ST. PETERSBURG -- Jake Odorizzi was throwing his between starts bullpen session recently, and Matt Joyce stood in the batters box just to give Odorizzi a visual as he worked on his pitches.
Joyce left impressed with Odorizzi’s low-90s fastball.
“His fastball explodes out of his hands,” Joyce said. “It’s tough to square that one up.”
Joyce wasn’t going to get an argument from the Astros hitters, who waved at Odorizzi’s fastball Saturday afternoon as the Rays rookie came within an infield hit in the fourth inning of taking a no-hitter deep into the game.
Still, Odorizzi turned in the best outing of his career as he beat the Astros 8-0 with the help of two relievers.
“When he spots his fastball and goes right at hitters, he’s tough,” Joyce said.
Odorizzi struck out 10 batters -- eight with third strike fastballs -- in his 7 1/3 innings. He generated a career-high 22 swings and misses. He struck out seven of the final 11 batters he faced and won for the third time this season.
“A lot of things went right,” Odorizzi said. “A lot of things went right for us as a team, in general.”
There was the offense -- two runs in the first inning to give Odorizzi something to work with then three more in the fifth to put the game out of reach as the Rays scored their most runs since May 25 when they hung eight on the Red Sox.
There was the defense -- a sliding catch by left fielder Brandon Guyer to end the first inning and the daily diving catch by right fielder Kevin Kiermaier that happened in the eighth inning.
But mostly, it was Odorizzi who took the bats out of the hands of the Astros hitters.
“He did a tremendous job at plus-ing and minus-ing his fastball and pitching to location, expanding the zone with his breaking stuff,” Astros manager Bo Porter said. “Even when he fell behind he was able to throw his curveball and sliders for strikes to keep us off-balance all day.”
Odorizzi called his June 10 start against the Cardinals a career-changer because he proved to himself that if he was aggressive with his fastball he could work deep into a game and no longer be victim to a lineup the second or third time he faced them in a game.
On Odorizzi’s early season struggles, Rays manager Joe Maddon said, “It’s a young guy trying to figure things out with good stuff, and now he’s trusting it with good results.”
Odorizzi went after the Astros hitters with the fastball by design.
“It looks good to hitters, and it’s tough to lay off, so it works,” he said.
If Maddon had one problem with Odorizzi’s day is that he walked a pair of batters after getting ahead in the count. Other than that, Maddon was like the 17,551 who came to Tropicana Field for Turn Back the Clock Day and the O’Jays postgame concert and gave Odorizzi a standing ovation as he walked off the field with one out in the eighth inning.
“He keeps making strides,” Maddon said.
The Odorizzi who pitched five innings or fewer in nine of his first 14 starts was nowhere to be found Saturday. Though Odorizzi said he is the same pitcher who struggled to get a hitter out twice in the same game.
“I’ve been stuff-wise, mechanics-wise good for a lot of the season. Things didn’t go my way early but there’s nothing you can do about that, that’s just baseball,” he said. “And right now things are on the opposite side of that. I’ll take them when they come like this and battle through them when they’re like before.”
As for that lone hit, it was a grounder by Astros second baseman Jose Altuve that struck the bottom of Odorizzi’s right spike and continued toward shortstop Yunel Escobar.
Given Altuve’s speed, Odorizzi said he thought Altuve would have been able to beat Escobar’s throw to first even if his foot hadn’t slow the ball down.
“We’ll never know,” Odorizzi said, “but I would say 85, 90 percent sure that we would not be talking about (a no-hitter).”