ST. PETERSBURG - Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics was everywhere Friday afternoon during batting practice. He mingled near the batting cage, then popped up in the bullpen, shaking hands and chatting with everyone along the way. There was one person Lukevics wanted to see, wanted to talk to. But no handshake. Not for Matt Moore, the All-Star pitcher.
They have known each other since 2007 when Moore, 24, was a hard-throwing 18-year-old drafted in the eighth round out of Moriarty (N.M.) High. Lukevics followed Moore's every step through the Rays organization, watched potential meet reality. The day before it was announced that Moore was headed to tonight's All-Star game at Citi Field in New York, Lukevics patiently waited for batting practice to end. "I don't want to shake his hand. I want to hug him," Lukevics said. "He's like my kid." Old-school Lukevics does not go on the field because the field belongs to the players and coaches, so he waited until Moore stepped across the foul line for the big embrace. "He was there from Day One," Moore said. "He saw me when I just signed. I was 18 years old. He was the one who I saw in spring training every year, so it was nice to get that congratulatory hug, for sure." Moore's 13 wins are tied with Max Scherzer of the Tigers for the most in the major leagues. Scherzer will start tonight for the American League squad and Moore is expected to pitch an inning in relief. It is a well-earned assignment for Moore, who opened the season 8-0 and became a better pitcher after his three-game losing streak. Like a lot of young pitchers, Moore is learning how to control his fastball and use his other pitches to complement that mid-90s fastball. "The two things everyone wanted him to work on was commanding his fastball and go deeper in games," David Price said, "and he's definitely commanded his fastball better. He knows he can do it better, and he's gone deeper in games as opposed to his first year in the big leagues, And he knows he can still get much better, and we all know that." Moore, who credits Price and former Ray James Shields for his success, said he doesn't believe he would have developed this quickly if not for Price's guidance. The two lefties constantly talk pitching, but Moore said he isn't close to performing on Price's level. "He front-doors a lot of stuff," Moore said. "I try to go through whatever door is open. It's not that much of a craft to me yet." Lukevics remembers watching Moore pitch at Princeton in the Appalachian Rookie League during his first pro season. He saw the kid with the hot fastball and saw major league potential. "It wasn't like he came in throwing 85 miles per hour and you're hoping," Lukevics said. "Matt Moore came in with good stuff. He didn't have the ability to control the baseball. But early on you saw Matt with the delivery and you thought it was possible if he can control a baseball." That control began to surface during a second season in Princeton. Moore really harnessed it in 2011, when he began the year at Double-A Montgomery, moved to Triple-A Durham and eventually joined the Rays in September in time for their magical run to the American League wild card. It was on the drive from Montgomery to Durham after his promotion when Moore said he finally realized the major leagues were in his future. "I thought, 'I'm a phone call away.' There was a month and a half left in the season I started to do some thinking on that long drive," Moore said. "The in-season promotion helped, it did something for me." Lukevics always says the players tell them when it's time for them to move up in the organization, and Moore's 210 combined strikeouts in 155 innings between Montgomery and Durham told the Rays Moore could help during the playoff drive. "He could out-stuff them in Double A and he learned a little more how to out-pitch them," Lukevics said, "and you knew one day it could happen." Moore is in New York today because he's gotten better at out-pitching hitters on the major-league level. He's still walking batters, but he's limiting the damage by limiting the hits. He's working deeper into games. The idea that the Rays will win on the nights he pitches is shared by everyone in the organization. "He looks extremely good," Price said. "His confidence on the mound, you can see his composure. I remember last year he was kind of looking all over the place. This year he's 100 percent focused on every single pitch. That's why he's put up the numbers he has, and that's why he's an All-Star." And that's why Lukevics felt a handshake wasn't enough for the kid who came into the organization six years ago with a major league fastball and worked hard to bring the rest of his abilities up to that level. "Now he has the opportunity to play in the All-Star Game," Lukevics said. "It gives me goosebumps." email@example.com (813) 259-7227 Twitter: @RMooneyTBO