'Top-notch' Rays pitching proves Blue Jays still have catching up to do

Cavan Biggio was surprised. In the past, the Tampa Bay Rays have come after him with more curveballs, especially Blake Snell. But over the last two days all he saw were heaters, particularly up at the top of the strike zone.

Bo Bichette was a little taken aback, too. Usually he sees an even mix of fastballs and breaking balls. But every time he went to the plate against Rays pitching, it seemed like they were determined to give him nothing but spinning stuff.

“I think that there’s just a lot more attention to detail in the playoffs,” Bichette said after his Toronto Blue Jays were eliminated in two games by the Rays. “Bottom line — they pitched really well.”

And that’s what it came down to. You can criticize the Blue Jays' unconventional pitching deployment all you want. You can bemoan a suspiciously below-standard outing from Hyun-jin Ryu. You can lament the Robbie Ray slider that bounced off Danny Jansen’s glove in Game 1; the bobbled groundball and poorly executed throw by Bichette in Game 2. But it’s tough to win one game when you score only three runs, let alone a pair.

And it’s near impossible against the Rays. They’re too good. They pitch too effectively. They game-plan too intelligently. You can chalk up a two-game series in which the Blue Jays mustered only a dozen hits — just four for extra bases — as an untimely collective slump. These things happen. But the Rays pitching had a lot more to do with it.

It’s telling that Biggio, who led MLB with a 13.6 per cent chase rate, didn’t walk while striking out six times in eight plate appearances. That Teoscar Hernandez, who led the Blue Jays with a 93.3 m.p.h. average exit velocity, put only three balls in play, none harder than 82.9 m.p.h. That Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who struck out three times over his final 15 games of the season, struck out twice in Game 1 alone.

The Blue Jays had MLB’s 11th-best offence this season by wRC+, with seven hitters qualifying for the batting title with a 114 OPS+ or higher. Only two teams hit the ball harder on average; only seven hit more home runs. This was never a team built to pitch dominantly. It was built to hit while pitching well enough.

Thing is, the Rays were built to pitch dominantly, having earned 23 of their 40 wins this year by one or two runs. And come the post-season, when attack plans get more specified — as Biggio and Bichette learned — and pitchers place more conviction behind every single pitch, knowing their outings will be shorter than usual, it gets more challenging for hitters to execute an approach.

Which is how the Blue Jays ended up with 23 strikeouts against three walks over the course of two games. Blue Jays hitters whiffed an insane 18 times on 35 swings against Snell in Game 1; 11 times on 39 swings against Tyler Glasnow in Game 2. There were well-struck balls here and there, often right at a purposefully well-positioned defender. But there simply wasn’t enough.

“You’ve got Snell and Glasnow and that bullpen — it’s top-notch stuff,” said Danny Jansen, who drove in two-thirds of Toronto’s runs in the series. “We know what post-season baseball is like. You're going to face those arms. So, it's really sticking to your approach and doing your best to grind out at-bats.”

Snell’s plan in Game 1 is easy to see on the pitch chart — fastballs up, breaking balls down:

Glasnow’s Game 2 plan was a little less distinct, as he worked more down in the zone with his heater than Snell did. But it was similar enough. The primary difference was Glasnow came right after Blue Jays hitters, challenging them with 97 m.p.h. fastballs on the plate:

But it wasn’t only the starters that executed calculated game plans. The Blue Jays scored only a single run in six innings against Rays relievers, failing to work even a walk. Of Toronto’s 69 plate appearances in the series, only 15 saw a three-ball count. Their only runs were scored on a pair of solo homers and a sacrifice fly. They left just a dozen runners on base over two games because runners seldom reached base. They were thoroughly, surgically, efficiently suffocated.

“They're just that good,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said of Rays pitching. “You have to have a good approach. But it wasn't so much our hitters. It was their pitching. They pitched their game. They were locked in.”

They’re just a problem, the Rays. They were a problem in 2018. They were a problem in 2019. And they’re going to be a problem for years to come.

