Ryu back to peak levels as Blue Jays' fortune taking a turn for the better

Hyun-jin Ryu threw a complete game as the Toronto Blue Jays blanked the Texas Rangers 5-0 in Game 1 of their doubleheader.

There’s been no shortage of encouraging developments for the Toronto Blue Jays over the last week.

Sending four players to the all-star game, one of whom created its emblematic moment with an interplanetary home run and came away with the game’s MVP award. Adding a crop of young talent to the club’s farm system through the draft, many of whom are currently undergoing physicals in Dunedin, Fla., and will be announced as having signed with the organization this week. Adding Ryan Borucki back to a bullpen that needs all the help it can get. Adding a win in the standings with a blowout of the Texas Rangers on Friday night.

Watching every team they’re looking up at in the wild-card race taste defeat Saturday. Seeing Vladimir Guerrero Jr. pick up right where he left off prior to the break, swatting a pair of homers to reach 30 through 88 games, a franchise record. Receiving clearance to cross the border at the end of the month, as perhaps you heard, and return to Rogers Centre to play a true home game for the first time in 670 days.

And then Sunday there was Hyun-Jin Ryu. It’s not that he’d been bad. He entered his first outing after the all-star break rocking a 3.56 ERA over 98.2 innings this season, which any team would take. He just hadn’t been as good recently — Ryu carried a 4.91 ERA over seven outings since the beginning of June — as his track record shows he can be.

He wasn’t landing his changeup; he wasn’t commanding his cutter. He’d given up as many home runs in June (6) as he did over the entire 2020 season. He’d walked two or more in six of his last eight starts after not walking two in any of his first nine. In 2019, his final season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Ryu walked two or more only three times over 29 starts. Something was off.

But whatever it was didn’t join Ryu on the mound Sunday when he performed at peak levels against an admittedly unimpressive Rangers lineup, spinning a seven-inning, complete-game shutout as the Blue Jays took the first half of a doubleheader 5-0. And Toronto’s nuclear offence took over from there, taking Rangers starter Mike Foltynewicz deep four times in the first two innings of the day’s second game, giving a resurgent Steven Matz more than enough run support in a 10-0 victory.

“It's like I always say: pitching, pitching. That's the only way you can get winning streaks — if the starters give you a chance,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. “And the last four starts, for our starters, have been as good as you can have them. What (Robbie) Ray did against Tampa and then again after the break. And, of course, Ryu and Matz were outstanding. So, that's one of the reasons we played so well. Of course, we swung the bats. But it's all about pitching. And the starters were outstanding.”

So, you can add a weekend series sweep in which they out-scored Texas 25-2 to the list of positive developments the Blue Jays have enjoyed over the last seven days. Toronto has now won four in a row, 10 of 16 and 15 of 22 to push itself six games above .500, matching the season’s high-water mark set back in mid-May. Oh, and Guerrero went deep again, his 31st on the season. He’s only on a 56-homer pace, flirting with a 200 OPS+ and a 99th percentile MLBer in xwOBA.

Ryu, meanwhile, had his fastball sitting 90.6 m.p.h. — a tick above his season average — and touching 93. He had his changeup fading from the bottom of the zone to beneath it, generating seven swinging strikes. He had his cutter up and in to right-handers and down and away from lefties. He had everything he needed to throw his third career complete-game shutout — the first by a Blue Jay since Mark Buehrle did it on July 3, 2015 — with only 83 pitches, 54 of them strikes.

"That's the best I've seen him in a while," Montoyo said. "When his changeup is good, he's going to keep guys off balance. Because people don't know what's coming. Because it looks just like his fastball and his cutter. So, that was No. 1. And, of course, his command. His command was also really good today."

As he typically does with extra rest between starts, Ryu looked extremely fresh and comfortable on the mound. Thanks to the all-star break, the Blue Jays were able to mimic an IL stint for Ryu, who went 10 days between his last outing on July 7 and this one. That isn’t to say that he needed one. But at this point in the season, any pitcher who’s logged nearly 100 innings like Ryu has probably does.

It certainly couldn’t hurt. Ryu spent plenty of time on the actual IL during his Dodgers career and is known for pitching through various maladies — the effectiveness he’s still able to achieve in spite of that being a hallmark of why he’s one of the game’s best pitchers. Still, he sat out 10 days with a glute issue earlier this season and, at 34, he’s not going to bounce back from those minor ailments like he used to.

