Blue Jays vs. Rays series preview: Brace yourselves for what’s next

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi delivers against the Milwaukee Brewers during the first inning of a baseball game. (Jon Durr/AP)

TORONTO – For some, summer-long weekends offer a chance to relax: a little time outdoors perhaps, ideally with a refreshing beverage or two nearby.

Yet for Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo, relaxation will have to wait. This weekend, he gets the pleasure of managing five games in 72 hours against the Tampa Bay Rays

To this point, the Blue Jays have seen very little of the Rays, but that’s about to change with four more series against Tampa Bay, including a pair of five-game sets that are on the schedule because of the lockout that delayed the start of the 2022 season. And considering how closely packed the American League wild-card standings are, each of these games is significant to the playoff race.

Entering play Thursday, the Blue Jays are 1.5 games ahead of the Rays in the AL wild-card standings, with the Guardians just 1.0 game behind Tampa Bay for the final spot. For now, the standings are closely packed, but a lot can happen in five games. Let’s look ahead at what to expect…

PROBABLE PITCHERS

Thursday, 7:07 p.m. ET / 4:07 p.m. PT (Sportsnet): Toronto LHP Yusei Kikuchi (2-4 5.08 ERA) vs. TBD

Friday, 3:07 p.m. ET / 12:07 p.m. PT (Sportsnet): Toronto RHP Jose Berrios (5-4, 5.86 ERA) vs. TBD

Saturday, 12:07 p.m. ET / 9:07 a.m. PT (Sportsnet): Toronto RHP Kevin Gausman (6-6, 2.93 ERA) vs. TBD

Saturday, 6:07 p.m. ET / 3:07 p.m. PT (Sportsnet): TBD vs. TBD

Sunday, 1:37 p.m. ET / 10:37 a.m. PT (Sportsnet): Toronto RHP Ross Stripling (4-2, 3.12 ERA) vs. TBD

LATEST ON THE BLUE JAYS

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Wednesday’s series finale against the Red Sox ended up as a 10-inning loss, but not before benches cleared when Nick Pivetta hit Alejandro Kirk on the elbow. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was particularly fired up on behalf of his teammate, engaging in some spirited conversations with Boston’s Rafael Devers following the hit by pitch.

After calm had been restored, the Blue Jays came back to tie the game, setting up a potential sweep. But the Red Sox scored three in the tenth, rallying against David Phelps as the Blue Jays’ bullpen looked vulnerable once again. With the win, the Red Sox passed the Blue Jays in the standings, taking a 0.5-game lead over Toronto.

LATEST ON THE RAYS

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Earlier this week, the Rays lost consecutive 5-3 games to Milwaukee at home. During the second of those two games, manager Kevin Cash asked five of his relievers to cover seven total innings, meaning the Rays’ bullpen is less than fully rested as this five-game series begins.

Now 40-34 on the season, Tampa Bay is beginning a three-city trip to Toronto, Boston and Cincinnati during which they’ll play 11 games in 11 days.

“We know we’ve got our hands full, because Toronto’s a good team,” Cash told reporters before departing.

Meanwhile, Ji-Man Choi returned to the starting lineup on Wednesday after being sidelined with a left ankle issue.

HATCHING A PLAN

While the Blue Jays haven’t announced who will be starting the second game on Saturday, there’s a good chance that Thomas Hatch will get the call. The right-hander has recovered from a slow start at triple-A to post a 3.63 ERA with 41 strikeouts compared to nine walks over the course of his past seven starts. He last pitched on June 25, meaning he’s well-rested should the Blue Jays want to call him up as their 26th man on Saturday.

Along with Casey Lawrence and perhaps Max Castillo, Hatch represents the next layer of starting pitching beyond the Blue Jays’ current five.

BULLPEN ISSUES

Five games in four days is a lot under any circumstances. Then consider that the first two pitchers going for the Blue Jays – Kikuchi and Berrios – have been their least consistent starters of late. There’s a chance the Toronto bullpen gets used a ton this weekend.

Plus, the Blue Jays’ bullpen looks especially vulnerable at a time that Yimi Garcia, Trevor Richards, Nate Pearson and Julian Merryweather are on the injured list. Compounding the problem, Phelps, Trent Thornton and Tim Mayza have faltered in high-leverage spots of late.

Expect to see the recently signed Sergio Romo debut against his former team over the weekend, but whether the 39-year-old can provide the stability the Blue Jays seek is another question. More likely, the Blue Jays will have to add to this bullpen over the course of the next month. To advance deep into the playoffs, further additions look like a must. But trade talks are generally said to be quiet now, so some patience may be required.

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MARQUEE MATCHUP

Shane McClanahan has emerged as one of baseball’s best pitchers this year, leading the American League in both ERA (1.77) and strikeouts (123) entering play Thursday.

But if last summer is any indication, there’s at least one Blue Jay who sees the ball well against the AL Cy Young candidate. On July 3 of last year, Springer homered against McClanahan, one of two hits he has against him in three official at-bats. Springer has also walked twice against McClanahan, suggesting he’s got a better read on the 25-year-old righty than most.

SEASON SERIES

To this point in the season, the Blue Jays have faced the Rays only three times. Those games came back in May, with the Rays taking two of three, but that was just the beginning for these two teams, who face off 15 more times from here, including two five-game series featuring scheduled double-headers.

In other words, prepare yourself for a lot of Rays over the next few months. They’ll be on your television and in your nightmares.

UP NEXT

The Blue Jays’ reward for five games against the Rays in four days? A trip out west to visit the 25-51 Athletics and the 35-41 Mariners. Certainly sounds preferable to the gauntlet that is the AL East, but there’s a lot more work to do at home first.

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