Jake Odorizzi's self-confidence pays off with another strong June start
JUN 21, 2014 10:02p ET
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Jake Odorizzi looked far from a sure thing early this season, when the young right-hander struggled through April and parts of May. He looked less confident than he had when he won the Tampa Bay Rays' fifth-starter job in spring training. He looked timid through his second and third encounters with an opponent's lineup. He looked overmatched.
The baseball season is a study in progression for some and regression for others, both on the mound and off it. Odorizzi's latest start Saturday, a masterful one-hit, 10-strikeout, 7 1/3-inning effort in the Tampa Bay Rays' 8-0 victory over the Houston Astros at Tropicana Field, served as the latest telltale sign that he has enjoyed a pleasing ascent.
His season's opening starts, often filled with predictable agony by the middle innings, are behind him. This is who he knew he could become.
"I never had any less confidence in myself at all while that was going on," Odorizzi said.
This latest appearance mirrored his demeanor: Smooth, no frills, effortless. Observing Odorizzi speak and work, it becomes clear that he's the anti-Grant Balfour, the Rays' impassioned reliever and former closer.
If Balfour is heavy metal, then Odorizzi is smooth jazz. The young pitcher is best when he's methodical.
Such a smooth performance, like the one seen Saturday against baffled Astros hitters, didn't always seem possible for him.
Remember the seven runs and 10 hits allowed in five innings during a loss to the Kansas City Royals on April 9? What about the four runs and eight hits allowed in 4 1/3 innings during a loss to the Chicago White Sox on April 28? Or the five runs and six hits allowed in 3 1/3 innings during a loss to the Boston Red Sox on May 31?
Those eyesores appeared more like Odorizzi's ceiling for this season: He was a project who would see better days once he gained maturity, possibility after another trip to Triple-A Durham following right-hander Jeremy Hellickson's return from arthroscopic surgery on his throwing elbow. Odorizzi was serviceable for now. His effectiveness left room for debate.
But Odorizzi, by his own work, has changed the discussion about him this month. Even if Hellickson returns in playable shape sometime in the coming weeks -- that remains a question at best -- it should be a forgone conclusion that Odorizzi will remain in the Rays' rotation.
He's still a work in progress, but he has become less question and more answer in his latest three starts since June 10. The results in appearances against the St. Louis Cardinals, Baltimore Orioles and Astros: Three runs and seven hits allowed with 20 strikeouts in 20 innings.
"It's a young guy trying to figure things out with good stuff," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Now he's trying to figure it out, and he's trusting it, and then you're seeing the results. That's it. You've got to be patient sometimes. And patience can be rewarded. He's going to keep getting better. I mean, I really believe that -- as he understands everything that he's doing out there. There are still times that he'll fight himself a little bit, and I see that."
That part of Odorizzi's growth should be expected. The native of Highland, Illinois, is just 24 years old. He has 24 appearances (21 starts) in the majors. The refinement will come with age. The maturity will arrive with time.
However those elements come, the Rays should want them to be as strong as possible for Odorizzi. In all likelihood, left-hander David Price's days with Tampa Bay are numbered. Either later this season or after it, there could be a transition into a post-Price reality for the Rays' rotation.
Likely, Odorizzi will command a valuable role after the change. He should represent a promising young arm, along with right-hander Chris Archer, to slide into the middle part of the rotation behind a stalwart like right-hander Alex Cobb and a former All-Star like left-hander Matt Moore, who's recovering from Tommy John surgery.
That's a discussion for another day, though. Odorizzi's concentration should be centered on learning how far he can push himself at this level. His journey, in that way, remains in motion.
"I think that you can tell that he's got great stuff," Rays designated hitter Matt Joyce said. "He just really has to trust and believe it and keep to what works. Maybe the second and third time through the lineup, maybe give them a different look and mix in his other pitches and really the biggest thing is throwing that off-speed for strikes. Because once you get ahead with the off-speed the second and third time through, it makes it a lot tougher for a hitter."
Odorizzi understands this. He seems aware and reflective of his place within the Rays at this time. He knows what was seen Saturday is more a true reflection of his ability, not the April and early May messes that led to questions about him.
He had strong command of his fastball that earned repeated praise from Maddon. He was under control.
All that separated Saturday's performance from a possible no-hitter was a fourth-inning infield single from Jose Altuve that hit the bottom of Odorizzi's right cleat. Odorizzi always knew such a showing was inside him.
"I knew I was capable of doing this type of stuff," said Odorizzi, who's 3-7 with a 4.29 ERA in 15 starts this season. "I never lost faith in myself and just waited out the storm and finally have. And it has been a lot better since."
Life on the mound in June has been better for him since he lived those early season letdowns. He has grown faster than some thought possible, showing that self-confidence can lead to brighter days after some of the darkest.