Ray’s strong outing vs. Yankees puts Blue Jays rotation in good position

Kyle Higashioka homered twice as the New York Yankees beat the Toronto Blue Jays 3-1.

TORONTO – About three weeks ago, Robbie Ray was carrying his son in his Dunedin, Fla., rental home when he arrived at the top of a staircase and took the first step without paying it any mind, as anyone would. “I mean, it’s the stairs,” said the Toronto Blue Jays left-hander. “You walk up and down them every day.”

This time, however, something happened as he landed on the first step, his momentum suddenly falling prey to gravity’s pull. “I felt myself just go,” he remembered, and all he could do was try to find a way to protect his son.

“That was my No. 1 priority so, I rolled to the left and just kind of went down seven or eight stairs on my left side,” said Ray. “And it was definitely scary. I didn’t think anything was super serious, but I definitely called the trainers and said I needed to come in and see them. Thankfully it just ended up being a really bad bruise.”

Ray’s son emerged unscathed, unlike the 29-year-old, whose throwing elbow bore the brunt of the impact. He only returned from the injured list Monday, picking right up from a strong spring training with five strong innings in a 3-1 loss to the New York Yankees.

The veteran lefty, averaging 94.7 m.p.h. with his fastball and feeling good with his curveball, didn’t allow a hit until the fifth, when he made his one big mistake, an 0-2 middle-middle 93.7 m.p.h. four-seamer that Kyle Higashioka sent 416-feet over the wall in right-centre.

Blip aside, it was a heartening 84-pitch effort for Ray, who held a dominant, right-handed heavy lineup in check while immediately showing the form that so excited the Blue Jays during the spring.

“I was pretty much built up, ready to go for the season, it didn’t really take a whole lot (to rebuild the physical capacity),” he said. “Those first couple bullpen sessions I threw, I just really focused on my delivery, getting back to what it was before I had the injury…

“Tonight, it felt like everything pitch-wise was crisp and sharp.”

Higashioka’s two-run shot erased a 1-0 lead the Blue Jays scratched out against Gerrit Cole in the first, and the catcher, a burgeoning nemesis, stretched the Yankees’ advantage to 3-1 in the seventh, when he got Ryan Borucki for his second homer of the night.

Coming off a 15-run outburst Saturday against the Los Angeles Angels and Sunday’s rainout at TD Ballpark, there was more frustration in another tough night at the plate for the Blue Jays, even if Cole was shoving a fastball that sat 97 and his disappearing slider down their throats.

Bigger picture, though, if Ray can handle the rest of the league the way he kept the Yankees lineup under wraps Monday, it dramatically changes the complexion of the Blue Jays rotation.

“It would be great,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “It would be really great because you’ve got (Hyun-Jin) Ryu and then you’ve got (Steven) Matz dealing, and if Ray pitches like that, you feel like you have a chance every day. That’s what everybody wants so everybody feels really good about what Ray did today.”

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A couple of numbers worth pondering is that Blue Jays starters began the night sixth in the American League with an earned-run average of 3.95 and 14th in innings pitched at 41.

Those can be parsed in a number of different ways, but the gist is by and large, what their starters have provided thus far has been pretty good, they just need a whole lot more of it. Ray has the potential to both drive the club’s collective rotation ERA down while pumping the innings count up.

“If he can keep that up throughout the year,” said outfielder Randal Grichuk, “it would be a good year for him — a really good year.”

Ray’s activation Monday, along with that of Lourdes Gurriel Jr., after his symptoms from the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine cleared up, brought the Blue Jays a step closer to being whole. His injury, along with that of Nate Pearson, disrupted the club’s rotation plans, pushing Tanner Roark, Ross Stripling and T.J. Zeuch onto the staff.

Roark was the first to be displaced to the bullpen and the Blue Jays will have the potential to drop another starter after a four-game series at the Kansas City Royals later this week thanks to a pair of off-days in each of the next two weeks. So there’s an opportunity for them to make some hay while concentrating innings among their best rotation arms in the coming stretch.

Ryu has delivered his usual ace-quality work thus far while Matz has pitched well and won both his outings. Ray pitching to his potential can add a third pillar to a still unsteady staff. Stripling, slated to follow Ryu and start Wednesday’s finale versus the Yankees, feels like he’s pitched better than his results but the Blue Jays have lost both his outings.

Zeuch, meanwhile, had a strong start in New York before an outing against the Angels unravelled on him and how he’s handled in the coming days will be interesting. If the Blue Jays flip him and Matz, they can line up Ray, Ryu and Matz for the April 23-25 series against the Tampa Bay Rays.

By then Ray should be fully stretched out. The Yankees worked him — although his frustrations with a tight zone forced him to adjust and tighten in — and he figures to be pushing closer to 100 pitches when he faces the Royals later this week.

“I felt really good about (the start),” said Ray. “Body feels good. I would say that the next one for sure would be, as far as pitch count, all systems go.”

Two runs over five innings will play for the Blue Jays more than often than not, but consistent offence remains elusive in the early going. Any momentum from Saturday’s outburst may have been arrested by Sunday’s rainout, even as the rest midway through what was supposed to be 16 straight games probably came in handy.

The Blue Jays cleverly eked out a run off Cole in the first when Bo Bichette singled and advanced to third when Vladimir Guerrero Jr., smartly chopped one through the right side before Grichuk followed with a run-scoring groundout.

But after Gurriel Jr., and Rowdy Tellez reached to open the second, Cole struck out the side to escape the jam, part of 15 consecutive batters he retired before leaving after six.

“When he’s got a changeup, a slider, a curveball and a heater working, he’s tough,” said Grichuk. “That’s why he got that much money. But yeah, he looked good tonight. He got swings out the zone. He got swings and misses in the zone. He was out of the zone enough to where we would chase but not a ton of guys. It was a tough game for us against him.”

The Blue Jays didn’t have anyone else reach until the eighth, when Marcus Semien and Bichette reached with two outs against Darren O’Day before Guerrero struck out. In the ninth Aroldis Chapman stranded Grichuk’s leadoff double, catching Tellez looking on a pretty clear ball, to lock things down.

“It’s just been kind of a tough few days, obviously, with that huge rain delay and then delay-cancelled and then Gerrit Cole, who speaks for himself,” said Grichuk. “Hopefully now we can get back into a rhythm, play a couple of games, I don’t think there’s any rain in the forecast, and then hit the road.”

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