Vintage Ryu cruises in series-clinching gem

June 20th, 2021

Vintage was back on display in Baltimore on Sunday, giving the Blue Jays the ace they need after an uncharacteristic start to June.

Ryu allowed a solo home run to the second batter he faced, but then the switch flipped. The left-hander gave Toronto seven innings of one-run ball, allowing just three hits, and his elite control was back, as he walked just one. The Blue Jays have things to worry about in their rotation and bullpen in the weeks leading up to the Trade Deadline, but Ryu isn’t one of them.

Toronto took the series from Baltimore, capped with a 7-4 win that was, finally, convincing. Saturday’s 10-7 win required a late rally and a blooper falling favorably to break the Blue Jays’ five-game losing streak, all within the division, but Sunday was closer to what this club should look like when things are “normal.”

Coming into Sunday, Ryu owned a 6.11 ERA over three starts in June, largely due to a rough June 4 outing against the Astros. Even when Ryu has put up strong lines, though, like allowing three runs over six innings on Tuesday against the Yankees, he hasn’t done it in Ryu fashion. Manager Charlie Montoyo loves to say “Ryu looked like Ryu” after his best outings, but recently Ryu has had to battle through lineups, something we rarely see from one of baseball’s most in-control pitchers.

“He’s got so many weapons. It’s just fun. It’s almost like playing a video game with him,” said catcher Reese McGuire. “You’ve got all these different buttons -- X, O, Y -- you’re just pushing the buttons with him, because he’s executing almost every pitch.”

Ryu still doesn’t feel that his changeup -- which is his trademark -- is quite there, but his location with his fastball was great, pounding both edges of the plate. The 34-year-old also feels good physically, too, which is something to monitor as this season stretches back out to a full 162 games.

Having Ryu back to this level for the stretch run -- even if it takes some extra days of rest along the way -- isn’t just preferable for the Blue Jays, it’s necessary. General manager Ross Atkins views this rotation as “stabilizing” itself recently, which starts with the ace.

“The team atmosphere has been really good right now,” Ryu said through a team translator. “And all of our players have been competing to win every game as hard as possible. Obviously, there are going to be games where we could have won previously, but that is what it is. The comeback win from yesterday carried on to today, and hopefully that carries on to next week.”

Beyond Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Marcus Semien on the offensive side, Robbie Ray has been one of the best stories of the season for the Blue Jays. A year after leading the league in walks by a comfortable margin, Ray has posted a 3.50 ERA over 13 starts with just 2.3 walks per nine innings. Ross Stripling has turned a corner after an ugly start, too, while Alek Manoah represents some upside on the back end, though he’s learning on the fly.

The Blue Jays recently gave T.J Zeuch a spot start in place of Steven Matz, who’s on the COVID-19 injured list, but it didn’t look like the long-term answer by any means. Thomas Hatch is on his way back and other options remain, but none is more enticing than No. 1 prospect Nate Pearson. The big right-hander has battled injuries this season and wasn’t himself on the mound until finding a groove in his two most recent starts with Triple-A Buffalo. He’s fully on the Blue Jays' radar, of course, but they’re taking their time and keeping their options open.

“In an ideal world, he’s pushing someone out of the rotation,” Atkins said. “That would be fantastic if that were a scenario we’re considering at some point. Not in the next start or two, but again, we can’t eliminate him from being someone who could help us get outs in some other way, but at this point we’re focused on him remaining a starter.”

Ryu had the offense behind him, earning his first win since May 28. The Blue Jays scored four times in the fifth on RBI singles from Bo Bichette, Randal Grichuk and Cavan Biggio, as well as an RBI double from Teoscar Hernández, fresh off the paternity list following the birth of his son. The lineup got a jolt from the bottom, too, as McGuire doubled three times and scored twice in a 4-for-5 effort.

“We did score seven runs, but you still win with pitching and defense,” said Montoyo. “I felt like the reason we won today was because of how Ryu pitched, how Vladdy played at first base with those tough picks, and the way [Santiago] Espinal played at third base. He saved a lot of runs and the plays he made allowed Ryu to pitch into the seventh inning.”