Bowie Baysox manager Don Werner and pitching coach Larry McCall had seen enough of closer Chris Ray to sense this was coming, sooner than later. While he continued to mow down hitters in Double-A, Ray just tried to keep his thoughts trained on the next night's work.
But after walking off the field after Bowie's loss to Portland on Sunday, Ray got the call he had dreamed about since the Orioles drafted him in the third round out of William and Mary two years ago.
Ray, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound, right-hander who set a Baysox record by converting 15 consecutive save tries, was headed to the big leagues.
"I've heard people talking about [the possibility], but I didn't know when or if it would happen," Ray, 23, said.
"I'm just going to do exactly what I've been doing and don't change a thing. Be aggressive, don't try to nibble and don't try to pitch around hitters. That's been pretty good to me so far."
It worked well last night, too. Going after the Houston Astros with hard stuff and strikes in the ninth inning, he allowed a single around three flyouts to end it.
"I was overthrowing a little bit, especially facing [Craig] Biggio," Ray said after last night's game. "I was rushing a little bit, trying to do too much at one time."
Nothing about Ray, from Tampa, Fla., has been passive. After gaining seasoning in the summer of 2003 at Aberdeen and in 2004 with Delmarva and Frederick -- as an effective starter at each Single-A stop -- Ray went back to the bullpen in Bowie.
From there, the Baysox and the Orioles watched him flourish in the closer role he had enjoyed in college.
Ray, who combines an above-average slider and forkball with a fastball that routinely reaches the mid-90s, was lights out in the Eastern League with his combination of power and control. In 32 2/3 innings, he allowed 14 hits and six walks, with 37 strikeouts and 1.10 ERA. The league was hitting .131 against him.
Jim Beattie, the Orioles' executive vice president of baseball operations, said the club aims to put Ray initially in low-pressure, middle-relief spots. Beattie loves Ray's fast-working, economical approach. Ray typically needed fewer than 15 pitches to finish an inning, and rarely fell behind hitters in the count.
"[Ray] doesn't show any fear out there. I think that's an attitude that can intimidate hitters. We've got a couple of scenarios with him," said Beattie, who added that Ray could be groomed for a setup role in 2006.
"We thought all along that he could end up in our bullpen this year. We see him working his way to the back of the bullpen."
Werner called Ray "a manager's dream," noting his businesslike manner in the clubhouse, on the mound and in the dugout. He pointed to the way Ray has smoothed out his herky-jerky delivery, the way he keeps the ball down and the way he makes mechanical adjustments between pitches on his own.
"Personally, I feel he's better than 80 or 90 percent of the relievers in the big leagues," Werner said.
Said McCall: "[Ray] just goes after hitters, and you can't really teach that. He's beyond his years."
Ray's time as a starter has been important in his development, McCall said. In 31 starts, Ray was 10-5 with a 3.45 ERA. Over 161 2/3 innings, he allowed only nine home runs and 47 walks, with 164 strikeouts.
Said Ray: "It's all about confidence. Closers have to be a little cocky, a little arrogant. Every hitter, I feel like I'm better than that guy and I can get him out. It's a lot of fun to go out there and let it go."
Sun staff writer Dan Connolly contributed to this article.
Opponent: Houston Astros
Site, time: Camden Yards, 7:05
TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Astros' Wandy Rodriguez (2-2, 8.41) vs. Orioles' Rodrigo Lopez (5-2, 4.52)