ST. PETERSBURG -- With all the unknowns surrounding Anthony Kay before his MLB debut on Saturday night, manager Charlie Montoyo kept his expectations simple.
What was Montoyo hoping for from Kay against the Rays?
“I’m hoping I can say, ‘Wow, that’s a good arm,’” Montoyo said before the game with a chuckle.
Kay held up his end of the bargain from the beginning, tying a club record for a Blue Jays debut with eight strikeouts. Though Tampa Bay rallied late to top Toronto, 5-3, at Tropicana Field, there was still something to celebrate in the clubhouse afterward.
“I’m glad I’m saying, ‘Wow’; I like what I saw,” Montoyo said afterward. “He’s a bulldog on the mound. He pitches inside, he changes speeds, he did a great job. Eight strikeouts against a great lineup? He was awesome. Yes, he was wow.”
Avisail Garcia singled to begin Kay’s night, but the lefty then coaxed Tommy Pham into grounding into a double play and rang up Austin Meadows on a called third strike to end the first inning. He then proceeded to retire the next six Rays he faced with little trouble.
Because Kay was a key piece in the July 28 Marcus Stroman trade with the Mets, Blue Jays fans were understandably curious about who they’d gotten in exchange for their beloved veteran. The southpaw put up solid numbers with Triple-A Buffalo in his seven starts since joining the organization, finishing 2-2 with a 2.50 ERA for the Bisons before his promotion.
Still, the difference between Triple-A and the Major Leagues is a big one. Would his stuff be as effective on the Major League stage?
Meadows, whom Kay fanned twice in three tries, was a big affirmation. The Rays’ left fielder entered play Saturday slashing .448/.515/.862 with four doubles, a triple, six homers and 14 RBIs in 14 games against the Blue Jays this season. After three hits in Thursday’s opener, two on Friday and three RBIs in the series, Saturday brought with it a welcome change -- Meadows had just one hit in the game.
“It hasn’t really all soaked in fully yet,” said Kay, who had a cheering section of 15 to 20 people who flew down from New York to root for him. “Just having my friends and family here makes it the most special.”
Kay’s debut marked the 19th starting pitcher the Blue Jays have used this season, tied for second most in American League history behind the Philadelphia Athletics, who used 24 in 1915.
Meadows’ lone knock came during a crucial fourth inning. Tampa Bay opened with three consecutive singles. While neither of the first two were hard hit, the third one -- from Meadows -- was a sharp, diving liner to center field that got the Rays on the board.
What followed was a mixed bag. Kay got Jesus Aguilar to pop out before hitting Matt Duffy to load the bases. He fanned Kevin Kiermaier but walked Willy Adames on four consecutive pitches to force home the game’s second run.
Unrattled, Kay rang up Mike Zunino to round out the frame, then sat down the side in order in the fifth. The effort earned him a trip back out for the sixth, where he secured two quick outs before walking a pair and turning the ball to the bullpen.
“Everything was working," Kay said. "That was probably the best I’ve felt in a really long time. I had good command of my changeup, curveball and everything. I was just really going right at them. It really set me up for success.”
He allowed just four hits and two runs in his 5 2/3 innings, one less in each category than Rays ace Charlie Morton did during his six innings opposite him.
Consecutive bases-loaded singles and a sacrifice fly off Morton in the sixth gave the Blue Jays their first runs of the game and the lead, at 3-2. It was enough to briefly put Kay in line for the win while also ending Morton's night. Unfortunately, Toronto couldn’t hold on.
While the Blue Jays didn’t score after the sixth, the Rays touched the bullpen for a run in the seventh and two more in the eighth to send Toronto to its sixth consecutive loss.
“Nobody wants to lose, of course,” Montoyo said, when asked how his squad is handling the tail end of a rebuilding season. “But we’re playing good teams; that’s what happens.
“We’re right there in every game, but not good enough to win because we’re playing good teams. You know, 40 games over .500, 20 games over .500; there’s a reason why, because they’re good teams.”