The Toronto Blue Jays entered Game 1 of the wild-card series committed to besting a superficially superior opponent with the power of unconventional thinking.
Perhaps the best thing the team had going for it in a short series was a true ace in Hyun-Jin Ryu, and they opted to push him to Game 2, an unheard of move in any playoff series -- especially one where a single loss puts you in an enormous hole.
That decision was heavily scrutinized, but largely understandable. The Blue Jays were probably going to need a high quantity of bullpen innings in any game not started by Ryu, so putting him in the middle created a scenario where the team’s top relievers could catch a breather. As an added bonus, the southpaw had also pitched slightly better on extra rest this year.
In the fourth inning of a 3-1 Game 1 loss, the Blue Jays pulled the trigger on another outside-the-box move when they removed Matt Shoemaker in favour of Robbie Ray.
Shoemaker had shut down the Tampa Bay Rays through the first three innings, allowing just two hits -- both singles -- while striking out two. As important as those numbers was his pitch count, which sat at just 35. In his last inning, he’d induced two three-pitch strikeouts and a weak flyball. The veteran right-hander was limited considering he’d just come off the IL, but he’d thrown 54 in his last outing.
In short, he had another innings left in him, if not two. The Blue Jays lifted him for a guy whose ERA this season was 6.62. Although Ray has looked better out of the bullpen, he’s still an extremely volatile pitcher. That showed when he entered the game. The left-hander allowed a triple to the first hitter he faced, and scored him on a wild pitch in the midst of an at-bat that looked like this:
From there, though, Ray provided the Blue Jays with two more innings of scoreless baseball. By the time the Shoemaker-Ray combo had wrapped things up, they’d provided six innings of one-run ball with seven strikeouts against a single walk. That’s a pretty good start, even including the dicey fourth-inning swap. The plan the club drew up worked, although it would have benefitted from a little more flexibility.
You can quibble with the decision -- and it’s probably still worth some quibbling -- but what cost the Blue Jays in this one was an inability to get their offence going. The lineup provided just five hits in this one and got eight base runners against 11 strikeouts.
All game long, the Blue Jays found themselves behind in the count. It felt like 0-2 holes were routine, and 59 of the 143 pitches the Rays threw came with two strikes. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. was the only Blue Jays hitter who can claim he had a banner day, thanks to a 2-for-4 that included a ninth-inning double.
It’s worth noting that the quality of competition played an enormous role in the Blue Jays’ struggles. In this one, they were asked to go up against a Cy Young winner in Blake Snell, and a trio of relievers (Diego Castillo, Nick Anderson, and Pete Fairbanks) that combined for 64.2 innings with an ERA of 1.81 this season. That’s tough sledding.
Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, one of the features of October baseball is that you face almost exclusively tough pitching -- especially in a short series. This matchup with the Rays, in particular, will test their ability to produce offence against elite arms. The starters on the horizon, Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton, are studs, and the Rays bullpen was the league’s best by WAR this season. It’s not going to get much easier.
In Game 1, the Blue Jays didn’t look up to that challenge. They’ve got one more chance to prove that they are.
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