Last month, Baseball America cited Tampa’s farm system as the most talented in baseball, ranking six Rays within its top-100 MLB prospects. Half those players could be flattened beneath anvils and the Rays would still have as many top-100 prospects as the Blue Jays do. Toronto spent its last three seasons losing 86, 89, and 95 games in an effort to accumulate that talent. Meanwhile, the Rays were winning 80, 90, and 96 games while accumulating more.

It’s not enough that they throw Snell and his three plus pitches at you one day, followed by Glasnow and his power fastball-curveball mix the next. It’s not enough that every dude who jogs out of their bullpen throws a different repertoire from a strange slot in a funky delivery, the only commonality between them being that the ball exits their hands at an exceptional rate of speed and their breaking pitches all spin tight as bullets.

It’s not enough that even Aaron Loup — Aaron Loup! — looks like he did during his best days in a Blue Jays uniform, throwing 94-m.p.h. heaters past Biggio to record one of the final outs of the Blue Jays' season. It’s that while the Blue Jays keep mining every margin for improvement as they emerge from a rebuild, the Rays keep making gains of their own.

Left-hander Josh Fleming materialized in MLB this season, having been developed from fifth-round draft selection into an MLB starter with a 2.78 ERA. Randy Arozarena, who had three hits in Game 2 and put up a 1.022 OPS over 23 games this season, was acquired as a secondary piece from the St. Louis Cardinals last winter in a trade thought to be built around Jose Martinez, one in which the Rays also sneakily improved draft position from No. 66 to No. 38 in a swap of competitive balance picks. He won’t hit arbitration until 2023.

It never ends. In June’s draft, the Rays used the No. 24 overall pick on Nick Bitsko, a six-foot-four, 225-lbs. right-hander who was originally expected to be one of the first names off the board in the 2021 draft but graduated high school a year early and entered this year’s as a 17-year-old. Thing is, the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out Bitsko’s senior season, meaning draft day arrived with few organizations having had a chance to see him live. There was little track record to go off of, either, which made it too risky of a pick for most organizations.

Not the Rays. Now Bitsko’s a top-10 prospect in their system, with the kind of profile — mid-90s fastball, high-spin curveball, projectable frame — the Rays player development system has a proven track record of turning into a capable big-leaguer. If he’s shoving in a Rays uniform half a decade from now, it’ll just be added to the list of creative ways Tampa acquired and developed big-league talent.

Or maybe they’ll just throw him into a bullpen perpetually overflowing with elite arms either developed internally or picked off the outer edges of other organizations that couldn’t get the most out of them.

Nick Anderson, who threw scoreless outings in Games 1 and 2, sits 95 on his fastball with a curveball that produced a 53.5 per cent whiff rate this season. Diego Castillo’s profile is similar, except his swing-and-miss breaking ball’s a slider and his heater’s 96. John Curtiss throws fastballs and sliders that generated one of the lowest exit velocities allowed in baseball this season. Jalen Beeks was among MLB’s best at suppressing hard contact, too, except he did it from the opposite side with fastballs, cutters and changeups.

Think about it this way. The Rays had 12 pitchers record a save this season. Pete Fairbanks, who worked a clean ninth to close out Game 1, wasn’t one of them. He’s just a spare dude in their bullpen who throws 100 with above-average spin. He would’ve been one of Toronto’s best late-inning relievers this season. For the Rays, he was working the sixth or seventh inning.

What’s clear now, as it has been for years, is that barring dramatic divisional realignment or an extraordinary turn of fate for one of MLB’s most well-run organizations, the Blue Jays need to find a way to beat the Rays.

“Honestly, to me, they're the best team in the American League,” Montoyo said. “The matchups, the pitching they've got, the bench. They do a great job. They have a really good team. Good defence, good pitching. They're really good. And we knew that coming in, that it was going to be a big challenge for us.”

It’s been a challenge. It was just a year ago, on Sept. 27, when the Blue Jays sat in their home dugout, dejected, watching the Rays jump up and down on the Rogers Centre mound celebrating a 2019 post-season berth. A year later, the Blue Jays were watching them celebrate again, this time from the visitors’ dugout at Tropicana Field. At some point, you want to stop watching. You want that to be you. But it feels like every time the Blue Jays get close, the Rays pull further away.

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