Blue Jays’ costly mistakes derail Ray’s impressive debut against Marlins

Toronto Blue Jays left-hander Robbie Ray pitches during the third inning of a baseball game against the Miami Marlins, Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, in Miami. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

TORONTO – As soon as the Toronto Blue Jays acquired Robbie Ray, it was clear they were acquiring a project, rather than someone performing at his best. When the Blue Jays completed their deadline deal for Ray Monday afternoon, he led the National League in earned runs, walks and wild pitches.

Clearly, his command had betrayed him for the first part of the 2020 season. A new short-arm delivery simply hadn’t worked for Ray, and his 7.84 ERA reflected as much. With that knowledge in mind, the Blue Jays could have attempted to revamp Ray’s mechanics, repertoire or mental approach before he debuted. But Ray arrived in Miami around midnight Monday, so there wasn’t much time to spare. Plus, the Blue Jays preferred a far simpler approach: let Ray pitch and adjust if needed.

“The main thing as a coach is you’ve got to let somebody pitch,” manager Charlie Montoyo said before the game. “And then you go from there.”

Ray’s debut could hardly have gone better, but despite some strong pitching the Blue Jays cost themselves in the field and on the bases before losing 3-2 to the Marlins after Starling Marte hit a game-winning homer off of Shun Yamaguchi in the eighth inning. Now 18-16, the Blue Jays remain in playoff position, but their first night with Ray and new shortstop Jonathan Villar ended in frustrating fashion.

Upon learning that he’d been traded Monday, Ray scrambled to get his belongings together and fly to Miami. He hadn’t done his laundry yet, but that didn’t stop him from joining his new team within hours.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” Ray said. “But I was excited. I was excited to be a part of this team. I think that was probably the one emotion I was really feeling was excitement.”

On the mound, Ray did his part, throwing 3.1 innings while allowing just one earned run. His velocity was there, with a fastball that topped out at 94.4 m.p.h., but perhaps most telling of all was his control. Thirty-six of the 48 pitches Ray threw were strikes, including the first 13 pitches he threw. He walked just one while striking out four. For a pitcher who walked 31 batters in 31 innings with Arizona, that’s a meaningful development.

“With the Diamondbacks, he was kind of wild, but he was really good,” Montoyo remarked. “He threw strikes.”

Afterwards, Ray explained that he’s starting to find a more comfortable throwing motion, one that’s more fluid and athletic than the one he experimented with early in the season with Arizona.

“Obviously it’s no secret I had trouble with that,” he said. “So that was an adjustment that I needed to make. I should have made it earlier, but I didn’t and hindsight’s 20-20, but I feel really comfortable with where my arm is at right now.”

Despite Ray’s efforts, the Blue Jays made some costly errors Tuesday. With two on and none out in the top of the sixth inning, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. strayed too far from second base and got picked off needlessly. That kind of high-risk, low-reward baserunning has cost the Blue Jays too often this year.

“That killed the rally,” Montoyo said. “That happens. That happens, believe me, all over baseball. People get picked off. But that was a tough inning when that happened.”

Then, in the bottom of the sixth, Villar booted a ground ball that allowed Marte to reach on a fielding error. On the very next pitch, Garrett Cooper doubled to score Marte and tie the game. To his credit, Villar drove in the first run of the game on a grounder, but he ended the day hitless in four at-bats.

Meanwhile, Bo Bichette continued making progress toward a return to action sometime this month. He took ground balls in Miami Tuesday, hit in the batting cage and ran sprints on the field. While there are no clear timelines for Bichette’s return, Montoyo stated that he’s “progressing pretty well.”

Still, Bichette will go to the Blue Jays’ alternate training site in Rochester before rejoining the active roster, so it’s not as though his return is imminent. Once he does return, it’s more likely the Blue Jays use Villar at second and Cavan Biggio at third than the other way around.

“He can play short, but also second, third and maybe the outfield,” Montoyo said of Villar.

The Blue Jays’ starter Tuesday was Julian Merryweather, who was acquired as the player to be named for Josh Donaldson two years ago this week. It took a while, but the more Merryweather pitches, the more he looks like an impact arm.

On Tuesday, he opened the game with two scoreless innings before giving way to Ray. He used all four pitches, including a fastball that overpowered Miami’s hitters. Merryweather topped out at 97.6 m.p.h. with the pitch, which generated four swinging strikes and four called strikes.

“He’s got good stuff and he commands it,” Montoyo said. “He’s been a pleasant surprise, let me tell you.”

If Merryweather keeps pitching like that, finding innings for him won’t be an issue, but after an impressive debut from Ray, the left-hander’s likely to take over a rotation spot at some point in the week ahead. So far, the fresh start has gone well for Ray. With less than a month remaining in the season, the Blue Jays are hoping that trend will continue.

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