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Fennelly: Education continuing for Rays' Moore

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Published:   |   Updated: May 19, 2013 at 12:23 AM
ST. PETERSBURG -

He was selected seven rounds after David Price went first overall in the 2007 draft, out of thin air, a mile high up in New Mexico. Before he was 22, he was pitching for the Rays in Yankee Stadium, shutout innings, strikeout fastballs … then a playoff start … more shutout innings, spectacular, nothing to it. Then the learning began.

The education of Matt Moore continues today in Baltimore with his ninth start of the 2013 season. The 23-year-old is 7-0, tied for the major-league lead in wins, with a 2.44 ERA, recalling his smashing 2011 debut. Batters are hitting just .172 against him. With a win today, Moore becomes the youngest American League left-handed starting pitcher to start 8-0 since 1917 — since Babe Ruth.

“I guess I always think of the home runs,” Moore said. “That's amazing. It's a crazy list to be on, but by no means do I not understand where those seven wins are coming from — the offense is winning these games.”

He credits ample run support, but the spotlight is increasingly on Moore, especially since Price has struggled and is now on the DL in his Cy Young follow-up. Everyone is looking at Moore, which is not exactly how he likes it.

“I've never been a spotlight guy,” Moore said. He has 11,000 Twitter followers (Price has more than 100,000), but confesses he often has no idea what to say. “It goes back to not taking myself seriously. I just don't know if there are enough people out there who want to know I'm going through Starbucks and grabbing a Chai Tea Latte.”

He might have to pick up his Twitter game. Here's why:

“He's pitching well, but he's going to get better,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

That's frightening news for hitters, but exhilarating to a Rays pitching staff that craves continuum. James Shields leading into Price leading into Moore, and so on. That's part of the reason Moore's ascension is somewhat bittersweet. Price, a mentor, is on the sideline. “I'm not doing what I do without his help,” Moore said.

What he's saying — that is more than good manners, more than being grounded, though Moore is both of those things. It goes to his parents; his dad is career military. “Stuff that really matters,” Moore said. “It goes back to New Mexico, no baseball hotbed, to that eighth-round deal. When you come out of thin air, you think you could go right back to it.

“There's just never been a part of me that thought I was bigger than anything or anyone, or that I do something on a ballfield that gives me a right to act differently,” Moore said. “There are guys who could pitch in the games I've pitched in and be 7-0 right now. I mean it. Instead of saying I'm 7-0, I say we're 8-0 on days I pitch. That's more important, to stay on that mindset. It's just embedded in me from day one by my parents.”

Last season taught him a lesson, too. After the major splash he made in 2011, the baseball world awaited Moore's actual rookie season, expecting instant greatness. Instead, Moore went 1-4 over his first 10 starts and finished 11-11 with a 3.81 ERA, though with 175 strikeouts. He struggled mightily at times, turning small innings into big ones. But he found his game — with help from Price. More than once after rough Moore road starts, Price talked to Moore, along with then-teammate Jeff Keppinger, especially after Moore got rocked in Cleveland in June.

“We'd be playing video games in the hotel room, a bunch of us, which is what we do 90 percent of the time anyway,” Moore said. “… (In Cleveland), everybody had cleared out, it was just me and David, and he just says, 'You're going to be fine.' My wins and ERA weren't there, but he told me he'd been there.

“And he had been. It's not just that we're both lefties or have the same kind of pitches, David has lived it, breathed it — had the big debut, the highs, the struggles. … He's been there. I think it helped me, absolutely.”

From early June to mid-August last season, Moore went 9-2 with a 2.79 ERA. He sagged in September, but the groundwork was laid. He has followed through. His head is more in games. In his last start, he gave up a three-run homer to Boston's David Ortiz in the first inning, then rallied to shut down the Red Sox for five innings. The Rays caught up and won.

“It's been really good to see,” Evan Longoria said. “There have been a couple of starts where he's gone out there and grinded through them and he's come out on the winning end. … It's a sign of growth. It's a sign of a starting pitcher growing into something special.”

“Last year, I would speed up at those moments,” Moore said. “I feel like now there's a yellow light that comes on, I take a deep breath, slow down, make my pitch. There's no fire, man. Take your time.”

“Never does it cross his mind now that he's going to lose a ballgame,” Price said. “I just tell him to keep it going. Just keep riding that wave.”

With it comes more attention.

“We have the luxury of being a small-market team,” Moore said. “I can go to restaurants. It's not bad. … I do get recognized more lately. I was at Dick's (Sporting Goods) … this girl comes up. She's freaking out. It's flattering. But I'm not a good-looking guy. I could see if I had Brad Pitt's looks, maybe I'd dig on myself more.”

Moore laughed.

I wonder if the Babe ever grabbed a Chai Tea Latte.

Babe Ruth, that is.

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