TORONTO – A couple of days ago, Kevin Cash revealed that the Tampa Bay Rays intended to start Blake Snell in their playoff opener, followed by Tyler Glasnow and, if necessary, Charlie Morton, an alignment he confirmed Saturday.
Nothing really remarkable about that – the team has a wild-card series coming up and shared its probable starters – until you consider what we know about the pitching plans for the Toronto Blue Jays, who may very well be Tampa’s first-round opponent.
Matt Shoemaker, scheduled to start Saturday in a 5-2 victory over the Baltimore Orioles that kept alive the Blue Jays’ chances of overtaking the New York Yankees for second in the AL East, was abruptly pushed back “to keep our options open,” said manager Charlie Montoyo.
T.J. Zeuch was told late Friday he’d be getting the start and threw five shutout frames, while Cavan Biggio broke up John Means’ no-hit bid with a solo shot in the sixth before Randal Grichuk added a three-run homer in the seventh.
A Blue Jays win and a Yankees loss Sunday will leave make them the fifth seed and set up a clash against the second-place finisher in the Central. If not, they’re the eighth seed and get the Rays, which brings us back to the post-season rotation.
“We don’t know who we’re going to play yet, so he’s going to be part of the equation,” said Montoyo. “We don’t want (Shoemaker) to pitch (Saturday). He’s fine.”
So, he’s being saved for Game 1 or Game 2? Shoemaker, who returned from the injured list Monday to throw three innings against the Yankees, had been on turn to pitch Game 3.
“We don’t know yet,” said Montoyo. “But he’s an option for that.”
What makes the overt subterfuge so interesting is that Friday, GM Ross Atkins said it wasn’t definite that ace Hyun Jin Ryu – you know, the dude who’s by far the best pitcher on the staff, on turn for Game 1 and was signed for $80 million over four years – would pitch the opener.
Later that night, when Montoyo was asked if Ryu throwing 100 pitches over seven innings in Thursday’s playoff-clinching win over the Yankees could impact when he starts next, he replied: “It could. He was a little sore today. A hundred pitches against that lineup isn’t easy.”
Combined with the sudden shift on Shoemaker, it made you wonder if something is up with Ryu.
Is something up with Ryu?
“He’s fine,” replied Montoyo. “He’s fine. He is. I’m just keeping my options open. I haven’t said he’s not going to start the first game. He’s fine. He really is. I swear.”
Now, if you’re confused, we feel you.
This shouldn’t really be that complicated, since if your best dude is fine and on turn, you’d think he’d be the obvious pick for the first game of a playoff series.
A rethink of Game 2, which Taijuan Walker is on turn for, is more understandable given his extreme splits – righties have a .515 OPS against him while lefties have hit him an .869 clip – and that the Rays lineup is lefty laden.
Pairing Shoemaker with lefty Robbie Ray – who has limited left-handed batters to a .661 OPS versus 1.012 against righties – offers an intriguing alternative, one that would force the Rays to surrender platoon advantage for at least a portion of the contest. Coincidentally or not, both threw bullpens Saturday on what would be the normal side day for a Tuesday start.
And if they’re going to go down that road anyway, why not then push Ryu back a day for some extra rest so they’re putting everyone in the best position to succeed. Atkins said nothing is finalized since the Blue Jays are thinking of “how we can maximize and optimize (pitching) over the course of, obviously, the first two games, but also factoring in that there might be a third.”
The Blue Jays have spent the season trying to creatively manipulate their pitching staff, a growing trend in the post-season. In the 2018 NLCS, for instance, the Milwaukee Brewers used Gio Gonzalez for one inning in Game 4 and Wade Miley for one batter in Game 5, trying to force the Dodgers into a series of platoon moves.
That same playoffs, the Oakland Athletics started star reliever Liam Hendriks in the wild-card game against the New York Yankees, although it didn’t work out as he surrendered a two-spot in 7-2 loss. Last year, the Washington Nationals used starters Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin and relievers Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson as often as possible en route to a World Series championship.
Montoyo, of course, is a product of the cutting-edge Rays who pioneered the opener, and “I saw how it worked over there. Of course, everyone knows they do a good job of that. I came here with an open mind because I knew that worked over there so we’re also doing it here. And it’s worked here, too, which is pretty cool.”
And, it can be disruptive to the opposition, in a number of ways.
“You might see a guy the second time through a lineup, but third time I don’t see happening at all in the playoffs,” said Grichuk. “Your third and fourth at-bats, hopefully a fifth at-bat if we’re swinging the bats well, are going to be off different guys, so hunt the pitch you’re looking for and if you get it early, be aggressive. Don’t try to see some pitches, see what his ball is doing because the (relievers) in those situations, their secondary pitches are plus pitches and normally their heaters are plus pitchers, so you don’t want to get deep in the count.”
The Blue Jays broke through against Means in his third time through the order, on Biggio’s eighth homer of the season. Up to that point, the lefty had only walked one batter – Jonathan Villar in the first – and retired 16 straight.
“He was getting ahead of guys, getting them to two strikes early and he wasn’t really wasting any time putting them away,” said Biggio. “You look at the at-bat before me in Jonathan Davis, he really made him work, something we weren’t doing the whole game. We were letting him pitch against us rather than competing with two strikes and putting the ball in play. I can probably say confidently that he doesn’t hang me a slider there if he really isn’t worn out from facing JD. Huge at-bat from him. Even though he didn’t get a hit, it went a long way.”
All of which underscores the reasons the Blue Jays are trying to consider everything.
Montoyo said “we already communicated” the various scenarios for the post-season and that they don’t want to reveal that publicly suggests there are two distinct tracks.
There’s always the risk of getting too cute by scripting out what’s going to happen and having it blow up in their faces. An example that comes to mind is Canada at the 2009 World Baseball Classic saving Scott Richmond, their best starter, for a game they never ended up getting to after an upset loss to Italy eliminated them from the tournament.
The Rays aren’t waiting for an opponent to name their rotation, lining up their top starters and riding them into the post-season. The Blue Jays seemed to have been set up that way, too, with Ryu, Walker and Shoemaker on turn for Games 1, 2, 3, and Ray available when needed.
Why they were suddenly compelled to set themselves up to change tracks is something that bears watching.