Blue Jays’ Ryu gearing up for opening day amidst team’s uncertainy

Hyun-Jin Ryu discusses the Toronto Blue Jays being denied playing in Canada, and believes it is the best decision for public health and to respect the front line workers.

TORONTO — You can rest the fulcrum of a rebuild atop his wide shoulders. You can interrupt his famously meticulous and structured spring training preparations and sideline him at Russell Martin’s house for three-and-a-half months. You can leave him guessing as to where he’s going to pitch his home starts come the regular season. But you really can’t rattle Hyun-Jin Ryu.

That much is clear, as the Toronto Blue Jays starter began wrapping up a hurried training camp Saturday and turning his attention to his next start — Friday in his team’s regular season opener against the Tampa Bay Rays. He’s in line to pitch the Blue Jays home opener, as well, not that anyone knows where that game will take place. And not that Ryu sounds particularly concerned about it at all.

“Obviously, you play half of the season at home. So, there is definitely some sort of comfort level you develop over time,” Ryu said. “But, honestly, right now the situation itself, we just have to deal with it as players. And one of our jobs is to adapt to new types of situations.”

And it’s not only baseball. Consider the fact Ryu and his then-pregnant wife, Ji-Hyun Bae, were forced to change birth plans last minute when the pandemic hit this March, ending up delivering a daughter in Florida rather than Toronto, as was their plan. Or that he’s been separated from them both since Blue Jays training camp shifted to Toronto two weeks ago. And the fact they currently have no clue where anyone’s going when the Blue Jays wrap up their first road trip of the year a week from Tuesday.

After signing a four-year, $80-million contract with the Blue Jays this winter, Ryu’s transition from one organization to another has been as challenging as anyone could’ve imagine. And all he’s done is adapt his routine on the fly, make the most of whatever situation he was in, and do whatever he can to prepare not only himself, but his team, for the season.

He stayed as stretched out as possible during the shutdown, playing long toss on neighbourhood streets to keep his arm ready for the resumption of play. He showed up to this abbreviated training camp with a detailed plan for how to build himself up to a full workload come Toronto’s opener. The other day, after having a discussion with some teammates about their affinity for Korean barbecue, Ryu bought a spread of it for the entire team.

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“He’s been awesome here. The guys love him,” said Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker. “He’s used his experience and helped some of the younger guys. I’ve heard him in some conversations with them. They’re not afraid to pick his brain, even with the language barrier — which is awesome.”

Saturday, Ryu cruised through his first inning, retiring the side on only seven pitches. But his second opened with a Travis Shaw single followed by an Anthony Alford homer into the right field bullpen. Another run scored in the fourth when Billy McKinney raced home from third while Shaw was hung up on a steal attempt between first and second. And a fourth run came in the fifth when Patrick Kivlehan led off pulling a rocket into the third deck.

Ryu’s day ended after that fifth inning, with four runs in on seven hits. He threw 80 pitches and struck out four. He would’ve liked his command to be a little better. But it’s not like he was missing by much, as he didn’t issue a walk.

“I think it’s all part of the process. My heater, I left a couple of them too much on the plate. And my cutter and changeup, kind of the same way,” he said. “But I just have to work on my command. I think I let a couple of pitches too much on the plate. That led to hard hits.”

It certainly will, but if you can trust any pitcher in the majors to sort that out it’s Ryu. The average exit velocity he allowed in 2019 (85.3 mph) was the 15th lowest among the 436 MLB pitchers with at least 100 balls put in play against them. It was sixth-lowest among the 198 that allowed at least 200. This is not a guy who gets squared up often.

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Of course, this is also not a guy who likes to have his routines as drastically upheaved as all Blue Jays are currently having theirs. Ryu has an individualized throwing program he’s developed over his career and a personal strength coach who manages his conditioning between outings. He has a clubhouse playlist timed up to his meticulous pre-start preparation — a specific song for everything he does, from putting on the uniform to stretching to heading out to the bullpen.

But nothing about this season is routine. Not the length, not the preparation time, not the uncertainty as to where he’ll even be playing. It will test him like no season has before. And it’s no exaggeration to say that his team’s chances rest largely on his ability to pitch like an ace every five days. Not that Ryu’s even all that comfortable with the moniker.

“I don’t think it’s important to differentiate an ace or the fifth guy of the starting rotation. I think our job is to make sure that we go out there and perform the best we can. That’s how I approach the game of baseball,” he said. “I never really thought about being the ace of the staff or not being the ace of the staff in the past. But more of trying to go out there and pitch the games and put the team in a position where we can win. I think I’m going to have the same mindset going into the season as well.”

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Just how much of an impact — if any — all the uncertainty and unusualness in his life will have on Ryu remains to be seen. We’ll start to learn that on Friday. But he says that after Saturday’s outing he feels that he’s where he needs to be physically to pitch as deep into his first start as his team needs him to.

“Obviously, the conditions weren’t the same. But I feel like a lot of the other players will feel the same way,” he said. “This summer training was weird, to say the least. Because it wasn’t what we’re used to. But I threw 80 pitches today and I felt just as good as how I would feel in a spring training outing with about that many pitches. So, I think I’m ready to go.”

Ryu also says he won’t approach a shortened season any differently than he normally does. That likely means continuing to forgo between-start bullpen unless they’re truly necessary. In the past, Ryu has generally preferred to spend that time recovering physically, and focussing mentally on how he’ll attack his next opponent. The fewer distractions, the better.

And maybe that’s Ryu’s secret. Maybe that’s why he’s so composed as great uncertainty swirls around him. There’s pressure. There are expectations. There are circumstances that have been anything but ideal. But to hear him tell it, there’s only one way forward.

“Nothing is certain. So, depending on how it goes, we’ll just have to adapt,” he said. “You can say this season’s short; you can say this season’s long. It’s 60 games. We just have to rally around. And we just have to adjust to the new environment and make sure that we play Blue Jays baseball.”

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