Ray shoulders load of tough comeback
Rookie in Blue Jays' rotation three years after surgery
TORONTO -- Robert Ray realized a dream Saturday, one that many have and few achieve, when he made his big league debut in a start against the Orioles.
Three years ago, Ray wondered if it would happen when he struggled after undergoing right shoulder surgery to repair the labrum.
Because of the surgery, Ray, a seventh-round pick from Texas A&M in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft, did not put in a full professional season until 2008, when he did well enough to earn a promotion to the Jays' 40-man roster.
It was a season that ended his immediate concern about his baseball future. But while struggling in his first month at Class A Dunedin in '08, he still had doubts.
"Even that first month, I thought, 'I don't know if this going to work out,'" Ray said at Rogers Centre on Tuesday before the Blue Jays wrapped up their homestand against the Indians. "Your whole life wanting to be here, to do this, you come to the realization it might not happen."
The shoulder problem began in 2006 in Dunedin in what was supposed to be Ray's first full professional season.
"I did it really early on, right out of Spring Training," he said, "and we kept thinking it was just tendinitis. We'd do a throwing program and we'd come back, and within two weeks, it would come back again. We did that twice and finally did the MRI [exam] and they found it."
Ray's season ended after 48 2/3 innings, and he posted a record of 2-4 with a 4.99 ERA in 14 games, including nine starts. The surgery was performed in July 2006.
"They put three sutures in the labrum, and they shaved down the bone and shaved down some on the rotator cuff," Ray said.
He came back in 2007.
"The next year after the surgery was not a good year," the pitcher said. "My arm didn't come back. It was a struggle. I didn't have the same arm and nothing was consistent."
Ray pitched 66 2/3 innings with Dunedin in 2007, going 3-3 with a 4.86 ERA in 18 games that included 15 starts. By 2008, he felt the improvement.
"Last year, even in the first month when I came back from Spring Training, I felt like my arm had come back," Ray said. "I had the arm back again, but still the feel -- the actual pitching and competing, the command and all that -- hadn't come back yet. I had gone through a year and a half of just getting beat. It took a month and finally it just started to snowball. It would get a little better and get a little better. It seemed like it grew as the year went on."
Ray went 5-3 with a 4.20 ERA at Dunedin in 13 starts, and he was promoted to Double-A New Hampshire, where he was 8-6 with a 3.18 ERA -- his best ERA as a professional since his first year, when it was 2.77 with short-season Class A Auburn. And he put in a total of 127 1/3 innings.
This year, as a member of the 40-man roster, Ray attended big league Spring Training.
"It was my first big league camp," Ray said, "and my goal was to show them what I have and hopefully make a good impression and put myself in a position where I would be a guy they would consider if the situation came up."
Ray suffered an oblique injury in the spring, so he started his season at Dunedin, where he was 0-1 with a 4.91 ERA in one start before moving to Triple-A Las Vegas, where he also made one start, giving up two hits and no earned runs in 4 1/3 innings. Then came the surprising callup on Friday with Brian Wolfe and Brett Cecil.
Ray, a 25-year-old right-hander from Lufkin, Texas, looks a lot like former Blue Jay pitcher A.J. Burnett.
"I didn't really hear that until I got here with the Blue Jays and he was here at the time," Ray said. "And guys like the trainers would say, 'Hey dude, you look like A.J.' But we definitely throw a different game."
That's true. Burnett has overpowering stuff, but is erratic.
Ray does not throw as hard. He has a two-seam and four-seam fastball and a cut fastball. He pitches 88-93 mph, and is usually around 91. He has what he calls a split changeup.
"I wouldn't say it's a true split," Ray said.
He also throws a slider and curveball.
Whereas Burnett is a big strikeout pitcher, Ray pitches to contact and induces several groundouts.
"My better games in the Minor Leagues have been when I've pounded the zone with the fastball and just kept guys honest with my offspeed [pitches] and keep that in the zone as well," Ray said. "I'm really a contact guy. I don't go in to strike a bunch of guys out. On a good night, I might get five or six. That's on the high end. Most of the time, I try to keep the ball more on the ground than in the air. I've got to get guys to swing the bat and put the ball on the ground."
Ray did not figure in the decision on Saturday. He feels he could have pitched better, not pleased with his four walks in the 5 2/3 innings in which he also allowed four hits and three runs.
"I was happy -- the object of going out there was to give us a chance to win," Ray said.
The Blue Jays won the game, 5-4, in 11 innings. Ray did well enough to earn at least another start, Thursday against the Angels in Anaheim.
Larry Millson is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.