ST. PETERSBURG - It sounds simple, really, especially for someone whose path to the major leagues was paved one fastball at a time. But a pitcher who throws hard will not find success at the game's highest level until he can do one thing with consistency - command his fastball. "You've heard me say it a zillion times, once a guy gets command of his fastball, when he has all kinds of ability, he'll get real good," Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon said. Chris Archer has all kinds of ability.
And he's been real good during the past month. Archer, who starts tonight against the Giants at Tropicana Field, went 4-0 with a 0.73 ERA in his five July starts. Two of those wins were complete-game shutouts. The key: command of his fastball. "That's it," Archer said. Add a nasty slider and the unwavering belief that he is a major league pitcher and you have the Chris Archer who shakes hands with the catcher near the mound after getting all 27 outs in a game. Yet Archer had his above-average slider and plus-fastball and the unwavering belief that he belongs in the major leagues when he joined the rotation June 1 in Cleveland. What he didn't have was the command of his fastball, the ability to locate it where he wanted to locate it in the strike zone. That is usually the final piece of a fastball pitcher's development. "I would say probably so," David Price said. Price looks around the Rays clubhouse, nods toward Alex Torres, Matt Moore and Archer, and includes himself in the group when he says: "We have had a plus-fastball at every level we've ever been in from high school to college to the minor leagues, your fastball alone, just because of the velocity, you can be extremely successful. That's not the case at the major league level. It doesn't matter how hard you throw your fastball, if you can't locate it you're going to be in trouble. "You don't really think about it at the minor-league level because you still have success with that pitch. If you miss up or you miss away, if you have a plus-pitch with velocity, you get away with those mistakes." Price returned from the disabled list July 2 and started throwing strikes against the Astros in Houston. He hasn't stopped, walking just one of the 171 batters he faced in July. Archer, who watched Price throw strike after strike after strike, finally realized what every pitching coach he ever had was talking about: Pound that strike zone with his plus-fastball and good things will follow. "It's not something you can necessarily teach but they can certainly learn," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said. When asked the difference between Archer in his six June starts and Archer in his five July starts, Maddon said, "High pitch counts, floundering into the fourth or fifth innings, you could see the look on his face, a little frazzled in some moments, and he's kind of gotten beyond that pretty quickly." Archer's strike-to-ball ratio in June was 1.39. It was 3.14 in July. He threw 30ª innings in June, averaging nearly 19 pitches per inning. He pitched 37 innings in July while making one less start. He averaged 13 pitches per inning. Archer threw 94 pitches in four innings during that first start against the Indians. He threw 97 across nine innings during his complete-game shutout Saturday at Yankee Stadium. "I don't necessarily believe it's always the command of the fastball that they're lacking," Hickey said. "It's the confidence to throw a fastball over the plate. They're capable of commanding the fastball but giving the hitter too much credit." And the reason for that is nothing in the minor leagues prepares a pitcher for facing Miguel Cabrera, Josh Hamilton, Dustin Pedroia, Jose Bautista and on and on and on. "There's only so much you can learn in the minors," Archer said. "You cannot locate your fastball in the minor leagues and be successful. You can throw strikes, but you don't have to command. You can just throw your ball around the zone, you can miss here, miss there. You can't do that up here, not often. You might get away with it every now and then. It's not necessarily throwing strikes, but command, better strikes, quality strikes." Archer has been throwing quality strikes since the calendar flipped to July. "You get to this level, you think your fastball is going to carry you through," Price said. "But if you can't locate that pitch, it's going to be rough." Price experienced that during the start of his big league career. So did Moore and Torres and Archer. "They got better because they finally found out where their fastball is going," Maddon said. email@example.com (813) 259-7227 Twitter: @RMooneyTBO