TORONTO — Essentially, Robbie Ray is a leverage reliever. He throws either a mid-90s fastball or a high-80s slider 90 per cent of the time. He throws every pitch with maximal effort, his grunts ringing around the yard. He attacks the zone, works ahead and regularly rears back to challenge hitters with his heater in fastball counts. Here it is. Try and hit it.
He generates a ton of swing-and-miss, annually challenges for the league-lead in strikeouts per nine and gives up a bunch of solo shots. He often pitches in tie games or with a slim lead, nearly two-thirds of the batters he’s faced this season coming in what Baseball-Reference defines as medium or high leverage. He’s fearless, intimidating, mean. The only difference is a leverage reliever does all that for an inning at a time. Maybe two if his team’s really desperate. Robbie Ray does it over six.
Sometimes seven. Like Wednesday, when the American League Cy Young frontrunner authored his latest gem, holding the Tampa Bay Rays to one run — on a solo shot, what else? — over seven, striking out 13 while walking none in a 6-3 Blue Jays victory. Bo Bichette did the rest, driving in five with a three-run shot in the first, a sacrifice fly in the third and a run-scoring single in the fifth. Teoscar Hernandez chipped in another with an RBI single of his own. And Vladimir Guerrero Jr. continued doing Vladimir Guerrero Jr. things, doubling twice, drawing a walk and upping his season slash line to a ridiculous .317/.406/.611.
But as has been the case nearly every five days this Blue Jays season, Wednesday was all about Ray. Of the 101 pitches he threw, 95 were fastballs and sliders. The fastball sat 95 m.p.h., touching 97. He threw a couple of 91-m.p.h. sliders. He ran up 21 swinging strikes, his seventh time this season with 20 or more. Facing the AL’s best team, an offence that’s scored more runs than any, one that had seen him four times prior this year, Ray was borderline untouchable.
“He’s just in attack mode all the time,” Bichette said. “He’s aggressive. He’s not scared of anybody. He’s fearless. He just attacks guys. Obviously, he’s got great stuff. But his mindset and approach and everything — he has no fear, which is awesome for everybody to see and learn from, too.”
And it’s what makes him — along with Jose Berrios, who threw seven innings of one-run ball himself against Tampa on Tuesday — the fulcrum of Toronto’s rotation plans over the next three weeks as the season’s stakes raise higher and higher. Every game has mattered for a while now. But the games that will really matter are coming soon. And what more would you want in a must-win game than to use a leverage reliever for the first seven innings?
And how better to follow him up the next day than with a guy in Berrios who’s been quietly dominant for weeks now and has excelled in playoff starts each of the last two years? Over his last four outings, Berrios has pitched to a 1.98 ERA with 30 strikeouts and only two walks over 27.1 innings. Featuring exceptional command of both his curveball and sinker, Berrios has thrown 70 per cent of his pitches for strikes over that span with an 11 per cent whiff rate. His effectiveness is peaking at the perfect time.
The only issue for Berrios in dominating the Rays on Tuesday was that he developed left abdominal tightness as the night wore on. But thanks to the right-hander raising the issue and Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo making a quick decision to lift him from his outing, Berrios avoided making matters worse by continuing to pitch through it, prioritizing treatment and recovery instead.
Waking up Wednesday, Berrios felt much better than anyone expected him to. And when he played light catch in the outfield prior to that afternoon’s game, he did so pain-free. If that positive progression continues, Berrios is expected to make his next start. Bullet dodged.
“Every day after an outing, I normally have some low back (pain) in the left area. But yesterday it was more in front. Maybe it’s the same but in a different area. But today I feel really good,” Berrios said Wednesday. “I’ve been pitching really well. And this (injury) happens. Maybe if I got into that situation before, I wouldn’t tell them. I’d just keep going out there pitching. … But we have to take care of it right away. That’s what (the training staff) has been doing since last night. And myself, too. I like to take care of myself day-by-day.”
