TORONTO — The Tampa Bay Rays are a problem. They’ve been a problem since 2018, when they won 90 games and still failed to qualify for the postseason. They were a problem in 2019, when they upped that total by six and celebrated their fourth playoff berth of the decade on the Rogers Centre mound. They were a problem in 2020, when they surgically deconstructed the upstart Toronto Blue Jays in a brief, sobering, borderline uncompetitive two-game wild card series.
And they’re going to be a problem this month and next as those same Blue Jays try to take another step, capitalizing on the prolific, early-career, surplus-value seasons of young players such as Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Alek Manoah, and Teoscar Hernandez, the get-it-while-it-lasts production of high-priced veterans like George Springer and Hyun Jin Ryu, plus the convenient contributions of a couple mercenaries in Marcus Semien and Robbie Ray, to return to the postseason and maybe, just maybe, this time win a game.
The thing is those wins will have to come against teams the calibre of the Rays, if not the Rays themselves. Starting Monday, Toronto plays more than 30 per cent of its remaining schedule against Tampa Bay. And if this meteoric club can somehow continue to blitzkrieg through September all the way to the American League wild card game, their reward for winning that coin flip contest would almost certainly be… a five-game series against the Rays.
Yes, all roads lead to Rome. And while it’s one thing to rattle off 14 of 16 to surge back into the wild card race against all odds, capping that delirious stretch with 44 runs in two days against the impotent-by-design Baltimore Orioles, it’s another entirely to beat up on the Rays.
This is the test. This is the measuring stick. This is the high bar. It has been since 2018 and it will be for years to come as MLB’s deepest farm system continues to replenish the AL’s winningest team. Can the Blue Jays beat the Rays? The way things are breaking, that could be the essential question Toronto must answer over the next four weeks.
Monday, the Blue Jays beat the Rays. Actually, they boat raced them. Banished them to the shadow realm. Eight runs to one. Seventeen hits against the AL’s third-best staff. Two walks matching only two strikeouts. Every starter reaching base save for MVP candidate Marcus Semien. Hernandez went five-for-five. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. had three hits and was robbed of another by Kevin Kiermaier at the top of the centre field wall. Randal Grichuk and Breyvic Valera, Toronto’s No. 8 and 9 hitters, put up three each. The Rays had two as a team.
Again, the Rays had two as a team — a meaningless ninth-inning solo shot off Trevor Richards and a lone single against big, bad Alek Manoah, who went eight scoreless and struck out 10. It was the best outing of his brief, young, 17-start career; the best outing a Blue Jays pitcher has thrown in years. And that it came in the thick of a mid-September wild card race against the class of the AL? That’s a substantial multiplier for degree of difficulty alone.
“That's the first time in my time seeing the Rays that they didn't pinch-hit for anybody. That's how good Manoah was,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. "You never see that. Even when I was there — in however many years I've seen the Rays, you never see that. That's how good Manoah was tonight. That slider was nasty. He was locating his fastball. He was really good."
You can’t find a moment he wasn’t in full command. Manoah cruised through his first inning on 9 pitches, his second on 12, and his third on 15 as he completed a perfect first trip without a ball leaving the infield. The Rays improved somewhat in the fourth, as Austin Meadows at least mustered a fly ball that fell into Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s glove on the warning track. But the outcomes were the same. Three-up, three-down on 11 pitches as Manoah kept charging ahead.
How was he doing it? Well, to say Manoah’s slider was devastating doesn’t really do it justice. He threw it 19 times over those first four innings, earning 10 strikes, seven of them swinging. Playing off a pair of fastballs he was commanding across the top of the zone anywhere from 92-95 m.p.h., and a changeup he showed hitters just often enough to remind them he had it, Manoah’s slider had Rays hitters bending at their knees as they flung barrels through nothing but air.
“That was one of the things me and [pitching coach] Pete [Walker] talked about going into the game. We've been throwing a lot of heaters, which is really good. It gets us a lot outs early. But we wanted to come in tonight and let that slider set up the heater instead of the other way around,” Manoah said. “It was effective. I had really good feel for it, good command of it. So, keep throwing it until they can hit it.”
They couldn’t. Manoah didn’t allow a baserunner until the fifth, when Joey Wendle caught him leaving a two-out, two-strike sinker a little too high on the plate and shovelled it into left for a single. No matter. Manoah came back to strike out the next batter, Taylor Walls, with another slider that started belt-high before diving at his back foot.
