Chris Archer shut out the Yankees on two hits, no walks, and just 97 pitches Saturday afternoon. It was the 24-year-old Rays rookie's second shoutout in his last three starts, and the resulting 1-0 Tampa Bay win made the Rays 9-1 in their last ten games, 17-2 in their last 19, 21-3 in their last 24, and 24-4 in their last 28 games dating back to June 23. The Rays' records over their last 19, 24, and 28 games represent the best 19, 24, and 28-game stretches by any team in baseball this season.
Archer, meanwhile, has allowed just one earned run (and two unearned) in his last four starts combined, spanning 31 innings, and has averaged just 12.8 pitches per inning over that stretch. Archer's efficiency is significant not only because the American League average entering Saturday's action was 16.4 pitches per inning, but also because inefficiency had been one of the things putting a damper on Archer's potential.
Archer came to the Rays' organization in January 2011 as part of the return from the Cubs for Matt Garza. He was soon thereafter named the 27th best prospect in baseball by Baseball America, but the trade had been the second one he had been involved in, previously going from the team that drafted him, the Indians, to the Cubs in the package for Mark DeRosa after the 2008 season. Archer failed to impress in Double-A for the Rays, posting a 4.42 ERA and walking 5.4 men per nine innings. His control problems continued in Triple-A last year (4.4 BB/9) and his two brief major-league opportunities produced mixed results and their fair share of walks.
He was no better in Triple-A early this season, but injuries and Archer's raw talent (as a starter his fastball sits in the mid 90s and will spike to 98 mph, his mid-80s slider can be devastating, and his changeup continues to make progress) forced the Rays' hand as the calendar flipped to June. Archer walked 14 men in 19 2/3 innings in his first four major-league starts this season and averaged 19.8 pitches per inning, but it was his performance in Yankee Stadium on June 23 that signaled the turnaround for both the Rays and Archer this season.
Archer walked just one man in holding the Yankees to one run over six innings as the Rays won, 3-1, on June 23. From that game to Saturday afternoon's, when Archer returned to the Bronx, the Rays have gone 24-4 and climbed from fourth place to first place, leading the Red Sox, who also won Saturday night, by a game in the loss column atop the AL East. Over that same stretch, Archer has gone 5-0 in six starts with a 1.31 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, just 2.1 walks per nine innings, and a better-than-average 14.1 pitches per inning.
Archer's improvement has had several sources, but the key has been his confidence in both the quality of his own stuff and in his fielders. The former has resulted in more strikes; the latter has resulted in more outs. The Rays are one of the best-fielding teams in baseball, turning balls in play into outs at the third-highest rate in the majors (behind the Pirates and A's), and with defending Cy Young award winner David Price serving as his mentor (Archer's word) and guide in the transition from thrower to pitcher, Archer has learned to to rely on the men behind him on the field.
Right now, Archer is adding some luck to that formula, with his opponents hitting a mere .193 on balls in play over those last six starts, but he has the stuff to succeed once his luck returns to normal, and he's building confidence in the meantime, as he pointed out to Sun Sports' Todd Kalas after Saturday's start. Two turns ago, he threw a complete game with a comfortable five-run lead in the final three frames. In his last turn, Rays manager Joe Maddon let him work out of a sixth-inning jam, and he completed seven frames. This time, Maddon let him go the distance with a mere one-run lead.
"It just shows the utmost confidence in me," Archer said, "from the manager, from the staff, from the team, and to earn that respect on a pitching staff and a baseball team like this is incredible. ... Everybody has known that I can do it. I just had to realize that I could do it."
Speaking of that pitching staff, here is what the top four starters in the Rays' rotation, including Archer, have done since June 23: