CENTRAL ISLIP, NY- Ken Ray commenced his professional career as a starter before moving into the bullpen. But while many pitchers switch between the two roles at some point, Ray is making the transition for the third time.
The Ducks right-hander made only relief appearances from 2006-07. But Ray continued to find a comfort level as starter, tossing six scoreless innings in helping the Ducks post a 4-1 win over Camden in a Sunday matinee at Citibank Park.
Ray, who made 13 starts in the Mexican League last year, improved to 4-0 and tied John Halama for the Atlantic League wins lead while lowering his ERA to 3 in scattering just five hits. Manager Gary Carter said Ray could soon be an ex-Duck after the hurler struck out seven against zero walks while hitting one batter with a scout watching from behind home plate.
“I’m very proud of him because he may not be with us very much longer,” Carter said. “He’s had some looks from some teams. He’s a guy we can look to to break a losing streak. This was a big win for us.”
Three first-inning runs staked Ray to an early lead and the Ducks never trailed in snapping a three-game losing streak. Estee Harris busted out of his early-season slump, picking up his first home run and RBI
of the season with a fourth-inning solo blast for the insurance run.
Ray prevented Camden from completing the three-game sweep. He struck out two batters from the second through fourth innings. Back-to-back strikeouts helped him escape a first-and-third, none-out situation in the fourth.
“The last couple of starts, it’s been my weak point when runners got into scoring position with less than two outs,” Ray said. “I’ve been giving up the big hits and taking myself out of some innings. Today was different. I was able to make a couple of key pitches and get myself out of the inning.”
Joe Valentine logged a perfect seventh and Dan Miceli labored through the eighth. Vito Chiaravolloti drilled a RBI double off the left-centerfield wall, though Miceli worked around two walks to keep it at 4-1. Bill Simas put the first two runners on but induced a flyout before striking out the last two batters in the ninth for his eighth save, improving the Ducks to 12-9.
The only uneasy moments came in the third when two Riversharks hit line drives off Ray. Jason Jacobs’ sent a shot off Ray’s glove hand and Christopher Walker added a two-out single that bounced off the pitcher two batters later. Carter and the trainer came out of the dugout off of Jacobs’ hit but Ray stayed in the game without even throwing a warmup pitch.
No visit was needed after Walker’s line drive. Ray wasn’t shaken up, flicking a hellacious curveball to get Brett Bonvechio looking at strike three to end the inning. His effort allowed the Ducks to go with its standard set-up combination followed by Simas closing the final inning
“His thumb was pretty badly bruised [but] he hung in there and got us through six innings and allowed us to go to the big three,” Carter said.
Ray spent his first five seasons in pro ball as a starter before moving into a relief role. The Atlanta native parlayed that role into a major league job, making 13 appearances for Kansas City in 1999.
Minor league stops in the White Sox and Braves organizations featured a return to a starters role before Atlanta converted Ray back into a reliever, resulting in a career-best season with the hometown Braves in 2006 in which the native son logged a 4.52 ERA in 69 games.
It took a trip south of the border last season for Ray to go back to a starting role for the third time in his career. The 35-year-old said his four-pitch repertoire and ability to work out of struggles makes starting more attractive.
“I’d like to have an opportunity in an affiliated organization to where they would give me an opportunity to start,” Ray said. “It just seems that everyone sees me as a bullpen guy. Hopefully, I can change that.”
Raul Gonzalez, Victor Rodriguez and Alex Prieto each drilled run-scoring base hits in the first. The Ducks jumped on Camden starter Ryan Drese early, tagging the former Texas Rangers right-hander for three runs on four hits to support Ray.
Ray Navarrete lifted a leadoff double against the rightfield wall and Raul Gonzalez cued a one-out RBI single just inside first base to plate the opening run. Rodriguez rocketed a double in the next at-bat and Alex Prieto brought home the third run via his hard shot up the middle.
Harris entered the contest batting .111 before reaching base twice. The Central Islip native provided a lift with fellow outfielder Preston Wilson still out of the lineup with a day-to-day injury and Ron Davenport still not available.
“I saw Estee in the spring and knew he could swing the bat,” Carter said. “Estee is taking the opportunity and going with it. We know what he can do. It’s just a matter of capitalizing on that chance.”