Rays are rewarded for faith in Moore

ARLINGTON, Texas – Joe Maddon walked in late to a meeting. The rest of the Tampa Bay Rays’ brain trust – general manager Andrew Friedman, scouts and coaches – were already discussing who to start in Game 1 of the American League Division Series.

Much of the team’s success the past four seasons is a result of these pow-wows, free exchanges of ideas and information. Some take minutes. This one lasted upward of an hour. This was no ordinary decision.

One bloc wanted to start Matt Moore(notes). He is a 22-year-old left-hander whose fastball sits at 96 mph. Until two weeks ago, he hadn’t thrown a major league pitch. Since joining the Rays on Sept. 12, Moore had pitched 9 1/3 innings. Had the last five not been so damn good – 11 strikeouts and no runs in his first start at Yankee Stadium – perhaps the group pushing for him would have been smaller and less insistent.

Tampa Bay third baseman Evan Longoria and pitcher Matt Moore talk during Game 1 of the ALDS at Rangers Ballpark.
(Getty Images)

The other group preferred Wade Davis(notes), a 26-year-old right-hander in his second full season. Davis started and won a potential elimination game last season against the Texas Rangers, the Rays’ foes again this year. He does not throw nearly as hard as Moore. Davis’ career high in strikeouts is 10, and he has gone at least five scoreless innings in only three of his 64 major league starts.

Friedman wanted Moore.

Maddon wanted Davis.

The arguments commenced. Moore’s upside outweighed Davis’. Davis’ experience offset that. Moore was fresher. Davis could better cope with crisis. Back and forth they went until the Moore side kept pounding their trump card: Against the devilish Rangers lineup, with top-to-bottom power, in the bandbox Rangers Ballpark, Moore would induce weaker contact and more swings and misses.

“At the end of the discussion,” Maddon said, “I thought it was the right thing to do also.”

[ALDS Game 1: Rays rout Rangers 9-0]

And so Moore would become the least-experienced player in baseball history to start a playoff game, the first game of the 2011 postseason no less, setting up Friedman and Maddon and the entire organization to get pelted with too-cute-for-their-own-good criticism. But this was no seat-of-their-pants decision. The Rays don’t make those.

What led them to Matt Moore in the first place is exactly what led them to trust him with their playoff entrance.

The first thing everyone notices about Matt Moore is the ease with which 95 mph projectiles fly from his hand. His first pitch to Ian Kinsler(notes) early Friday evening sizzles across the plate at 95 for a strike. Moore’s delivery looks so free, so smooth, that he must be breaking some sort of kinetic law to coax the velocity.

Moore hits 97 on the next pitch and the one after, and then 96 twice in a row, and 98 two times, and 97 once more, and Kinsler keeps himself alive all the while, spoiling good pitches while forcing the count full. In the minor leagues, the one knock on Moore was his walk rate, which, though progressively improving, remains a tick high. It will be a bad sign if he spends nine pitches on the first hitter only to lose him on four balls.

Instead, Moore fires another 97-mph dart. Kinsler pops out to second base. It’s the first out of the day. By the time it ends, when the Rays win 9-0, the Rangers still won’t know what hit them.

At 17 years old, Marty Moore went to the local Air Force office and enlisted. For the next 23 years, he worked with special-ops helicopters in New Mexico, Florida, California and Okinawa, where his sons Bobby and Matt played against local Japanese kids. Bobby was a talent, a strapping left-hander. Matt was the pudgy kid who tried to be like his big brother.

[Video: Young son’s touching tribute with first pitch of playoffs]

When Bobby reached high school, Marty wanted to move his family back to the United States. The Moores landed in Edgewood, N.M., about a half hour outside of Albuquerque. At nearly 7,000 feet elevation, with winds that blew the caps off players’ heads, it wasn’t ideal for baseball.

“We practiced in the snow,” said Michael Chavez, the Moore brothers’ coach at Moriarty High.

Marty was an assistant under Chavez, and he would use brooms to push powder off the baselines and rake ice from the outfield grass. His sons would help, then go out and throw a baseball better than anyone in the state.

