TORONTO – Old-school pitching duels, you know, when two starters trade zeroes deep into a contest, each waiting for the other to buckle, are increasingly rare in today’s game, which is what made Wednesday night’s faceoff between Hyun-Jin Ryu and Max Fried so much fun.
The two lefties imposed their wills on a productive opposition lineup with relative ease, working both quickly and efficiently to keep things moving along at a breezy pace. Games like this on the regular would alleviate commissioner Rob Manfred’s pace-of-play concerns.
The Toronto Blue Jays, of course, would sign up for dozens more just like this one, especially since Ryu gave them a seven-inning outing for just the second time this season in a 4-1 win over the Atlanta Braves, fuelled by a pair of Teoscar Hernandez home runs. That it was all done in a tidy 2:42 ahead of a rare 12:20 matinee Thursday was a bonus, preserving most of the bullpen for when Ross Stripling starts against Charlie Morton in pursuit of a sweep, both of the current series in Atlanta and the season series led 5-0 by the Blue Jays.
“I like (pitching duels) better than slugfests, honestly – unless we’re the ones slugging. I’ll take that, too,” manager Charlie Montoyo quipped. “By the time I looked up, it was the fifth inning and it was a close game, so it was a great pitched game by both starters. Their guy did an outstanding job and Ryu does what he does. He kept us in the game.”
The ace lefty, making his second start since returning from a minor glute strain, did more than that. Even though his fastball averaged only 89.2 m.p.h. and topped out at 91, Ryu was at his crafty best, mixing his four-seamer, changeup, cutter and curveball almost evenly over 94 pitches, routinely leaving the Atlanta hitters shaking their heads.
The only damage against him in the fifth, when William Contreras caught a changeup at the knees and swatted it over the left-field wall, but recovered to retire nine of the final 11 batters he faced.
Pitching in such a tight game “got me to focus a little more and kept me on my toes,” Ryu said through interpreter J.S. Park. “When there’s a big run difference in games, there are times where you might not be as focused and slack off a bit. But I think I speak on behalf of all pitchers, when we’re in a situation like that, we tend to focus more and be able to concentrate on each of our pitches.”
The Blue Jays erased the Contreras homer in the sixth when Cavan Biggio opened the inning with a walk, stole second when Ryu struck out and scored when Marcus Semien doubled into left-field corner. That was all they could manage off Fried, who was lifted in the bottom half for a pinch-hitter, but Hernandez greeted Luke Jackson with a solo homer to open the seventh.
Tyler Chatwood delivered another key leverage inning in the eighth – getting Ronald Acuna Jr., Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna without issue – and then Hernandez added on against Josh Tomlin in the ninth when he cashed in a Bo Bichette single with his second homer of the night.
“Obviously everybody wants a lot of hits and a lot of runs because that means you’re hitting well, you’re getting a lot of RBIs and your team is winning the game. But when we get a close game like that, I think it gets you more into the game,” said Hernandez, 11-for-27, with three homers and 10 RBIs over his last seven games. “You have to be more focused on the things that you have to do. You need to be more careful on the plays that you’re going to make, the at-bats that you’re going to take and all that stuff. For me that makes the game more important so I put really more focus on it.”
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Hernandez’s big blows were obviously pivotal, but Ryu’s seven innings again set the stage for the late rally, much as Robbie Ray’s six innings did in Tuesday’s 5-3 victory.
The Blue Jays enjoyed just one outing of seven innings last season, that one also by Ryu. The veteran lefty also delivered seven frames April 7 at Texas, but the rotation has delivered only 10 outings of at least six innings this season in total.
Contrast that against 16 starts of less than five innings – due to a combination of injuries, underperformance and scheduled bullpen days – and it underlines why the back-to-back starts from Ryu and Ray are such a big deal.
“I want to go a minimum of six to seven innings per game,” said Ryu. “The most important thing is how you manage your pitch counts early and throughout the whole game.”
Added Montoyo: “If a pitcher can throw strikes and make hitters make contact early, then you can go into the sixth and seventh inning. But when you don’t throw that many strikes and you’re always 3-2, 3-1, then you end up at 80-90 pitches by the time you’re facing the lineup the third time around. That’s what Ryu does a good job of, he throws strikes and he makes people make contact early.”
One way or another, pinch-hitter Ehire Adrianza with two outs in the seventh was going to be Ryu’s last batter, as Montoyo said he wasn’t going to let Acuna get a fourth crack at the lefty.
Had Adrianza reached, Chatwood was ready and might have been stretched to four outs. The right-hander has emerged as one of the top leverage options for the Blue Jays with Rafael Dolis, David Phelps, Julian Merryweather and Anthony Castro all on the injured list, although Montoyo briefly considered the wisdom of giving Atlanta’s top bats a second crack at him on consecutive nights.
“A little bit,” he said. “But Chatwood is one of our best relievers and it was the perfect timing for him to face (that part of the) lineup again. He’s on, he’s throwing strikes and he’s been sharp, so I didn’t hesitate to put him against the same (hitters) again.”
It worked, and the Blue Jays are three games over .500 for the first time this season, with at least a split of a difficult 10-game road trip in the bank despite more injuries and more roster churn, with a chance at even more.