Robbie Ray had arrived. The 25-year-old Diamondbacks lefthander entered this year's All-Star break with the fifth-most strikeouts in all of baseball, behind Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw and Chris Archer. And like the four men ahead of him, Ray was named to the All-Star Game, in his case for the first time. He had held opposing hitters to a .203 average and had managed six double-digit strikeout outings. (He had four all of last year, and none in his two partial seasons before that.)
Ray had driven his strikeout rate higher by way of a curveball that he had always worked on but had never thrown much in the majors. “I’ve always had the pitch, but I haven’t had the confidence to throw it,” he says. In previous, curveball-less seasons, Ray says hitters too often knew what was coming—a fastball in a fastball count, a slider if he was looking for a strikeout. Through July, after a curveball-intensive off-season, 23% of Ray’s pitches had been curves, up from 5% last year, and opposing batters had a .194 average against the pitch.
He and rotation-mate Zack Greinke had been elemental to what was shaping up as the greatest comeback story of the season. Last year in the desert, recall, was a memorably dry one: Arizona allowed 890 runs, the most in the majors. Greinke, poached from the Dodgers with a six-year, $206.5 million contract, had a 4.37 ERA that was his worst since 2005, and Ray had a 4.90 ERA despite striking out 218 men. Every other member of the Diamondbacks’ young rotation had an ERA over five. This futility led to a 69-93 record, which in turn got manager Chip Hale and general manager Dave Stewart axed in October.
To date in 2017, though, the Diamondbacks have allowed the fifth-fewest runs in baseball, they've matched last year's win total and they lead the NL wild-card race by 3 1/2 games. No starting pitcher has an ERA higher than Patrick Corbin's 4.09. And after ranking dead last in defensive efficiency a year ago, this year they are 15th. That upgrade has gone a long way: Entering play on July 28, 2016, Arizona was 17 games under .500; entering play on July 28, 2017, Arizona was 16 games over.
On that date, Ray was facing the Cardinals in St. Louis, making his 20th start of the season. He would last just an inning and a third, thanks to a 108 mph liner off the bat of Luke Voit. The batted ball took less than a second to strike Ray squarely above his left ear and richoceted into foul ground where it was actually caught by third baseman Daniel Descalso. Ray started bleeding, and he crumpled to the ground. His catcher, teammates, trainers and coaches ran out to attend to him.
“It looked a lot scarier than it was,” Ray says now. “I threw the pitch. I saw the ball coming. I knew it was going to hit me. I guess, subconsciously, my brain told my body to turn my head—it all happened way too quickly for me to actually think that.” As for the pain of being struck? “It didn’t really hurt. I had adrenaline running.”
His ears were ringing and he had a little trouble walking—Ray would be diagnosed with a concussion—but he was back at the field by the seventh inning. He had told the doctors at the hospital in St. Louis, after a clean CT scan, to staple him up and send him home. Ray’s wife Taylor hopped on a plane that night to meet him, even though Ray assured her she didn’t have to. He was fine, really, he said.
Ray, who returns Thursday afternoon against the Mets, knows things could have been worse. His teammate, Archie Bradley, was struck with a comebacker in 2015, producing this memorable shot. “That’s why you don’t hang 2-0 curveballs to Carlos Gonzalez,” Bradley says. “You make a better pitch than that!” In 2012, Brandon McCarthy, then with Oakland, needed brain surgery after being struck by a ball hit by the Angels' Erick Aybar. Dodgers pitcher Joe Beckwith missed all of the 1981 season with an eye injury after being grazed by a comebacker. And baseball legend has it that a liner off the bat of the Yankees’ Gil Mcdougall in 1957 waylaid the promising career of the Indians’ Herb Score.
Despite Ray’s relative good fortune—no one struck by a ball that hard should be considered lucky, precisely—he spent the subsequent days in limbo, needing MLB’s blessing to exit its concussion protocol. On Aug. 11, he threw a simulated game at Arizona’s complex, and six days later he made a rehab start for the Visalia Rawhide. He wasn’t cowed in the least, he says. During that game, a liner hit to the shortstop came whizzing by him, and he didn’t flinch.
Ray seems like the type to hang in there. When he was on the ground, right after the liner struck him, a trainer tried to reassure him by saying that he’d be fine. Ray replied: “Yeah, I know.”