Rays starter Blake Snell carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning, controlling all of his pitches and finding the zone often enough to keep the Blue Jays swinging -- and often missing -- in any count. The Blue Jays pressured the Rays’ hard-throwing bullpen late, but simply couldn’t string enough hits together in the 3-1 loss.
Now facing a must-win Game 2 on Wednesday with their ace, Hyun Jin Ryu, on the mound, the Blue Jays need to figure this out, and fast.
The truest measure of how well Snell pitched the Blue Jays were his battles with Cavan Biggio, all three of which ended in a strikeout. Biggio swung through high fastballs for strike three in each of his first two at-bats, then Snell froze him with a breaking ball his third time up. Biggio’s plate approach is one of his greatest strengths and the reason he’s become a mainstay atop this Blue Jays’ lineup, so if you’re fooling Biggio, you’re probably fooling the hitters behind him, too.
“It’s interesting because his velo wasn’t really as high as it has been in the past,” Biggio said. “Usually he’s at 95-98 mph. Me, personally, I think he attacked me differently than he has in the past. I think he used a little more heaters against me. Usually, I see some more curveballs that fall through the zone. He mainly attacked me fastball-slider today and he did a good job with his game plan.”
Once Snell left the game, it was Biggio who jumped on a first-pitch fastball from Nick Anderson and doubled off the wall in right, setting up a sacrifice fly from Bo Bichette to bring home Rowdy Tellez for Toronto's lone run of the game. Snell had their number, though, and he was seeing just what Biggio saw on the other side.
“Throughout the game you start to see what they’re having problems with and what you’re succeeding with,” Snell said. “I could tell that the arm speed and the release on the curveball, they weren’t picking it up and that’s how I knew it was going to be an effective pitch. Once I realized that, I knew I could throw it for strikes and I could throw it for balls.”
As a lineup, the Blue Jays finished the night with 12 strikeouts and five hits. Much of that came from Snell, of course, who got 18 swings and misses on his 82 pitches. The Blue Jays pitched well, but only a shutout would have beaten Snell and the Rays’ bullpen.
Starter Shoemaker was locked in early, pitching as well -- and as confidently -- as he has all season for the Blue Jays. The veteran right-hander leaned less on his trademark splitter and more on his fastball, which has a little extra life lately and topped out at 94.7 mph, according to Statcast. That fastball was particularly effective up in the zone and, by the end of three innings, Shoemaker was rolling along with a shutout having thrown just 35 pitches. That’s when the broadcast cut to a wide-eyed Shoemaker in the Blue Jays dugout, seeming shocked as he received the news from pitching coach Pete Walker that his day was done.
“This is postseason baseball. It’s playoff baseball,” Shoemaker said after his start. “Physically, I felt great. I wanted to go seven, eight, nine innings. That’s just how we internally compete. Of course I wanted to keep going, but I had an idea of the plan, somewhat, going into it.”
Shoemaker went on to say that he didn’t think this pitching plan would see him leave after just three innings. He’d discussed the plan entering the game with the Blue Jays staff and thought four or five innings might be on the table. Montoyo, on the other hand, said he was originally thinking of a two-inning outing for Shoemaker that would see him face the Rays’ lineup once, then go right to Ray for the top of the order.
Once Ray entered, he allowed the first run of the game when Randy Arozarena tripled and later scored on a wild pitch that snuck through Danny Jansen’s legs. An inch higher, and perhaps that ball stays close enough to Jansen, but such is the margin of error in the MLB postseason. Ray finished his three innings to bring him and Shoemaker to a combined six innings off the top and was much sharper over his final two innings, but the timing of Montoyo’s change between the two would have been the story of the night if this had remained a one-run game.
Toronto has “mapped out,” as Montoyo often puts it, their pitching plans plenty of times in 2020. Sometimes that’s been necessary as they move around workloads and injuries, but as Shoemaker’s reaction showed, pulling a hot veteran after just 35 pitches is a move that will look very good or very bad, with little room in between.
As the Blue Jays turn the page to Wednesday’s must-win game, Montoyo isn’t worried. He hasn’t shown an ounce of panic all season, so why start now?
“Do what you’ve done before. Let it go,” said Montoyo, relaying his message to his team. “Be ready for [Tyler] Glasnow tomorrow. That’s another challenge and let’s go. They’ll be fine. They’ve done that all year.”