TORONTO -- The Blue Jays have the last problem they expected to have in 2021: an unreliable Hyun Jin Ryu.
The veteran left-hander lasted just two innings in Friday’s 7-3 loss to the Twins, allowing five runs including a pair of homers. Make it three clunkers in the last five outings for Ryu, who owns the highest ERA in the rotation at 4.34, but these inconsistencies aren’t exactly new.
“It’s a little frustrating, especially as a starting pitcher, to have an early exit two games in a row,” Ryu said through a translator. “It’s something all starting pitchers would be frustrated about.”
Stretching back to June 1 (19 starts), Ryu owns a 5.33 ERA. In the nine starts he’s made since the first of August, that number shoots up to 7.21. The timing stings, too, because with the Yankees and Red Sox both winning Friday night, the Blue Jays dropped out of their AL Wild Card spot, now trailing Boston by one full game and New York by a half-game.
This isn’t the same Ryu that finished third in American League Cy Young voting last season, and it isn’t the same Ryu that Toronto envisioned when pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training in Dunedin, Fla., back in February. At that time, Ryu was the ace, and that’s where the discussion ended. Robbie Ray was a mid-rotation starter with upside but control issues, not yet the 2021 Cy Young Award contender we’ve come to know. José Berríos was with the Twins. Alek Manoah was a prospect still considered to be a year away. Tanner Roark was on the roster. Times have changed.
Ryu said following his start that he’s fine physically, even after dealing with some forearm discomfort two outings ago and the wear of a long season. This is about performance, he says, and the big inning just keeps biting him.
“I feel like I’ve been giving up a lot of extra-base hits,” Ryu added. “I’ve been leaving a lot of my pitches over the plate too much. That’s resulted in a lot of runs in single innings. That’s the struggle this month.”
The uncomfortable question that will soon face the Blue Jays, though, is how to deploy Ryu down the stretch and into a potential postseason series. The Blue Jays recently adjusted their rotation to give Manoah some added rest, which also lines up Ray for a potential Wild Card game, and that alignment would put Ryu on track for three more appearances:
• at Rays (Sept. 22 -- 3:10 p.m. ET)
• vs. Yankees (Sept. 28 -- 7:07 p.m.)
• vs. Orioles (Oct. 3 -- 3:07 p.m.)
There have been flashes of brilliance from Ryu along the way this year, including six shutout innings just two starts ago against the Yankees, but his trademark consistency has evaded him. That’s been the real surprise, as Ryu has built an incredible MLB career as one of the game’s most reliable starters. Throwing in the 89-91 mph range and mixing pitches requires Ryu to walk a very fine line, but he’s done so as well as nearly any pitcher in the game up until this season. When a pitcher misses their spot with a 90 mph fastball, though, the consequences are immediate and loud.
“When it comes to a guy like Ryu, there’s always a chance that he makes an adjustment and is lights-out next outing,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “He’ll be fine, but it’s all about his command. If he gets it, which he could, because he’s done it before, he’ll be fine.”
With Ray as the new ace, and one worthy of the title, Ryu has slid well down the line when looking ahead to a potential postseason rotation. Berríos is capable of being a No. 2 and Manoah has the ability to take over games, like he did in Monday’s win over the Rays. Steven Matz is quietly having a very nice season, too, pitching to a 3.87 ERA with much more consistency through the second half than in the first.
So much can still change over the final two weeks of the season, and Ryu’s track record should earn him every opportunity to turn his slump around, but if the postseason started tomorrow, there are at least three arms in this rotation pitching better than he is.
Thankfully for the Blue Jays, the postseason doesn’t start tomorrow. There are still 15 games left to create space between themselves, the Red Sox and the Yankees, but if Ryu makes three more starts, those could be some of the biggest variables remaining in Toronto’s season.