ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Matt Moore was standing in the same spot in the Tampa Bay Rays clubhouse where he has discussed many victories before. Not long ago, he was the talk of his team’s rotation with an 8-0 record, his profile rising in just his second full major league season. He was a surprising but welcomed development in a year when David Price and Jeremy Hellickson, the Rays’ top two rotation members, had underachieved in the season’s first quarter.
Early Sunday evening, after suffering his second consecutive defeat, after the Baltimore Orioles had reached him for eight earned runs and a career-high 12 hits in five innings, there were no declarations about losing his release point or other like issues following the Orioles’ 10-7 victory at Tropicana Field.
Moore, in his usual soft-spoken way, made clear this loss felt different than the defeat he suffered against the Detroit Tigers last Tuesday. This was a “legitimate beatdown,” he said. The Orioles hit “gap-seeking missiles.” Unlike his most recent outing at Comerica Park, he never felt like he let one slip away.
“I feel like it has been a little while since this has happened,” Moore said.
Moore’s 8-0 start had always served as a window to investigate the 23-year-old’s potential. In recent weeks, a theme had risen when discussing him. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon had said “there is more in Moore,” which served both as a compliment and a reality check.
Clearly, Moore is searching now. The command of his fastball, curveball and change-up is off. His velocity has decreased. He insists his health is fine – something that Maddon confirms – but he has never looked the same since appearing in just one inning prior to the Rays’ post-midnight play in Cleveland on May 31.
“The command of everything was just a little bit off,” Maddon said.
Because of Moore’s start, he is given little room for error this season. He is studied differently because of what he has shown: a two-hit mastery of the New York Yankees on April 22, a three-hit beating of the Chicago White Sox on April 27, a three-hit dispatching of the Boston Red Sox on May 14.
On Sunday, Moore admitted the 8-0 start was somewhat of a mirage toward the end. The Rays scored runs of 10 (twice) and five in three of his last four victories.
Moore had help. He benefitted from it.
Still, Baltimore’s efficiency was a break from the normal. He allowed six doubles, all within the first 2 1/3 innings, which tied a Tampa Bay record. Nine of his 12 hits allowed came on off-speed pitches (six off his changeup and three off his curveball); before Sunday, he had allowed just four hits off his change-up all season.
He was 4-0 with a 2.03 ERA in five starts at Tropicana Field this year, and he had never allowed more than six hits (against the Toronto Blue Jays on May 8) or three earned runs (against the Red Sox) at home before the Orioles slugged their way past him.
“What my record says is a little bit different than maybe what the games have been going,” said Moore, whose ERA rose to 3.78. “I think that I’ve been able to catch a lot of good fortune. Our guys have been swinging it tremendously well when I was pitching. … … The 8-0 start is obviously gone. It’s something that was maybe a little misleading.”
The outing brought to mind another struggle by a Tampa Bay starter earlier this season: Price. On April 7, it was unknown that Price would experience one of the most difficult stretches of his career. Then, memory of the left-hander’s American League Cy Young Award-winning season was recent, only to give way to injury and command issues the next five weeks.
That day against the Cleveland Indians, Price allowed eight runs and 10 hits. Afterward, he said he had to get out of his own way. He said he was fighting himself with his delivery. He said he would figure out the problem.
Moore and Price are on different arcs this season, but Moore faces a similar situation as the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner did that day. Not long ago, Moore was mentioned in the same company as Clay Buchholz, Felix Hernandez, even Babe Ruth (he became the youngest pitcher to start 8-0 since Ruth did so at age 22 in 1917).
But now, Moore must get out of his own way. Now, he must find what makes him fight himself with his delivery. Now, he must figure out the problem.
“Now, he’s making mistakes that are being hit,” Maddon said. “I think earlier in the season, he might have been making mistakes that were not being hit. It’s not like it’s entirely different than it was early. It’s just that the command right now is a little bit off with his off-speed stuff.”
Granted, an undefeated season for Moore was never going to last. The role is too difficult, Moore is too young and the American League East is too dangerous for the unblemished mark to have survived.
Still, this is a reality-check moment for Moore. The weeks to come will reveal more about his frame of mind. There is danger in pressing to reach a level he no longer enjoys.
“You can’t take things off your stat-line,” Moore said. “For me, it’s more so getting in that groove where I can get deep into games. In my next start, if I go seven or eight (innings), and I don’t give up any runs, and we’re tied 0-0 in the ninth, I’m going to be as happy as I’ve been at any point this year or last year.”
Moore spoke as a quiet Rays clubhouse closed another series, an anticlimactic end after victories the previous two days against a division rival. In that same location in earlier weeks, near his locker, the pitcher had addressed a rise that made him one of the majors’ best.
On this evening, though, the tone had changed with his results. As little noise lifted elsewhere, this day felt different, jarring, and there were unknowns about where Moore will go from here.