ST. PETERSBURG -- The scouting report on Rays rookie Matt Moore probably says that the left-hander struggles at the start, but he gets into a groove as the game progresses.
It applies to both his season and his recent string of starts.
Expectations were high for Moore coming into the year after he dazzled at the end of the 2011 season, appearing in five games -- including the postseason -- throwing 19 1/3 innings with a 1.88 ERA and seemingly striking out batters at will, 23 in total.
This season was hardly as kind when he stumbled out of the gate and into the first two months. Through his May 28 start, Moore was just 1-5 with a 4.76 ERA, going at least seven innings just once.
Moore finally started to settle in June, and he has looked like the pitcher the team was hoping for. Since June 3, he's 8-2 with a 2.95 ERA, helping the Rays get right back into the thick of the American League Wild Card race.
"I'm very pleased with where I've come since the beginning of the season, from not really putting together too many quality starts to now," Moore said. "I'm getting a little more hungry for the eighth and ninth inning, every night trying to see what those are like."
His past four starts may combine for the best stretch in his short career, having given up just three runs in 25 2/3 innings. Moore said he only tries to add more confidence, not put more pressure on himself.
"I don't feel that my mentality's changed really," said Moore. "I try to be stingy with runs as often as possible, every time out. I think it's just some timely defense and some timely good breaks. Stuff happens like that, and I'm just going to try to ride it out as much as possible."
While runs like that undoubtedly boost his confidence, there are specific game situations that could do more to help it. At the beginning of the season, Moore would find himself in a tight circumstance and crack, giving up multiple runs in an inning.
His two most recent starts have showed the maturation Moore went through from those first-inning experiences, fighting his way out of jams early in each outing. In an Aug. 3 outing against Baltimore, Moore faced Mark Reynolds with the bases loaded in the first inning, but he kept his cool and eventually struck out the slugger, pitching 4 1/3 more frames for his eighth victory.
Moore didn't fare quite as well Thursday, but he was still able to pitch his way out of a jam. This time, Toronto had runners on the corners with one out in the first inning when Moore balked, allowing Rajai Davis to score. Edwin Encarnacion continued to put pressure on, stealing third, but Moore kept him at bay by forcing a fielder's choice and a flyout.
Rays manager Joe Maddon has been on record saying that Moore will only be as good as his fastball. Against the Blue Jays, Moore struggled early with his command and velocity, but eventually adjusted his mindset, using his fastball to set up his other pitches and helping him sit down 14 straight batters.
Maddon would prefer Moore avoid such situations, and there's one simple solution to do better in the early innings.
"What he needs to learn from that is to prepare better for the first inning," Maddon said. "You don't want to practice recovery as much as you want to practice preparation, it's much more controllable."
Along with better preparation, Moore knows there is still much room for improvement, and it was evident in his outing against Baltimore. After the first inning, his pitch count had already reached 25, and by the time he was taken out with one out in the sixth, it had reached 108. A similar situation happened against Toronto when he threw 27 pitches to get out of the first.
The 23-year-old realizes that if he can keep the game simple, he'll be pitching in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings more often.
"Staying consistent with working deep in the games," Moore said when asked what he needed to improve on.
"Twenty-five pitches after the first inning, 45 after two and 65 after three, that's unacceptable. That's three innings in a row of not making the adjustment of, 'Let's let them hit the ball and get themselves out within 12 or 15 pitches.'"
The way Moore was able to fight through it excites the Rays about his future, and it's his fastball that will ultimately decide if Moore can live up to the hype he entered the season with. Maddon said that pitch will bring Moore success, and the skipper went as far as to compare Moore to another hard-throwing lefty, teammate David Price.
"When he knows where that fastball's going all the time, hats off," Maddon said. "He's going to look a lot like David looks this year. He started out well. I thought they had bad swings on him early. ... Fastball command, if that gets better, he's in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings."
Greg Zeck is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.