Rays' Moore, already an October hero, preps for rookie year

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PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- On a rainy Sunday morning, the Tampa Bay Rays' clubhouse is slow moving and quiet. The Food Network and ESPN are on the TVs, but the sound is turned down. There's no outdoor batting practice, and players are arriving later than usual.

The only constant commotion is reporters stopping by rookie Matt Moore's locker. A half hour later, after the last question, Moore looks around an empty room and asks, "Why am I the only one still here?''

The answer is that Moore, a 22-year-old lefty considered the best pitching prospect in baseball, is the intrigue of the Rays' camp and will be one of the most closely-watched players in baseball. He's an instant millionaire after making two starts last season, has bumped an 11-game winner from the Rays' rotation and will be counted on to bypass growing pains so that he can help the Rays succeed in the game's most offense-heavy division by reaching the postseason for the fourth time in five years.

"Expectations are going to be there from the beginning, but I don't get caught up in that,'' Moore says. "I focus on what is going on now, not what could happen. I am not afraid of what might happen.''

After spending most of last season in the minors, Moore pitched 9 1/3 September innings for the Rays, struck out 11 in his starting debut in New York's Yankee Stadium, started and won Game 1 of the ALDS in Texas and then signed a five-year $14 million contract that could extend to eight years and $40 million.

"It's a little bit of a different story,'' says Rays pitcher David Price, himself a heavily-hyped prospect who has become the team's ace. "Matt gets his first postseason win before he makes his first (big league) spring training start. He's got to be the first pitcher to do that.''

The Rays aren't exactly ratcheting down the hype. Manager Joe Maddon compares Moore to Vincent van Gogh, saying the Rays don't want to give Moore too much information for fear of distracting from his talent.

Pitching coach Jim Hickey says Moore is so polished, he's ready to pitch 200 innings this season. In fact, the Rays didn't even need to give him a list of objectives to improve on going into the offseason.

Moore throws a fastball, curve and changeup and, according to Hickey, the secondary pitches are off the charts: "That is what separates him," says the pitching coach. "Secondary pitches are usually the last things a young pitcher develops. He could be successful and not need the changeup, but it is especially good for a lefty who throws in the upper 90s.''

Moore just is the latest addition to a home-grown rotation that is the deepest in baseball. There's Price, an AL Cy Young candidate in 2010; Jeremy Hellickson, the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year and James Shields, who led the majors with 11 complete games and the AL with four shutouts in 2011 and at age 30 is the oldest on the staff.

Moore will replace either Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann in the rotation. Each won 11 games last season with Davis throwing 184 innings.

Moore likes the camaraderie of the Rays' rotation, and says everybody helps each other. The other day, Shields attended a minor league game that Moore was pitching. "He didn't have to do that,'' Moore said.

Shields said that he and Moore had talked about a mechanical flaw with his landing foot that was affecting rhythm. Shields wanted to see if the advice was working.

"His ball was flat, but he made the changes and it was better,'' Shields says. "He's well beyond his years. He knows how to pitch. Anybody can chuck the ball up there. He knows how to work the count, get ahead of hitters.''

Moore was a military kid whose dad, Marty, worked on helicopters in the Air Force and now works for the Department of Defense. Moore was born in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., lived in Japan for four years and settled in Edgewood, N.M., just east of Albuquerque, when he was 11. He does everything left-handed except swing a golf club.

Moore is also a low-key guy, and even if he doesn't appear comfortable talking about himself, he understands why he's the center of attention.

"It isn't bad, just part of the job,'' Moore says. "It adds spice to things. In the minor leagues, it's pretty dead a lot of the time.''

Moore likely won't be going back to the minors anytime soon, especially since he signed that contract in the offseason. His first big purchase, he says, will be a car, so that he can replace his 2008 Chevy Malibu with 78,000 miles on it. He just hasn't had the time to shop for one, even though he says he spent most of his offseason in New Mexico playing video games, going to movies and hanging with his family.

"I've never had the privilege of having a lot of money,'' Moore says. "I don't define myself by that.''

Moore will define himself as a pitcher this year after an extremely impressive season in 2011. He went 12-3 with a no-hitter, a 1.92 ERA and 210 strikeouts in 155 innings combined at Class AA and AAA last season before being promoted to the majors. He pitched two games in relief, and then struck out 11 Yankees in five innings during his starting debut in New York.

Because of the Rays' furious finish to overtake the Red Sox for the wild card on the last day of the season, they were in need of a starting pitcher to open the postseason. Tampa Bay's staff had a 15-member meeting to determine their Game 1 starter and it was unanimously decided that Moore should get the call.

He responded with seven shutout innings in a 9-0 win against the defending and eventual pennant-winning Rangers.

Moore knows not every start will be as smooth, but his family has him to stay humble and keep working. That's why he didn't watch videos of his 2011 season for enjoyment. He did, however, watch his Game 1 start to see if he could have done anything to prevent the Rangers' Josh Hamilton from getting two hits in the postseason game.

As Moore watched the video, he did notice something that let him know he was a big leaguer for sure: The pants on his road uniform fell all the way to his shoe tops.

"In the minors, we had to wear the bottom of our pant legs up,'' Moore says. "I like it when the pant legs are down.''

He'll likely be using that style for a long time.