Shoemaker starts Game 1 for Blue Jays

Ryu set for Game 2 and if needed, Walker in Game 3

September 29th, 2020

In what might be the most surprising move of their season, the Blue Jays are starting -- not ace -- in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series against the Tampa Bay Rays today.

In recent days, both manager Charlie Montoyo and GM Ross Atkins stopped short of committing to Ryu as their Game 1 starter despite an excellent season from their ace, who pitched to a 2.69 ERA in the first year of his four-year, $80 million contract.

“In a three-game series, the goal is to win two of them,” Montoyo said. “Putting our ace in the middle makes sense to us for several reasons. Plus, our bullpen is fully rested. We said we were going to be creative from the beginning and that’s one of the reasons we got here, being creative.”

This move also gives Ryu an added day of rest, which he’s often benefited from not just in 2020, but earlier in his career with the Dodgers. Montoyo made it clear that Ryu did not ask for that extra day personally -- despite previously mentioning he was "a little sore" after his last outing of the season -- but that this was instead a broader strategic decision made by the organization.

Shoemaker has made just one start since returning from a month spent on the injured list with right shoulder inflammation, and the veteran looked like himself. He threw three innings of one-run ball against the Yankees on Sept. 21, walking two and striking out one on 54 pitches. Montoyo is confident that Shoemaker has stayed sharp in between outings, but this is a unique situation for any pitcher.

While he’s billed as the starter, the Blue Jays’ plan is easier to digest if you consider Shoemaker as the “first pitcher” in Game 1 with a bullpen plan mapped out behind him. Montoyo will have all of his arms available, and Shoemaker won’t be asked to work deep into the game or pitch his way out of trouble if he doesn’t have his best stuff. In the end, this plan could end up looking like what we’ve seen from the Blue Jays through much of 2020.

Multi-inning relievers like Nate Pearson and Thomas Hatch will be available, while starters Robbie Ray and Chase Anderson will also be options. The Blue Jays could ask Shoemaker to give them three or four innings, then jump to one of those arms, or even opt for a higher-leverage reliever in the middle depending on the game situation. So while Shoemaker takes the ball first, Toronto’s Game 1 pitching plan is best viewed through a wider lens.

Tampa Bay’s lineup construction matters here, too. Typically heavy on lefty bats, left-handed relievers Ray and Ryan Borucki could play pivotal roles in this series. This applies to Shoemaker, too, as he’s typically allowed even splits against right-handed and left-handed batters through his career. A playoff series is all about matchups, and that’s rarely more evident than when Kevin Cash and the Rays are involved.

“That’s the one thing about when you play the Rays,” Montoyo said. “They’re tough to match up against. They’re loaded, they really are. Whoever comes off that bench to hit is a pretty good hitter, too, so they do a good job of that and they do a good job with their ‘pen. We’re going to try to do the same thing, trying to match up as much as we can against one of the best teams in baseball.”

With Ryu in Game 2, the Blue Jays are taking the mindset that they need two wins, regardless of the order. If they win Game 1, Ryu gets a shot to win the series. If they lose Game 1, Ryu is tasked with keeping his club alive.

“It’s not like when you play a two out of three when you’re on the road, and you feel like you need to split the series and then you can go home 1-1,” Montoyo said. “There’s a difference here. The three games are going to be here [at Tropicana Field], so all games count. We feel like that’s our best chance.”

This setup will push Taijuan Walker to start a potential Game 3, which is another surprise, although to a lesser extent. There was initially belief that it could be Walker who opened the series after his final regular-season tune-up was cut short to keep him fresh, and he’s been one of the club’s best pitchers since he was acquired at the Trade Deadline. Over six starts with the Blue Jays, Walker owns a 1.37 ERA with 25 strikeouts over 26 1/3 innings.