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D-backs GM hesitant to label Robbie Ray future ace, but potential there

Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Robbie Ray, left, celebrates with catcher Chris Herrmann after a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, May 30, 2017. Ray pitched a complete game, four-hit, 3-0 shutout. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
LISTEN: Mike Hazen, Arizona Diamondbacks general manager

There was a considerable amount of buzz surrounding Robbie Ray entering the season, and it made sense.

Just 25 years of age, he posted a 4.90 ERA in 2016 but struck out 218 batters in 174.1 innings, and in the process showed he had the stuff to be an upper-echelon big league hurler.

In February, he was named one of ESPN’s “way-too-early” 2017 All-Stars, and the next month the site’s David Schoenfield listed him among eight players poised to break out in 2017.

It is one thing to have high expectations, however, and an entirely different thing to live up to them. But as May ends and the calendar turns to June, Ray is doing exactly that.

Tuesday evening in Pittsburgh he tossed a complete-game shutout against the Pirates, allowing just four hits while striking out 10 and walking none in a 3-0 win.

“Last night’s performance was pretty dominant and a fun ballgame to watch,” D-backs GM Mike Hazen told Doug and Wolf on 98.7 FM, Arizona’s Sports Station Wednesday morning.

The first-year GM was impressed with Ray and Ivan Nova, the Pirates’ starter, who pitched well but, obviously, not well enough.

“I think what we’ve seen from Robbie over the last few starts and after he made some adjustments with Mike Butcher and the pitching coaches and sort of with his delivery and ability to get in the strike zone, really, from start to finish,” he explained. “I think the ninth inning was what sort of epitomized it for me, given that he was at 106 (pitches) going out into the ninth inning and really, watching him throw breaking balls in the zone the entire time and ultimately beating Josh Bell with a fastball at the end, he really pitched.”

While Ray has been effective for most of the season, his last three starts have been something else. Since allowing four runs on six hits in four innings against the Pirates on May 14 he has not allowed a single run in 23.2 innings across starts vs. the San Diego Padres, Milwaukee Brewers and Pirates.

He has struck out 25 hitters while walking only three while posting the third-longest scoreless streak in franchise history, which is at 24.2 innings and counting.

Ray credited an increased pace on the mound, and as Hazen sees it, the lefty is becoming more of a pitcher who utilizes command and pitch sequences rather than someone who tried to beat people with raw stuff that includes a high-90s fastball.

The GM made sure to give credit to Chris Herrmann, who caught Ray Tuesday, as well as Butcher, who came under fire last season as the D-backs finished with the worst ERA in baseball yet was retained by the new regime.

“It’s our job to sort of see sort of the true talent level of everything in order to make proper decisions and not just rush to judgment in certain things, and as we did a lot of work in the offseason, look, it was a cumulative effect last year from everything that we gathered,” he explained.

In short, the issues were about more than the pitching coach, which is why a change was not made. Looks like the best move was no move, as entering play Wednesday Arizona was third in baseball with a 3.62 team ERA.

Ray is a big part of that, and though the easy (and fun) thing to do right now is to try and project what kind of player he will be, Hazen is reticent to put the label of “future ace” on him.

“I hate to put that on anyone, that’s pretty extreme company within this game,” he said. “Does he have the talent? Of course he does. You’ve seen that over this last few games stretch and really through bits and pieces of his career so far.

“Yes, we’re trying to do everything we can to help Robbie reach the pinnacle of his talent and we’re going to do that every day. I don’t know what that ultimately is going to be. We’re going to keep pushing and keep trying to help him and he’s going to keep trying to help himself become the best he can be. Where that gets I don’t know, but he certainly is a very impressive pitcher.”

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