He mowed through the sixth on 11 pitches, the seventh on seven. Back out for an eighth inning for the first time in his brief career, he struck out Yandy Diaz, plunked Wendle, just missed an inning-ending double play on a Walls grounder, and finished his night getting Kiermaier to chase another slider for a 17th swinging strike. Manoah threw that slider 38 times in all, generating 20 swings, 13 whiffs, six called strikes, and only two balls in play, one at 56.6-m.p.h. and the other at 81. The pitch was simply unhittable.
Alek Manoah, White Castle Special. pic.twitter.com/QbEFERgQEu
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 14, 2021
“It felt amazing — just going out there, competing,” Manoah said. “And, you know, it's a lot easier to pitch when you've got an 8-0 lead.”
That lead took a minute to materialize, as the Blue Jays couldn’t get to Rays opener Collin McHugh during his quick, one-trip-through stint. That seemed like bad news at the time considering he was scheduled to be followed by Ryan Yarbrough, who entered Monday with a 2.47 ERA over 73 innings against the Blue Jays since 2018, holding hitters to a .219/.260/.389 slash line.
But Hernandez, Alejandro Kirk, and Gurriel strung together singles off well-located Yarbrough pitches to push a run across in the fourth, before Grichuk skipped a full-count changeup along the left field line for a double, plating a second. Valera then worked an eight-pitch plate appearance before turning on a cutter darting in on his hands and lofting it into left field to bring in a couple more.
“It looked like one of those games. McHugh is having a great year, he pitches three innings — and then Yarborough was dealing again. He’s done a good job against us in the past. And you say, ‘OK, it's going to be a low scoring game,’” Montoyo said. “But all of a sudden, the bottom of the lineup came through. I think we ended up 15-for-21 from the last four guys. That's huge. When you can have the bottom of the lineup do that, you can have a game like we did today.”
Process-wise, Yarbrough did exactly what he intended during that inning, locating sinkers, cutters and changeups on the edges of the strike zone, staying off the heart of the plate entirely. Results-wise, it had to be maddening. Three of those five Blue Jays hits came off bats at less than 100-m.p.h., two of them on pitches that weren’t even in the zone.
So good was the approach of the hitters at the bottom of Toronto’s lineup, however, that they were able to spoil well-located pitches, work deep counts, and find their way to Yarbrough offerings they could serve onto outfield turf to keep the line moving. And so good is the bat-to-ball ability of Bichette that he could go down for this Yarbrough change up in the fifth and hit a home run off a ball brushing his shoelaces:
That’s a wild piece of hitting right there — the kind of unbelievable, outlandish, horseshoes and four-leaf clovers stuff the Blue Jays have been pulling off regularly for over two weeks now. Each feat is unlikelier than the last. After Bichette’s homer, Toronto went on to put up five hits against Yarbrough for a second-consecutive inning, those 10 knocks matching the total the Rays left-hander had allowed over his last 12 innings against the Blue Jays.
And then Guerrero got involved with his MLB-leading 45th, a line drive down the left field line that simply never came down. At 114-m.p.h. off the bat it was the hardest-hit ball of the night, because of course it was. At 15 degrees, it was tied for the lowest launch angle of any home run hit across the majors this season, because of course it was.
It gave Guerrero one more than his father ever hit in a year; it put him third on the franchise leaderboard for most in a season; it put him two behind Joe freaking DiMaggio, who’s held the record since 1937 for most homers in a season at age 22 or younger. You want to bet he’s not breaking that one?
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) September 14, 2021
“That line drive, it went out real quick,” Valera said. “It's very impressive. I mean, it’s unbelievable.”
So torrential was Toronto’s play over the last 16 games, and so scorched was every piece of earth this offence touched throughout, that no one noticed Guerrero batting .373/.425/.731 with nine bombs over that stretch. He hit nine home runs all of last season. He’s leading the AL in homers, leading it in batting average, and just four off Jose Abreu’s pace in RBI’s. He has a legitimate chance to become MLB’s second triple crown winner since 1967.
And if the Blue Jays are going to keep playing the way that they have, the way that they did Monday against the AL’s best team, they have a legitimate chance of pulling this off. It’s not theoretical anymore. The Blue Jays are in sole position of the AL’s first wild card spot. They now control their fate; they’re driving the bus. And if they can beat the Rays the way they just did? Who knows what could happen next.
“They’re an amazing team. Everybody knows everything they've done,” Manoah said of the Rays. “We know what's at stake. We know what we're playing for. … This is a huge series right here. So, we've got to get as many as we can, keep it going, and then we'll see them again down in Tampa.”