TORONTO – The urgency inherent to a 60-game schedule made a return to form for Hyun-Jin Ryu a matter of the upmost importance for the Toronto Blue Jays. In his first two outings, the ace left-hander didn’t look like himself, with command issues marring his opening day outing against Tampa Bay and a dip in velocity compounding matters against Washington last week.
Ryu turned all that around over five dominant innings Wednesday night in a 2-1 win over the Atlanta Braves, regaining the power on his pitches along with the pinpoint location he’s known for. Opposing batters swung and missed at 21 of his 84 pitches — an impressive 25 per cent — resulting in eight strikeouts against three walks and a single hit that could easily have been scored an error.
It’s the kind of performance the Blue Jays anted up $80 million, over four years for in free agency.
“We expect him to be the horse out there, we expect him to kind of carry us,” said shortstop Bo Bichette, who picked up a couple hits and a stolen base that led to a run. “He did that today.”
In concert with some opportunistic offence and timely relief work, the 4-5 Blue Jays ended a three-game losing streak, and gave themselves a chance to win a series for the first time this year when Nate Pearson starts Thursday’s finale.
“I think it’s only going to get better,” Ryu, speaking through interpreter Bryan Lee, said of picking some velocity back up. “Even now, it wasn’t as fast as it used to be in previous seasons. My goal is to make sure I bring all my velos up to where they were in past seasons. It’s part of the process and I feel stronger going forward, so I’m happy with the direction that it’s going.”
Ryu was the driving force in this one, leveraging the combination of video work, flat-ground throwing and refinements that were the focus of his between outings work.
The most dramatic differences showed up in his changeup, which was nearly two m.p.h. harder at 80 than in his last time out and produced 14 whiffs, and his cutter, which was back up at 86.4 m.p.h. and generated five whiffs. During his first two outings, it was down about three m.p.h., unintentionally giving it more of a slider-esque profile.
“The whole point of throwing a cutter is to make it look like a fastball but the velocity has to be there,” Ryu said through interpreter Lee. “The past two games before this one it had less speed and more movement, which is something that I don’t want from my cutter. What you saw today is something I’ll try to replicate going forward, with better velo and less movement so it looks more like a heater than a slider.”
Ryu’s four-seamer, which averaged 90 m.p.h., up from 88.8 last week, was much sharper as well, and allowed him to work the inner half with hard stuff and then go softer away. That was the recipe he largely rode to dominance with the Los Angeles Dodgers last year, and he gave Atlanta fits all night by living on the edges of the zone.
“That’s the guy we were expecting, changing speeds, keeping hitters off balance,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “That’s a boost for our club to know he’s back on track and he’s going to give us a chance every time he takes the mound.”
The Blue Jays needed every one of the zeroes he put up, as Sean Newcomb and the bullpen again kept them largely under wraps. They used some aggressiveness on the base-paths to spur themselves along, with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., of all people, using his legs to get things started.
With one out in the second, he doubled and after a Randal Grichuk single moved him to third, he surprisingly broke for home on a shallow fly ball to right by Danny Jansen. Unwisely, Austin Riley cut off a good Ronald Acuna Jr., throw to the plate, allowing Guerrero to open the scoring.
“Umm, I wasn’t sure, but I’m glad it worked out – Acuna’s got a cannon,” Bichette said of the decision to send Guerrero. “It was definitely an aggressive move, but it paid off.”
Then in the fifth, Bichette hit a soft flare to centre that popped out of a sliding Ender Inciarte’s glove for a base hit. He promptly stole second – “I just thought I had a good chance of taking it,” said Bichette – and scored when Cavan Biggio capitalized by ripping a high fastball from Newcomb to right for a base hit.
“I’m one of those managers that if the team is swinging good or doing good, I just let them play, but if nothing is going on I try to force the issue,” said Montoyo. “[Third base coach] Luis Rivera deserves a lot of credit for sending Vladdy with the big arm in right field. It worked out great, [Riley] cut the ball off, I don’t know how close it was going to be, but it was a big run. And then Bo stealing the base, and then Biggio following with the RBI base hit with two outs, that was the game.”
Thomas Hatch recorded four outs before Adam Duvall took him deep to cut the Blue Jays’ lead in half, Ryan Borucki struck out a pair to finish off the seventh, Jordan Romano of Markham, Ont., delivered another overpowering eighth, and Anthony Bass survived a hit and a walk in the ninth for his second save.
In the ongoing absence of the kind of breathing room the offence was expected to provide, the Blue Jays increasingly need their arms to pick up the slack. Ryu, in regaining his rhythm, certainly did his part to help cover the gap.