Ryu still searching for ace-like form after loss

July 1st, 2021

For the first two months of the season, was a model of consistency, and after each start, manager Charlie Montoyo described the Blue Jays’ ace in his favorite way: “He looked like Ryu.”

Lately, he hasn’t.

Ryu lasted just four innings in a 7-2 loss to the Mariners on Thursday afternoon at Sahlen Field in Buffalo, N.Y., allowing five runs (four earned) on seven hits, including a pair of home runs, and two walks. Ryu’s ERA jumped to 5.35 in his six outings since the beginning of June, but if you watched a handful of his pitches on your television while walking through the living room, you wouldn’t know it. Ryu’s misses aren’t as glaring as what you might see from a hard-throwing starter like Robbie Ray, but when you throw 90 mph, missing your spot by even a few inches is dangerous.

“A lot of my pitches today were just off the plate, and the hitters were being very patient and not swinging,” Ryu said, “which resulted in the increased pitch count. Overall, the increase in the pitch count early in the game was the issue with today’s result.”

It’s a fine line that Ryu walks, and until this recent stretch, he’s walked it nearly perfectly since joining the Blue Jays. So much of his dominance relies on painting the edges of the plate and getting into 0-1 counts, which lately he hasn’t been doing as often. That’s why his pitch count jumped to 85 (55 strikes) over just four innings.

Ryu has earned all the time he needs to sort this out, though, and there’s no reason to believe that the 34-year-old has suddenly lost it after being one of the game’s most consistent starters stretching back to 2013. His velocity remains steady, and his rare feel for his pitches should allow him to work effectively into his late 30s, potentially even past his current four-year deal. While the Blue Jays would love this to turn around immediately for Ryu, having him at his best for the stretch run and postseason will be the priority.

“I feel like it’s one of those minor things that I can change right away, very quickly hopefully,” Ryu said. “Today’s game, I’ve got to forget about it and come back the next day to prepare for my next outing.”

Montoyo agrees that Ryu is close to regaining his form and that sorting out his struggles shouldn’t require a major overhaul. Montoyo liked how Ryu looked his last time out against the Orioles before he hit a wall late in the outing, and even with pitchers across baseball building back up to a full workload following the shortened 2020 season, Ryu feels fine physically. 

The rest of the Blue Jays’ rotation has tried to offset Ryu’s recent struggles, with Ross Stripling continuing his strong turnaround. Ray is quietly one of the stories of the season for Toronto, while Alek Manoah returns from his five-game suspension on Friday against the Rays. Depth remains an issue, though, as Steven Matz had a tough return from the COVID-19 IL on Wednesday and No. 1 prospect Nate Pearson is headed for yet another opinion on his oft-injured right groin.

The Blue Jays' rotation can stay afloat with some help from their lineup, which does enough to cover up pitching faults some nights, but Toronto needs its ace soon. The four weeks leading up to the July 30 Trade Deadline will be another opportunity to upgrade this group, but the Blue Jays won’t go far without Ryu pitching to the height of his exceptional talent.

The Blue Jays did see a more legitimate cause for worry on the pitching front late in the game, when Tyler Chatwood entered in relief and allowed a pair of runs on two hits and two walks, retiring just two batters. Chatwood looked sharper for a stretch through mid-June, but he’s been inconsistent since his great start to 2021, and it’s getting even more difficult to predict when he will or won’t have control of the zone.

Montoyo said following the game that Chatwood has been dealing with a stiff neck recently, which has affected his availability on a game-to-game basis, but he felt good enough to pitch on Thursday. Chatwood didn’t look pleased when he got yanked, either.

“He was just telling me that he wanted to save the bullpen,” Montoyo said, “because in the last couple of days, they’ve thrown a lot. I said, ‘No, you just had a stiff neck and you threw 30 pitches. That’s good.’ That’s what he was saying, that he wanted to save the bullpen and get one more batter.”

The bullpen is a simpler discussion as Toronto approaches the Deadline. The Blue Jays got the ball rolling with the addition of Adam Cimber from the Marlins on Tuesday, but while they can rely on bouncebacks like Ryu’s in the rotation, the ‘pen is likely to be bolstered with another external addition.