SAN DIEGO — The Padres face a simple task as they square off against the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Robbie Ray on Wednesday night, going for a three-game sweep.
“Put the ball in play,” San Diego manager Andy Green said.
Sounds so elementary. However, the Padres have faced Ray three times this season, and in each case, there hasn’t been much solid contact.
Make that any contact.
“We have to lay off his fastball at the top of zone,” Green said. “You are not going to hit him up there. You have to force him to throw it down.”
Ray (14-5, 2.74 ERA) has been sensational against the Padres, going 3-0 with a 1.33 ERA. Then again, he has been lights-out against a lot of teams this season.
At Phoenix on Sept. 10, Ray spun six innings of two-run ball with 12 strikeouts against San Diego. The time before that, he racked up 11 strikeouts when allowing one run in 6 2/3 innings. In a May encounter, the Padres waved the white flag after getting but two hits and striking out six times as Ray tossed 7 2/3 scoreless innings.
“This isn’t rocket science,” Green said. “You have to force his pitches down.”
Even so, Ray, who is 4-4 lifetime against San Diego, is on the rise against everybody in a breakout season.
“I don’t think it is necessarily just been against the Padres; he has had a really good year all the way around,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said. “It’s because of his aggressive fastball, which he is just pressing into the zone. He’s attacking hitters and making them feel uncomfortable with that.”
There is more to Ray’s resurgence than a heater. Ray is riding a streak of four games with at least 10 strikeouts. Since exiting the disabled list on Aug. 14 after recovering from a concussion, he is 5-0 with a 1.39 ERA in five starts.
“It’s just quality secondary stuff,” Lovullo said. “He’s getting a ton of swing-and-misses with his breaking ball in the zone. A ton of swing-and-misses on breaking balls out of the zone. He has command of three pitches, and it’s been consistent since he returned from his injury.”
Ray’s season hit pause on July 28 when he was struck in the head by a 108 mph line drive hit by the St. Louis Cardinals’ Luke Volt. Ray missed a couple rotation turns and picked up where he left off.
“That is what stands out the most to me,” Lovullo said. “He had a pretty significant injury, a scary injury that some pitchers don’t come back from. But he worked hard. He stayed with it, and he shared how he was feeling and he came out the other side. He’s been pretty impressive since his return.”
Maybe even better as his arm took a breather.
“If you ask him, he might have a different answer, but I think the rest did him some good,” Lovullo said. “I feel like he used it as a couple of turns off, and he didn’t get too far away from it mentally. Physically, he just stepped right back into it, and fundamentally, he was exactly the same.”
Dinelson Lamet (7-7, 4.15 ERA) opposes Ray with the Padres hoping his ERA continues to go into reverse. The rookie right-hander has shaved it in four consecutive starts.
However, Lamet was amiss when facing the Diamondbacks earlier this year. He absorbed the loss in his only career outing against them on June 6 in Phoenix. He walked five batters and gave up five hits and nine runs (seven earned) in three innings.
“He really struggled with his command of the fastball,” Green said. “That might have been his roughest outing of the year. His stuff will play against them; it will play against anybody. But he has to command his fastball.”
Despite the defeat Tuesday, the Diamondbacks (87-65) didn’t lose ground in the National League wild-card race. They still lead the Colorado Rockies by 4 1/2 games for the first wild card.
San Diego (68-83) owns a three-game winning streak.