This is a different Toronto Blue Jays team than the one that last faced the Tampa Bay Rays on Aug. 24. Back then, Taijuan Walker, Robbie Ray and Jonathan Villar had not yet been acquired; Bo Bichette was hurt, Randal Grichuck was raking and Rowdy Tellez was healthy.
The Blue Jays won that last meeting 6-4, leaving them with a 14-13 record and the Rays at 19-11. They were glad to be done with them. Now? Even if Ji-Man Choi and Yandy Diaz are healthy enough to face the Blue Jays, this is a club in a different place than that Aug. 24 edition.
Back then, they had most un-Rays-like pitching numbers: 11th in the majors in starters ERA and 11th in bullpen ERA, compared to fourth and first, respectively, in those categories in 2019. Fast forward to Tuesday, where the Rays will go into the playoffs with the majors’ third-best ERA, including the seventh-best starters ERA and third-best bullpen ERA.
The Rays led the AL with 157 runs scored the last time these teams met and were on a roll in which they’d hit 14 homers in two weeks. Hey, it’s 2020. Now? The Rays finished the season 12th in the majors in runs scored, 14th in homers and 21st in team average. They look more like their real selves, which has seldom been good news for the Blue Jays.
Here are six players who could have a significant impact on the wild-card round…
BLAIR’S PICK: Rays in three close games.
1. Nick Anderson, RH Closer, Rays
The Blue Jays missed Nick Anderson the last time they faced the Rays because he was on the injured list with a forearm strain, but in two previous appearances it took him 25 pitches over 2 1/3 innings to pick up a win and save. Eighteen of Anderson’s 19 appearances have been scoreless, 14 of them hitless, and he has allowed one inherited runner to score. Travis Shaw is the only Blue Jays player with a hit against him. If your best-case scenario for the Blue Jays is a close game late, you’ll have to answer to Mr. Anderson. The Blue Jays bullpen is filled with options, but at the end of the game the matchup favours Anderson.
2. Tyler Glasnow, RH, Rays
Blah-blah-blah Blue Jays, blah-blah-blah Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., blah-blah-blah elite velocity. Glasnow has the velocity, strikes out a ton of batters (14.28 per nine innings) and will get the ball in the pivotal second game of this best-of-three series. Glasnow is more than a hard thrower, however: more than half of his 91 strikeouts this season came on his curveball; 40 of those swing-and-miss. Glasnow also gives me a way of dealing with Guerrero here while saving a third spot for another Blue Jays hitter. A big individual post-season from Junior here would — I’m going to be the first to say it — make 2020 a smashing success, and his at-bats with Glasnow will, I think, tell the tale of his series at the plate.
3. Brandon Lowe, IF-OF, Rays
You likely know by now that he has owned the Blue Jays in 2020, hitting .351 with three home runs, three doubles and a triple, nine RBIs and a 1.172 OPS. He finished the regular season in a bit of a flourish, going 12-for-36 in the last two weeks, albeit with just one of his 14 home runs. He is a handful: a lefty hitter batting .300 against southpaws and with a Major League-leading six lefty on lefty home runs. Fourth in the majors in barrel percentage, he is the most dangerous everyday player on a team that will enjoy a platoon advantage for most of this series.
4. Robbie Ray, LH, Blue Jays
For all the Rays lineup versatility it never hurts to have a hard-throwing left-hander to run out there and the Rays haven’t had a chance to face the Blue Jays’ Ray, who was acquired at the trade deadline long after the teams faced each other for the final time in the regular-season. Ray, of course, is no guarantee as a starter or reliever but it’s hard not to imagine him seeing some high-leverage situations out of the bullpen. If he has his control he can very much be a key part of the ‘creative’ approach that the Blue Jays are taking in this post-season. If he isn’t? He could sink a bullpen that walked just under five batters per nine innings (4.81 the fifth-worst figure in the majors). With Matt Shoemaker starting Game 1, Ray could be an early factor.
5. Hyun Jin Ryu, LH, Blue Jays
It’s unfair, but this is what happens when you sign a four-year, $80-million free-agent contract with a team that doesn’t usually deal in those commodities and end up skipping the first post-season game: people don’t buy the logic regardless of how sound it is and if it backfires, it’s the type of decision that can hang over the rest of a guy’s career in the marketplace, especially when he’s represented by Scott Boras. Ryu’s ERA is half a run better on five days’ rest compared to four but most importantly he likes the extra day, receiving it for roughly half his starts with an extra day since coming to North America. Equally as important? He was a little sore after his last start when he threw a season high 100 pitches. Keep in mind: the calendar says Sept. 29, but Ryu’s 12 starts would take him into the second week of June in a regular regular-season. This decision wasn’t made without his compliance, if not necessarily his urging.
6. Jonathan Villar, IF, Blue Jays
I mean, if we’re going to see all sorts of weird, funky stuff between Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo and his counterpart Kevin Cash… I don’t know, it just seems as if you can close your eyes and picture Villar’s switch-hitting bat forcing Cash’s hand, or Villar stealing third, or Villar running into an out, or Villar making a nifty diving stop, or the ball going off Villar’s glove with a runner on third. Like most of you, I’d feel a lot more secure with Joe Panik and that slow heart rate at second base. Defence in the playoffs and all that. But I have the feeling that the only way to avoid riding the Villar roller-coaster is to leave him off the roster. That’s a heckuva message to send your general manager.