Home run, home home, walk, home run. The Yankees jumped on Ray and jumped into the lead with a stunning string of at-bats against the American League Cy Young Award front-runner. All four of the hits Ray allowed left the yard on Thursday night, and the 6-2 loss left the Blue Jays with a steep, crowded, uphill climb in the AL Wild Card race.
The Blue Jays (88-71) are one game back of the Red Sox (89-70), who lost Thursday to the Orioles, and one back of the Mariners (89-70), who were off. With the Yankees (91-68) creating some breathing room for the top AL Wild Card spot, this three-horse race for the other spot comes down to the final three games of the season, and at this point, the Blue Jays may need to sweep their three-game series against the Orioles.
The four home runs allowed by Ray moved him to 33 for the season, the fifth most in MLB, and it was just the second time that he’d allowed four in one game, going back to April 29, 2016, against the Rockies. The damage of those home runs has been muffled by Ray’s ability to limit baserunners, but coming in such rapid succession in the biggest game of the Blue Jays’ season, they were more than enough to turn the tide.
This was a slow build, too, much like the Yankees’ win in Game 1 of this series. Even when their hits weren’t landing, they made some solid contact early, and eventually that pressure leads to a crack.
“It was a product of the whole game,” Ray explained. “I think their game plan against me was to lay off the slider and get a fastball out over [the plate]. Those situations, the home runs, I think they were all on fastballs. I just have to do a better job of landing that slider early. When I can land my slider early in the count and in the game, I think that I start to get those chances later.”
Despite the ugly ending, Ray’s Cy Young Award case remains strong, maybe the best in the AL. His closest competitor, Gerrit Cole, didn’t exactly stick the landing with his final start of the season on Wednesday, while Ray will finish the season leading MLB in strikeouts (248) and leading the AL in ERA (2.84). What makes Thursday night’s big inning stand out so much is just how consistent Ray has been this season, seemingly delivering the same start, over and over. The Blue Jays have him lined up for a potential AL Wild Card Game, but a few things will need to happen first.
Manager Charlie Montoyo’s optimism lies in the fact the Blue Jays have been in this spot before, or at least a lower-stakes version of it. They’ll just have to keep dealing with it.
“The same way we have been this whole month and a half,” Montoyo said. “We just have to go one game at a time and win every game now, for sure. It’s one game at a time, take care of tomorrow and go from there.”
The Blue Jays weren’t without their chances. Guerrero’s scorching double in the bottom of the fifth, which missed clearing the wall by half an inch, put the Blue Jays ahead with a wave of momentum. Even when the Blue Jays were behind, Bo Bichette, who’s trying to drag this team into the postseason, doubled to lead off the eighth. The next three batters struck out.
Going 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position is no way to win a tight game, but there’s two sides to that.
“It wasn’t so much our offense; it was that their pitching did a good job,” Montoyo said. “They’ve got a great bullpen. That’s why they’re doing so well. I’m proud of how this team played the Yankees in September. We played them seven times and beat them five. Of course that’s two tough losses, but it’s tough to sweep people.”
It looked like this series lined up perfectly for the Blue Jays with Ray in the finale, but now they enter the final three games of the season needing a win in every one. This Yankees series showed just how delicate the race can be, and against the Orioles with a margin for error that officially reads “0.00”, the Blue Jays can’t afford a single stumble.