The Tampa Bay Rays desperately needed Chris Archer on Thursday from the first out of the game until the last. They were coming off consecutive heartbreaking losses, with Brad Boxberger imploding, Jake McGee‘s season ending, and the offense returning to silence. What really changed? The Rays mustered a lone run against Collin McHugh and the Houston Astros, and everyone in the stadium knew that the last thing Kevin Cash wanted to do was replace Archer with a reliever. Yet he was so dominant that an incredibly flawed Rays team came away with a big victory.
Archer finished with a complete game on just 98 pitches, striking out 11 while allowing a lone hit and a walk in his 9 innings of work. He faced just one batter over the minimum and the one hit was unfortunately a cheapie–a groundball single by Colby Rasmus in the fifth inning. This game won’t go down as a no-hitter, but that doesn’t matter much to the Rays. He gave them everything they possibly could have asked for.
Archer said something strange on August 8th (the original link to the Tampa Bay Times appears to be broken):
"“Actually I’ve learned a lot that I don’t have to be as slider heavy,” he said. “My past two or three starts, looking at the breakdown, I haven’t used as many sliders.”"
Archer talked about how using his slider less would make it more effective. That seemed strange, and coincidence or not, his two starts afterwards did not go well. And in this game, Archer went back to using his slider like crazy, throwing it for 42 of his 98 pitches compared to 43 fastballs. Archer’s slider needs to be set up by his fastball, and the more he throws the breaking ball, the more likely he is to hang one or two. On the other hand, especially when the fastball isn’t working well, he has one of the best offerings in the game and there is no reason at all that he shouldn’t use it every other pitch.
It may have been a good thing in this game that Archer had a mediocre fastball. He was able to force 4 whiffs on it, but he threw it for a strike just 21 times among the 43 times he threw it, less than half the time. On the season, Archer has thrown it for a strike 62.3% of the time, and dropping that down to 48.8% seemed to be a recipe for disaster. Instead, it may have been actually what Archer needed. He threw his slider a ton of times yet still threw 76.2% strikes on it (season average: 71.2%) and forced whiffs 26.2% of the time (average: 22.0%). When Archer has a good feel for his slider, it is such a great pitch that even as he throws it more, hitters can’t adjust to it. For most of the game, the Astros didn’t even have a chance.
We also should mention that Archer threw 13 changeups, his most in a start since May. He did allow the one hit on it (on, once again, a soft groundball in the right spot), but he slotted it for strikes 11 times and even forced 3 whiffs on it. Archer’s slider is devastating while his fastball is electric as well, so there really are very few times when the changeup is the best pitch for him to throw. It is most important as a backup plan in case either of his primary offerings isn’t working, and it was great to see Plan B go so well in this game.
The Rays stranded a whole bunch of baserunners again, but thankfully they got Archer a run in the fourth inning. It came in pretty remarkable fashion as Logan Forsythe was at first base with two outs when a wild pitch moved him to second base and a Desmond Jennings single brought him home. The wild pitch happened and then literally on the next pitch, Jennings delivered his single. If Jennings had singled earlier in the count, the Rays would not have scored. Luckily for everyone, that run did indeed cross home plate and Archer did everything else.