzers and David Price, who have the high-end stuff and know how and when to use their maximum velocity.”

He smiled.

“This is a very small portion of success. I’m not even close to my potential. The only way I can reach that is to find a challenge within every game. Every time I touch a baseball, there’s full focus and intent.”

Later, heading for the clubhouse door, he stopped at catcher Hanigan. They fist bumped.

“That was fun,” Archer said.

It might only be the beginning.

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