ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow long ago made the Tampa Bay Rays’ return for Chris Archer in their 2018 trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates absurdly one-sided, yet here’s Shane Baz ready to be another problem for Toronto Blue Jays and the American League.
The 22-year-old right-hander, sitting on an overpowering 96.9 m.p.h. with his fastball and generating 11 misses on 21 swings at his slider, made a dazzling debut Monday in a 6-4 victory. Teoscar Hernandez, in the second, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., in the fifth, took him deep but that was all the Blue Jays could manage against the latest power arm churned out by the Rays’ seemingly unending assembly line.
In keeping the game under control for five innings, Baz outduelled Robbie Ray, whose fastball was down a tick from the dominant heater he deployed last week when he struck out 13 Rays over seven innings of one-run ball.
This time, Rays hitters chewed him up in each of his 4.2 innings, finally breaking through in the decisive fifth, when Yandy Diaz followed a pair of hits with a three-run homer that erased a 2-0 Blue Jays lead.
“They made me battle,” said Ray. “I had to be on the whole night. They worked some deep counts, laid off some really good pitches. The one pitch (to Diaz), I made my pitch, fastball in off the plate, the guy sucked his hands in, nothing you can really do about it.”
Two batters later, Julian Merryweather escaped the inning, but the Rays scratched out runs against Tayler Saucedo in the sixth, Nate Pearson in the seventh and Ryan Borucki in the eighth that came in handy in the ninth, when Marcus Semien hit a two-run shot.
The Blue Jays (84-66) eventually loaded the bases but Dietrich Enns caught Breyvic Valera looking to close things out, the loss dropping them 1.5 games back of idle Boston for the first wild card. The New York Yankees (83-67), who beat Texas 4-3, moved a half-game behind them for the second spot.
Baz’s arrival is the latest dividend paid by the Rays’ clever trading, which was also on display in the eighth when J.P. Feyereisen worked around an error to put up a zero. The terrific set-up man was acquired with Drew Rasmussen in a May deal that sent to Milwaukee shortstop Willy Adames and righty Trevor Richards, later flipped to the Blue Jays for Rowdy Tellez.
Rasmussen, stretched out in a pinch last month only to throw 27 innings of 1.33-ERA ball in six starts, goes Tuesday against Alek Manoah, highlighting again how well the Rays develop and maximize their arms. Baz allowed just the two homers and struck out five and could be a late-season weapon added to their playoff mix.
“First time we see him, good arm,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “That’s what I saw from him, another good arm for the Rays comes up from the minor-leagues.”
They’re very much the standard, in that regard, but the Blue Jays can certainly point to Ray’s turnaround this year as one of their success stories, even after a rare tougher night.
Though he could have created some separation between himself and Gerrit Cole in the Cy Young Award race, Ray still has a slight edge over the Yankees ace in several pitching categories.
Each still has a couple of starts to swing not only that race, but also the competition for a post-season berth. The teams meet next week in Toronto.
“You’ve got to give Diaz credit,” Montoyo said of Ray’s one fateful pitch. “They did a good job grinding out the at-bats but Robbie Ray is still Robbie Ray, Cy Young candidate, and Diaz did a good job. Other than that, Robbie kept us in the game. He did throw a lot of pitches, but Robbie Ray has done that before.”
Ray, like Baz, was also a trade acquisition, one picked up as a low-cost rental at the deadline last summer. The 29-year-old lefty, a former all-star, was a mess at the time, but showed flashes of a turnaround, prompting the Blue Jays to re-sign him to an $8-million, one-year deal.
“The thing that stood out most was his competitiveness and his drive and seeing it up close was very attractive to us,” said GM Ross Atkins. “It just increased our belief that he would get back to the form he had before, or close to it.”
So, too, did the time they spent together last summer, giving them an opportunity to find “reason to believe that he’ll get back to that form.”
“When you have the time with the player, the likelihood of them being successful is higher,” added Atkins. “That’s the takeaway for me, as opposed to someone that you haven’t spent time with and you’re doing it all from 30,000 feet.”
Similar but different, the Blue Jays can use their time with Jose Berrios, who is eligible for free agency after the 2022 season, to build a relationship that perhaps tips the scales when the time comes.
Those are just a couple of the ways the Blue Jays can counter the seemingly constant supply of pitching the Rays produce.