So all this talk about experience leading up to Friday made Moore chuckle. Hell, if he could throw in zero-degree weather at a stadium higher than Coors Field, what was a crowd of more than 50,000 and a lineup with five 25-plus-home run hitters? At least the game-time temperature was 84.

Matt Moore delivers a pitch during the first inning of Friday's 9-0 win in Game 1 of the ALDS.
(Getty Images)

On his 11th pitch of the game, Moore finally shows something other than a fastball. It’s an 84-mph slurve, the happy medium between a 79-mph curveball he’ll spin and the 87-mph slider he’ll bury. Moore adds and subtracts miles per hour like a transmission.

Elvis Andrus(notes) watches the breaking ball go by, then takes a fastball inches inside. He tags a fastball just foul down the line, the first hard contact of the day, before swinging and missing at Moore’s first changeup. Strikeout No. 1.

The Rangers have seen his repertoire, the power and fury, and they aren’t going to do anything with it anytime soon. And even though Moore knows this, he walks around the mound, his face as still as granite, because that’s how his dad taught him.

The eighth round of the amateur draft is lucky to produce one future major leaguer each year. Past the first five rounds the draft turns into a crapshoot, and scouts throw out names of guys who might do this or could do that. There are no certainties with the eighth round.

“The eighth round has been really good to me,” Jack Powell said. “I look forward to eighth. Don’t knock the eighth round.”

Powell is the veteran scout who found Jose Bautista for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 20th round. He has a particular knack for late-round picks, signing Tom Browning in the ninth round and Matt Capps(notes) in the seventh. And working for the Rays in 2006, he ventured to the Albuquerque area and tried to catch every team he could. Powell saw Moore pitch a few times over the summer. He liked him – his composure, his presence, his fastball that hit 92 mph once or twice. Powell made sure to swing back for the first start of Moore’s senior season.

“So we’re driving up to Moriarty,” Powell said. “A few guys had Matt’s name. We show up over there his first game right out of the chute. It’s got to be 35 degrees. That wind is blowing across the prairie right out of the north. It’s coming out of some iceberg. The only thing that was cutting the wind was barbed wire.

“He’s sitting 84-87. Just couldn’t grip the ball. The other guys were scared off. All I could remember was what I saw out of him over the summer.”

[Y! Sports Shop: Show off your team support with playoffs garb]

Powell urged Fred Repke, the Rays scout who had signed James Shields(notes) as a 16th rounder and was a Rays’ cross-checker, to fly to New Mexico and see Moore. Scouting had turned into the lifeblood of the revitalized Rays, and if they were going to compete in the American League East against the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, they needed not only to ace their early round picks but find gems at 7,000 feet – or at least in later rounds with picks such as Jeremy Hellickson(notes) (fourth in 2005) and Desmond Jennings(notes) (10th in 2006).

Every time Powell returned to Moriarty, he was the only scout there. In Moore’s last game of the season, his fastball hit 95 mph. Powell knew the Red Sox had talked with Moore, as had the Chicago Cubs. A private workout with Moore convinced Repke to push for him after the early rounds.

Powell kept in touch with Moore’s family on draft day. Before the eighth round, the Cubs called and told him they were considering drafting him. Powell told Repke this was their chance. Repke told scouting director R.J. Harrison to draft Moore.

With the 245th overall pick, the first choice of the eighth round, the Tampa Bay Rays selected Matthew Moore from Edgewood, N.M. He signed for $115,000.

It’s the bottom of the seventh inning. Moore has allowed two hits, both to Josh Hamilton(notes), last year’s AL MVP. The Rays lead 8-0. He’s still throwing fastballs to Mike Napoli(notes), who punished plenty for home runs this season. Napoli takes the first for a strike at 93 mph, then swings through the next at 94 mph.

“He’s gonna ring him up this time,” Marty says from his seat. “High fastball.”

