The long-awaited return of gifted left-handed starter Matt Moore from the laborious rehab of Tommy John surgery finally came to fruition early last month, much to the delight of the playoff-hopeful Tampa Bay Rays and baseball fans alike. In a single day, Major League Baseball regained two of the brightest young arms the game has to offer in Moore and Jose Fernandez, who also managed to make his way back from the infamous ligament reconstructive surgery to make his season debut for the Miami Marlins.
Unlike Fernandez, who showed impressive fastball velocity from pitch one and eventually stole the show with a towering home run of his own to back his cause in a winning effort, Moore struggled through an erratic opening performance. Three clean frames were followed by a sudden deterioration of command and Moore began consistently missing within the strike zone. A demoralizing stretch of five consecutive allocated base runners ended Moore’s day after 4.2 innings and 81 pitches.
The euphoria of seeing the 6-foot-3 southpaw back on a big league mound for the first time in nearly 15 months clouded the obvious uncertainty surrounding Moore’s first appearance to most fans and pundits, however, these difficulties would persist to an unmistakable extent. Across six starts, Moore completed five innings just once, while surrendering 26 earned runs in 26.2 innings of work. His dreadful strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.31 is a fair measure of this ineffective stint.
Following what was easily his worst outing — 3 IP, 9 H, 6 ER, 1 BB, 2 K — in Boston on the first of August, the Rays did something that would have never been believable four weeks before; it was also a shrewd and obvious decision. In light of his ineffectiveness and inadvertent straining of an already taxed bullpen, the club optioned Moore to Triple-A, where he’ll be given the opportunity to iron out his command issues and adjust to life post-Tommy John without the inescapable scrutiny he would face as a part of the major league roster.
The excitement revolving around Moore’s return was unquestionably justifiable; Moore is as talented as any pitcher the Rays have ever developed. He’s going to be counted on to be a large part of the franchise’s future and rightfully so. Moore’s capacity for greatness on a big league mound — he hardly had the chance to scratch the surface before the injury — combined with a team-friendly contract that includes a pair of club options at the back end makes him an indispensable commodity for the prudent Rays.
With Tampa Bay clinging to life in a muddled race for the second American League wild card spot, the importance of each game and, more specifically, each pitcher’s start is magnified, and exploiting Moore’s remaining option was in the best interest of both the pitcher and the ball club. It’s only a matter of time until Moore returns to form and reclaims his position at the top of a very good Rays rotation. With every pitch, Moore continues to build arm strength — his diminished fastball velocity will tick upward — and form the muscle memory that disintegrated during his time on the shelf.
To his credit, Moore handled this situation in a extremely professional manner and his assignment to Durham has already yielded positive results. In three starts since the demotion (17.2 innings), Moore has registered a much-improved 5.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio while allowing just seven earned runs. He’s coming off what might be his most encouraging outing to date when he got through seven innings on 95 pitches, scattering three runs while walking none and striking out six in a winning effort. The second return of Matt Moore — this time it’ll be substantial — isn’t too far away.