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Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: Good pitching will be key for Rays

Published:   |   Updated: June 27, 2013 at 11:45 AM

ST. PETERSBURG - They won two of three games off what was the hottest team in baseball, snapping the Toronto Blue Jays' 11-game winning streak.

Granted, you wouldn't have known it on an eerily quiet Wednesday afternoon at the Trop. The Rays knuckled under to R.A. Dickey, who threw a two-hitter in a 3-0 game that dragged on for 2 hours, 10 minutes. One Ray reached second base, Desmond Jennings, and he had to steal that.

But there was some good news: Roberto Hernandez, beaten up most of the season, unreliable, a stiff, pitched well enough to win. And that will have to stay that way. Likewise the upswing for two men in the starting rotation who preceded Hernandez in this series, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore.

David Price made another rehab start Wednesday night. No one really knows a return date, if any, for Alex Cobb, the nominal Rays ace until he was struck by that line drive a week ago last Saturday. And James Shields pitches for the Royals, right.

There was real fanfare to start this series over the home debut of Wil Myers, who homered in his first Trop at-bat, then stepped from the dugout for a curtain call.

But if the Rays are to make it a real show this season, say, another playoff run, it will not be on the back of Myers, but on the strength of the starting pitching, which hasn't been close to the franchise's standards.

That's why this series mattered. Three games, just four runs for the Jays off three Rays starters. Hellickson, generally disappointing in 2013, entered Monday's series opener with a 5.50 ERA, highest in the American League. He threw seven shutout innings, one-hit ball. Two consecutive good starts. Maybe he's settling in.

Then Moore went out Tuesday and won his 10th game, tying a career high with 11 strikeouts.

And there was Hernandez on Wednesday. While he was no match for Dickey, he pitched into the ninth inning for the second time this season, and aside from two more long home runs, solo jobs, he was solid against a Jays lineup that usually belts him around. Hernandez, 32, threw like he was 24 again (make that 27).

"I feel like I'm pitching better," Hernandez said.

He's still 4-9 this season, having lost five of his last seven starts, with his ERA barely back under 5. But, Wednesday, Hernandez looked like the guy the Rays decided on as a starter in the spring, someone to eat up innings and keep the lads in games.

The Rays need better starting pitching. The hitting, the big, pleasant surprise, can't hold out for 162 games, even with Myers. There will be dips. The pitching, 10th in the league ERA-wise, will have to pick up the pace.

That's why Hellickson staying on track matters. That's why Moore getting back to the ways that made him 8-0 to start the season matters. That's why Hernandez being more than a tall bag of bones matters.

Price is out for now. Cobb might be gone a while. Someone or someones have to lead the way for the more inexperienced starters.

"They need to keep it stable for the young starters," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

"This series meant a lot," Moore said. "It gives us a sense that we're on track."

I'm still not sure about Hernandez. If Price and Cobb were both healthy, I'd rather see Chris Archer instead of Hernandez.

Now into the Trop come the Detroit Tigers. For starters, it's Alex Colome vs. 11-0 Matt Scherzer. then Archer against Justin Verlander.

"We'll need to pitch well there, too," Maddon said.

They'll need to pitch everywhere.

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