PORT CHARLOTTE — There was the leadoff walk to Andrew McCutchen and another to Gaby Sanchez, and suddenly Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Matt Moore’s afternoon had a familiar spring training feel, the feeling those at Charlotte Sports Park had seen this before.
And they had, last Saturday when, facing the Pittsburgh Pirates, Moore couldn’t finish the first inning.
This time, Moore got Neil Walker to bounce into a forceout on the 69th pitch of his outing, and Rays manager Joe Maddon called for Heath Bell to finish the fourth inning.
Moore headed to the dugout feeling good about himself, which was one of the goals Maddon had for the young left-hander Thursday.
“Anything that helps promote his self-confidence is what I’m looking for,” Maddon said before the game.
“I think it was pretty hard to have a negative after last time,” Moore said. “It was definitely a step forward today.”
Moore allowed five hits and six runs (four earned), walked one, hit a batter, threw a wild pitch and struck out one in his previous outing.
On Thursday, he allowed two hits, walked three and struck out three. Two of the walks came in the top of the fourth inning after Moore spent the long bottom of the third on the bench as the Rays scored all their runs in the 4-1 victory.
“Those walks right there, especially McCutchen, (Sanchez) at the end, those were bad at-bats,” Moore said. “That’s kind of like what it looked like last time out. We’ll clean those up. It was good to get up and down four times.”
The up and downs — baseball speak for innings pitched — are what’s important. Moore hadn’t pitched two full innings during his first two starts. So, going deeper into Thursday’s game was another positive.
His control, however, needs work.
Of those 69 pitches, only 34 found the strike zone.
Moore said he was missing low in the strike zone as opposed to his previous start, when he was missing high and getting hit.
He touched 94 mph with his fastball several times, which was an encouraging sign.
“That’s great,” Moore said. “I’m not out there asking for a ton of velocity. The one thing I wanted to get a grip on was being stronger in my mechanics. If velocity was a by-product, great. If not, I just want to be strong in the moments where I need to be strong.”
It’s the mechanics that cause Moore the biggest troubles in spring. Moore normally struggles during spring training and, until last season, during the first few weeks of the regular season because it takes a while for his delivery to fall into synch.
Last year, Moore followed a poor spring with an 8-0 start on his way to a 17-win season and a spot in his first All-Star Game.
Moore’s longer-than-normal arm stroke as he delivers the pitch is to blame, Maddon said.
“A lot of it is with the way he delivers a baseball,” Maddon said. “That’s why he gets a lot of bad swings or miss-hits and doesn’t have a high batting average against, because he hides the ball and it jumps on a hitter. I just think with him, because of the length of what he does, it takes him longer to get in synch during spring training.”
“That could be a valid point,” Moore said. “It’s definitely something I’ve been aware that my arm stroke is a hair long, but it’s something I’ve been doing my whole life. That’s part of the rhythm piece, as well.”
Moore didn’t remind anyone Thursday of David Price or Alex Cobb or Chris Archer — three Rays starters who have already found their rhythm. But he didn’t remind anyone of the Moore who retired only two batters the last time he pitched.
Moore had better command of his fastball and Maddon was impressed with his curveball. And Maddon would like to see it again.
“With him, truly, it’s about repetition of his delivery,” Maddon said. “You can see how good the stuff was. He threw a lot of 92, 93, 94s relatively easy. The stuff definitely was alive at the plate. When he feels fastball command and has his changeup and hook working off that, you can see why he can win 20 games.”