With apologies to the oft-elite-yet-recently-inconsistent Hyun Jin Ryu, the promising-yet-relatively-untested Alek Manoah and the underappreciated-yet-tough-to-trust-in-stressful-spots Steven Matz, Ray and Berrios are the pitchers the Blue Jays need to be making plans around as the post-season approaches. And those plans have already begun to be laid.
Assuming Berrios remains healthy, the Blue Jays plan to bring him back on four day’s rest to start Sunday’s series finale against the Minnesota Twins. He’d follow Ryu and Matz, who will start the first two games of that series on Friday and Saturday. Then, leveraging Thursday’s off-day, Ray could come back on regular rest — always his personal preference — to face the Rays again on Monday in St. Petersburg, Fla.
There are two priorities at play here. The first is getting Berrios and Ray on turn to pitch in a three-game series against the New York Yankees later this month. With the Blue Jays and Yankees beginning Wednesday tied for the first wild-card spot with identical 81-64 records, no one needs to tell you how critical winning that series could be.
The next priority is the season’s final days and beyond. The Blue Jays are approaching a potential gauntlet in which they could play a string of must-win games to qualify for the post-season and, ideally, advance to the divisional series. Bear with us here as we attempt to navigate it.
It begins with the season-culminating three-game set against the Baltimore Orioles in which the Blue Jays could face a must-win game on Oct. 3 to hold on to their wild-card position. Then, if the Blue Jays finish tied with the Yankees or Red Sox for the second wild-card spot, they’d enter a one-game playoff on Oct. 4 to determine which team claims it.
The good news is, with a 10-6 advantage and only three games remaining, the Blue Jays have already clinched their season series with the Yankees. That gives Toronto the right to home field should a play-in game be necessary. Thank Randal Grichuk for his 10th-inning, go-ahead double securing a one-run victory over the Yankees on opening day. Or Toronto’s bullpen for protecting a three-run lead over five innings of relief behind TJ Zeuch two days later. Likely heroes, those.
The bad news is that the Red Sox hold season-series tiebreakers over both the Blue Jays and Yankees, positioning them to host the Blue Jays in a one-game playoff if the two teams tied for the second wild-card spot. You can blame one of three ninth-inning meltdowns by Rafael Dolis — a likelier goat — for that one.
What happens if the Blue Jays, Red Sox and Yankees finish tied for the two wild-card spots? Buckle up. The Blue Jays would have two options. They could go to Fenway to play the Red Sox for the first spot, and then to New York to play for the second spot if they lost to Boston. Or they could let the Red Sox and Yankees play for the first spot and wait to host the winner in a one-game playoff for the second.
Sacrificing home-field advantage would no doubt sting. But considering the overwhelming role luck and happenstance can hold over one baseball game, you can expect the Blue Jays to choose the first option, opting for two chances of advancing to the wild-card game on the road rather than one chance of advancing at home.
Let’s say that scenario plays out. And let’s assume the Blue Jays have to win on the final day of the season to keep up with New York, Boston, or potentially both. In that scenario, the Blue Jays could face a stretch of four crucial games with travel between each: No. 162, two wild-card play-in games, and the wild-card game itself. Get through that and your reward is a trip to St. Petersburg where the Rays will have been waiting to begin the divisional series.
In other words, things could get nuts. Which is why the Blue Jays are laying the groundwork now to have their preferred options not only lined up to face the Yankees in a couple of weeks, but to be available for the must-win mayhem that could follow. And with each dominant outing, Ray and Berrios are leaving little doubt as to who’s atop that depth chart.
“It’s just sticking to the process. Not letting outside factors, outside noise get to us,” Ray said when asked what he’s learned from past postseason runs. “Everybody’s talking about it. It’s a wild-card race. We’re in the thick of it. And these are some meaningful games that we’re playing. So, I feel like if you can just tune out that noise and go about your process every day, you’re going to be in a good spot.”