Of all the pitches to throw, a high fastball isn’t the canniest. Moore’s slider and changeup are diving in the dirt, and Napoli usually falls prey to off-speed stuff. But Moore knows this is his last inning, and when he reaches back and unleashes 95-mph, letter-high gas at which Napoli takes a feeble cut, Marty can’t help but pump his fist and realize that even if he’s come to expect such things from his boy, it doesn’t make them any less remarkable.

Matt Moore left after seven innings and enjoyed some light moments during a 9-0 rout of the Rangers.
(Getty Images)

A lightning storm interrupted Moore’s usual routine the night before Game 1, knocking out the power and preventing him from falling asleep with the TV on. He listened to some Pandora Radio, shut his eyes, woke up at 9 a.m., ordered room service, came to the ballpark, started warming up 14 minutes before the first pitch and celebrated with his teammates exactly three hours after their postseason conquest began.

They couldn’t say enough about Moore.

“They essentially had five Longorias in the middle of that lineup,” said David Price(notes), the Rays’ top starter.

“I don’t know many guys I’ve ever seen who could’ve hit you,” said George Hendrick, a four-time All-Star and the Rays’ first-base coach.

“Thanks,” Harrison, the scouting director, texted to Powell, the scout.

Matt Silverman, the team president who along with Friedman, Maddon and owner Stu Sternberg revitalized the game’s worst franchise, walked through the hallway adjacent to the clubhouse with a grin plastered across his face. He shook Friedman’s hand, then Maddon’s, and offered congratulations on a decision well made. Earlier, Maddon had told the media not to call him a genius for choosing Moore over Davis. The genius of Maddon is that he, unlike so many self-important managers, doesn’t believe the word applies to what he does.

And yet it was the right call, the perfect call, acknowledged by everyone who had seen Moore leave after the seventh with goose eggs still across Texas’ line. Even Davis, the pitcher whose spot Moore took.

He strolled across the clubhouse toward Moore and extended his right fist. Moore did the same, and they dapped to seal the night.

“Great job,” Davis said.

“Thanks, Wade,” Moore said.

“This is how we have to operate,” Andrew Friedman is saying. “We have to shoot the moon.”

Which is to say that they have to go for pure upside with those eighth-round picks, and when the opportunity presents itself they have to throw the kid with 9 1/3 big league innings if he can do what only 13 other pitchers his age or younger have done: throw at least seven scoreless innings in a postseason game. Against Moore, the Rangers didn’t get another hit after Hamilton’s pair, walked just twice and struck out six times.

Moore’s final out in the seventh comes on a lazy ground ball to shortstop by Yorvit Torrealba(notes). Marty says he thinks Matt is done, and he’s right: 98 pitches, 62 for strikes, 14 swinging. Marty tries not to get too wound up. After every start, he tells Matt, “I’m proud of you, son.” But this. This was a seemingly impossible situation turned perfect, the product of Moore improving steadily and growing into the best pitching prospect in the game.

“He left [home] with the foundation,” Marty says. “He has built the walls, the roof and furnished the place very nicely since he left.”

Matt and Bobby always wanted to be baseball players. They used to tell their dad this, and he would never point out the impossible odds or the unlikelihood of a scout braving the winds at Moriarty long enough to care. He’d just tell them they could do whatever they wanted as long as they worked hard.

“When both my boys were small, they come in one day,” Marty says. “They’re like, ‘When we get to the big leagues, dad, what do you want?’ We all remember this conversation very clearly. I said, ‘I want tickets.’ When we were on the phone, I said to him, ‘Can I have those tickets?’ ”

He’s got them in Section 119, and Marty goes back to his seat with his wife and his son and his daughter-in-law and Moore’s high school catcher and his coach a host of others who drove five and seven and nine and 11 hours to see something that had been a long shot a day earlier. He’s thankful for Jack Powell and Fred Repke and Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman. But more than anything, he’s thankful he was here the day his son became a star.

Other popular stories on Yahoo! Sports:
Rainout washes away rotation plans for Yanks, Tigers
D-Wade, LeBron James make stand in NBA labor meeting
Fantasy Football video: Quarterbacks you should sit/start

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Oct 1, 2011