HOUSTON—Jared Ray hasn't had many days over the last two years when his arm felt as good as it did Friday, in Houston's 7-4 win against Tennessee in the Houston College Classic. So he wanted to take full advantage, as he said later, and that's just what he did.
A fifth-year senior righthander for Houston, Ray has had three shoulder surgeries in his career, causing him to miss all of 2010 and most of 2011. But he built confidence by returning from his rehab to make five starts down the stretch last year, and he entered this spring feeling stronger than ever.
On Friday, he looked better than ever, striking out a career-high 10 batters over seven innings, allowing just a run on five hits and no walks.
"I knew I felt good coming into the game," Ray said. "It feels good to be healthy again and not ahve to worry about, week-to-week, how I'm going to feel. Just being able to go out here every day and prepare, knowing that I'm going to have my stuff that week."
He certainly had his stuff Friday. Ray maintained 90-91 mph velocity throughout his start, pumping 92-93 mph heat in the second inning. He started the game by striking out the first six hitters he faced, three of them on fastballs and three on low-80s sliders down and away. He relied almost exclusively on his fastball and hard-breaking 78-83 slider, throwing only a couple of changeups (and not effectively).
"I was able to let my fastball go a little bit," Ray said. "My slider was good the first couple of innings. I started babying it there toward the middle innings, but I felt good . . . They swung and missed at a couple of pitches—it's not like I was making perfect pitches, but I was making good, quality pitches."
In a pitching matchup we were anticipating, Ray certainly outshined counterpart Drew Steckenrider, who allowed three runs on three hits and three walks while striking out five in 3 1/3. Steckenrider ran his fastball into the mid-90s in a relief role in the past, but he worked in the 88-92 range Friday, leaning heavily on his solid 83-85 mph changeup as his go-to secondary offering. But his control deserted him in Houston's three-run fourth inning.
Ray, meanwhile, just kept pounding the strike zone. Having an early lead made that easier.
"When you're a starting pitcher week to week, it's nice when you can attack the zone, you don't have to worry about giving up one run when you ahve a big lead and you can pitch with the lead," Ray said. "It allows you to get early outs in the count and kind of save yourself for the weeks after."
And the Cougars will need Ray to anchor their rotation in the weeks and months ahead. Friday was a great sign that he's ready to do just that, at long last.
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