Ray’s growing reliability a significant development for Blue Jays

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. homered and drove in three runs and the Toronto Blue Jays took advantage of Atlanta's indecisive fielding in the eighth inning, rallying past the Braves 5-3.

TORONTO – Six-inning starts are a gift for the Toronto Blue Jays, especially given their constant roster shuffling to ensure the bullpen is stocked with enough fresh arms to get through the night. Jeremy Beasley is the latest reliever spun out of the transactions whirlpool, with top prospect Nate Pearson demoted to triple-A Buffalo to get himself right.

More on that later.

On Tuesday night, as the Blue Jays returned to action after a needed off-day, Robbie Ray delivered six frames for the fourth straight start – nearly half of his team’s nine such outings through 34 games. In doing so, he not only kept the game in check for the offence to deliver an opportunistic three-run eighth in a 5-3 victory over Atlanta, but also helped extend manager Charlie Montoyo’s relief options for later in the series, too.

Tidy piece of work then from Ray, on a number of fronts.

“Huge,” said Montoyo. “He did a great job. That’s why it was big for me to let him go, and of course, he deserved it, he earned it going into the sixth inning and that was huge for the bullpen. Now, we’ve got a fresher bullpen just because of what he did. He kept us in the game. Early on, he made a couple of mistakes, but man, he’s been pitching great. He’s doing a great job.”

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Jonathan Davis started the decisive rally with a double, A.J. Minter’s indecision after fielding Marcus Semien’s weak comebacker put a second man on, Bo Bichette followed with a base hit to load the bases and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who homered in the sixth, ripped a single to tie things up.

Teoscar Hernandez followed with a grounder to Freddie Freeman, who didn’t have enough time to make a throw home and then couldn’t get an out at first base leading to a single, while Cavan Biggio’s bases-loaded walk added some insurance.

Tyler Chatwood then tore through the top of the Atlanta lineup in the bottom of the frame before Canadian Jordan Romano had to grind through a nervous ninth, stranding two runners when Ehire Adrianza flew out to end it.

That chain of events salvaged the latest strong outing from Ray, who struck out 10 in another overpowering display, but surrendered Marcell Ozuna’s go-ahead solo shot in the sixth inning.

Ray also gave up an RBI single to Ozzie Albies in the first and a solo home run to Ronald Acuna Jr. in the third that put Atlanta up 2-0, but mostly controlled a potent lineup with both his curveball (seven whiffs) and slider (five whiffs) complementing a fastball (five whiffs) sitting 94.8 m.p.h.

The slider has been a pitch Ray has thrown less often this season – down from 30.5 per cent last year to 18.3 per cent this one – but he feels the pitch is becoming a more effective weapon.

“In years past they’ve kind of blended together and been kind of the same pitch,” said Ray. “I feel like this year I really have them separated into their own pitches. I feel like the curveball is getting more depth. It’s less sweepy like the slider is.

“For me, it’s just setting my sights. On the curveball, if I set my sights like I’m throwing it at a left-hander’s shoulder, I feel like I’m able to really pull down on it and rip it into the zone. Whereas with the slider, I’m thinking more middle to back foot with it. So it’s just more of a mindset than anything.”

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

The offerings, along with his improved command, are fuelling a growing reliability that’s an increasingly significant development for the Blue Jays, who have been forced to make things up on the fly elsewhere on the pitching staff. There’s no better example of that than Pearson, who was rushed up to the majors to start Sunday after just one start with triple-A Buffalo, struggled badly, and was sent back down Tuesday.

The plan had been for Pearson to get his feet solidly beneath him with the Bisons, but “his spot was the one we needed that day, our bullpen was thin and we needed him and (Anthony) Kay to cover some innings,” said Montoyo.

“The main reason we sent (Pearson) down is because we want him to get more consistency coming off his injury,” the manager continued. “He made some strides in his first triple-A outing but he’s still got some work to do. … He’ll be all right. He just needs to pitch more in the minor-leagues and he’ll be all right.”

All fair enough, except that the Blue Jays, ideally, wouldn’t have needed to put Pearson in that spot in the first place if outings like the ones Ray gave them Tuesday weren’t so few and far between.

Ace Hyun-Jin Ryu, just back from the injured list, has gone at least six innings twice in his six outings while Steven Matz has done it three times in seven turns. With Ryu set to start Wednesday followed by Ross Stripling on Thursday, the Blue Jays have a chance to emerge from this series with their bullpen in decent shape for the weekend, when Kay is for now set to make one of the starts.

“I’ve been in a groove,” Ray said of his recent stretch of six-inning starts. “I feel really good with all my pitches. I feel like I’m attacking the zone. Had the one walk tonight, I wasn’t very happy about it. Left-handers are probably the last people I should walk. So a little frustrated about that. But I feel like, for the most part, everything has been working for me.”

All of that puts the Blue Jays in position to leverage their offence, which can strike quickly and strongly. Starter Bryse Wilson kept them under wraps for five innings before Semien singled in the sixth and scored an out later when Guerrero hammered his eighth homer, an opposite-field drive over the wall in right-centre.

Guerrero hadn’t homered since he went deep three times against the Washington Nationals on April 27, batting .211/.375/.263 with two doubles in the 11 games since. He was aggressive all night against Atlanta, breaking the longball drought on an 0-1 cutter from Wilson before jumping a first-pitch cutter from Minter in the eighth.

“I was ready to attack the zone,” Guerrero said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “If the pitch was right there, I was going to swing. I was going to attack it. And it was right there. It was a pitch that I was looking for. And I just swung and made good contact.”

Timely contact, too, giving the Blue Jays a fourth straight win over Atlanta this season and counting, and a third straight victory in a Ray start.

“Whenever he takes the mound, we know we have a chance to win and that’s all you want,” said Montoyo. “Just like when Ryu takes the mound, you feel like you have a chance to win. That’s huge that (Ray) is becoming that guy.”

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