The break also gave Ryu the opportunity to throw a bullpen session, something he typically eschews between outings in favour of prioritizing recovery. And it was a good time for one, as he’s battled his changeup and cutter command for weeks now, struggling to repeat a consistent arm slot with either pitch.

During that session, Ryu worked with Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker to keep his release point up. That helps disguise Ryu’s changeup and fastball, making it harder for hitters to discern which one’s coming at them. It also allows Ryu to stay on top of the ball, which is what generates the fading, downward movement he needs to get whiffs.

“I think it's the fact that I would try to go up and down with velocity with my changeup and that resulted in my arm slot going down,” Ryu said. “I couldn't get on top of the ball when I threw the changeup. Pete picked it up right away. And I think that’s what the key of the whole thing was.

“With the changeup, it has to look like a fastball and has to come off like a fastball. That's how you get the hitters to react on it. When my changeup wasn't there for me, my elbow was dropping, I was swinging wide, I wasn't getting on top of the ball. So, after fixing that and being able to get on top of the ball again, the speed just came up again. And this is how I used to throw my changeup even back in Korea. So, I'm hoping to keep it this way.”

Considering how well he threw, it had to be tempting to send Ryu back out to open the second game of the doubleheader half an hour later. Maybe even go a couple more innings. But that was Matz’s start to make, and he needed the work himself, having struggled to regain his early season groove since missing two-and-a-half weeks on the COVID-19 IL.

Matz’s COVID-19 infection, a rainout just prior to the all-star break and the break itself have all conspired to kibosh his routine over the last five weeks, limiting him to only two starts in which he threw a total of 116 pitches. The left-hander was so desperate for work that he threw an extended bullpen session to a teenaged catcher last week at Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, N.Y., the same mound Matz starred on before the New York Mets made him a second-round pick in 2009.

“It was definitely a little bit different. But I was just thankful that I was able to have a catcher there to do it,” Matz said. “And I really extended it one day — threw five ups or maybe six ups, I think. Just because I would have been scheduled to start that day. So, it was good. It was really helpful.”

Working with a massive lead Sunday thanks to Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s first-inning grand slam, plus second-inning long balls off Foltynewicz from Guerrero, George Springer and Randal Grichuk, Matz faced only two over the minimum over five innings, leaning heavily on a sinker he was running up to 96 m.p.h., a slight-yet-noticeable increase from his season average.

“Fastball command was big,” Matz said. “Coming out of the all-star break, haven't pitched in a while, I just really wanted to establish the fastball, get the fastball command going, and let everything else play off that. And, obviously, when you get 10 runs early like that, it's also nice to pitch with right out the gate.”

Matz didn’t need to throw many changeups, but he did show some encouraging signs with the pitch, getting three groundouts and a pop fly with it. Coming off consecutive so-so outings in his return from illness, Sunday’s effort — only three hits allowed on 68 pitches, 44 of them strikes, over five shutout innings — was an encouraging step for the 30-year-old left-hander.

Asking Matz to perform like he did over his first three starts of the season, when he strung together consecutive starts of at least six innings and no more than a run allowed, is probably a bit much. But if he can settle in to mid-rotation effectiveness, giving his club five frames per outing while limiting damage to three runs or fewer, he’ll slot in just fine alongside Alek Manoah behind Ryu and Ray in Toronto’s rotation.

Round that out with the perfectly serviceable Ross Stripling, a potential trade-deadline acquisition, or even Thomas Hatch, who’s rounding into form with back-to-back strong outings at triple-A, and the Blue Jays can feel pretty good about their starting pitching options over the season’s final 72 games. They can feel pretty good about their surging offence, too, obviously. And, with the farm system receiving a post-draft boost, they should feel pretty good about the opportunity to continue adding to a beleaguered bullpen prior to the July 30 trade deadline, as non-contenders look to sell off veteran relievers for futures.

Just add it to the list. The Blue Jays can feel pretty good about a lot of things that have happened over the last week. Of course, you’re never as good as you look when you’re this hot. The first-place Boston Red Sox, in Buffalo this week for a three-game set, will pose a stiffer challenge than the replacement-level Rangers. But the Blue Jays were never as bad as they looked when they were cold for stretches in May and June. Truly, what the last week has shown is how good they can be. This season and in years to come.

“It’s huge. The goal is obviously to start well after the All-Star break. And it's obviously a big stretch for us here,” Springer said. “And, on top of it, we find out that we get to go home. So, it's exciting. There's a certain buzz around the locker room right now.”

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