Hyun Jin Ryu is back to being, well, Hyun Jin Ryu.
He didn’t stray for long, but between a couple of unsteady outings and a brief trip to the injured list with a glute strain, it’s been nearly a month since Ryu took the mound for the Blue Jays and delivered one of his classic, worry-free performances. That’s exactly what he did in Wednesday’s 4-1 win over Atlanta at Truist Park, and his timing couldn’t have been better.
The Blue Jays continue to deal with injuries from the top of their roster to the bottom, and while they continue to find ways to make this work, their rotation still hasn’t settled in. Robbie Ray and Steven Matz have taken turns riding hot streaks behind Ryu while the Blue Jays are still waiting on No. 1 prospect Nate Pearson to find his groove, but this rotation isn’t going anywhere without its ace.
“He was back to 'Ryu,' throwing strikes, keeping hitters off balance,” said manager Charlie Montoyo after the win. “You don’t know what’s coming, what pitch is coming next. That’s when you know he’s on. He did that today and his pitch count was low, which allowed him to go deep into the game. That was great for us. He was outstanding.”
Over seven innings of one-run ball, Ryu was in vintage form on Wednesday, keeping hitters off-balance with his changeup and curveball while pounding away with his fastball and cutter. The savvy lefty mixed in plenty of weak contact, too, which allowed him to move efficiently through those seven frames on just 94 pitches. It mattered to Montoyo that these were low-intensity innings, too.
“There’s a big difference between throwing 80 pitches when you’re dealing and 80 pitches when you have to battle every inning,” Montoyo said. “Today, he was on the whole time, so they were comfortable [innings]. He had enough. By the time the seventh inning came around to face the same lineup three times, it was easy for me to send him back.”
This was also the perfect example of the ace performance that the Blue Jays will need down the road, especially as the postseason battle begins to tighten up. Injuries naturally lead to inconsistencies, so depending on the night, the Blue Jays have needed to lean on their lineup, or even an individual hitter, to carry them to a win. At other times, it’s been an all-hands-on-deck bullpen performance dragging them forward. This was Ryu putting the team on his back, which is a welcome change for the Blue Jays, who can chalk this up to a win despite recording just five base hits.
The club will also take optimism from how comfortable Ryu has looked working deeper into games this season, even when he’s not reaching the ceiling of his average velocities. Ryu peaked at 192 innings in his rookie season with the Dodgers in 2013 and recently put up 182 2/3 in 2019, his final season in L.A. Reaching those numbers in 2021 is a tough ask, coming off the shortened season, but if he can even approach that, it would be incredibly valuable to this rotation with its many moving parts.
“As a starter, it’s really nice to go deep, go six or seven innings,” Ryu said through a team translator. “Obviously, that results in a better outing. I want to go a minimum of six or seven innings each game, and the most important thing is how you manage your pitch counts through the game.”
Teoscar Hernández was the offensive star, single-handedly ensuring that Ryu’s outing didn’t go to waste. Coming off back-to-back multi-hit games, Hernández launched a 404-foot tiebreaking solo shot in the seventh, and in the ninth, belted a massive 464-foot homer to give the Blue Jays some insurance for a 4-1 lead.
Hernández started slow this season and then spent time on the IL after testing positive for COVID-19, but he’s rounding the corner quickly and recapturing his Silver Slugger form from his breakout 2020 season.
“At the beginning of the season, I was getting too anxious at the plate,” Hernández said. “I was getting too aggressive and I was missing a lot of pitches because I was trying to hit the ball as far as I can instead of just going out and controlling my body and swing. I know that if I put a good swing on the ball, it’s going to go a long way.”
As Hernández rounds back into form, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. keeps doing his thing and this lineup eventually gets George Springer back, there will be more nights like this, where one clutch performance is enough to squeak out a win behind a dominant performance from the ace.