There are two versions of Robbie Ray, depending on his relationship with the strike zone on any given night. Coming off a start in which he tied a career high with six walks, Ray flipped the script on Saturday against the Rays at Tropicana Field, again flashing the top end of his tantalizing potential.
Ray struck out nine Rays over six innings of three-run ball in the Blue Jays' 5-3 loss, and while a pair of home runs got to the left-hander, he didn’t issue a single walk. At one point, stretching from the first to the fourth innings, Ray threw a first-pitch strike to 11 straight batters. He cranked his fastball up as high as 98.3 mph, too, which was the first time Ray has touched 98 in a game since 2016.
“It’s huge if you can get an 0-1 count on a guy instead of going 1-0, then having to throw something in there where he can hit it,” Ray said. “You’ve got him on the defensive right away. Tonight, I was just trying to pound the zone and come right at guys.”
The two home runs allowed by Ray came off a curveball and a slider, but his fastball was locked in. Ray forced 14 swings and misses on 68 four-seamers, leaning on a more fastball-heavy approach than he has in previous starts. Not only did Ray use this as an establishing pitch early in counts, but he used it as an aggressive putaway pitch. This is also advantageous because it takes hitters off his slider, which can be lethal when hitters aren’t expecting it.
“I had a ton of confidence in it. I felt like I was able to move it on both sides of the plate, up or down, in and out,” Ray said. “It definitely felt like it was coming out really good today.”
Ray handed a 3-3 tie over to the Blue Jays' bullpen, which has been one of baseball’s best through April, but Canadian right-hander Jordan Romano faltered in his return. Romano walked the first two batters he faced before Manuel Margot ripped a ball down the third-base line to score one, and an insurance run scored on a ground ball after Ryan Borucki had entered the game.
Romano was activated from the 10-day IL prior to the game after missing time with right ulnar neuritis, but as was the case prior to his injury, the Canadian right-hander struggled to establish the zone. This will be key for the Blue Jays moving forward, given the injuries in their bullpen, as Romano is expected to be one of their top high-leverage arms alongside Rafael Dolis.
“In a close game, if you come in and you walk a couple of guys, you’re looking for trouble,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “You’ve got to give him credit, because he got the ground ball to get the [potential] double play, we just couldn’t make the play. Any time in a close game like that when you come in and walk people, you’re looking for trouble.”
As the Blue Jays continue to deal with injuries in their starting rotation and wait for the return of No. 1 prospect Nate Pearson, Ray remains one of the biggest variables on this roster. Hyun Jin Ryu will be the rock-steady ace, and Steven Matz is off to a fantastic start at 4-0 with a 2.31 ERA, but this rotation needs upside beyond the top two spots.
“That really makes me feel good,” Montoyo said. “Now you have Ryu, Matz pitching good, and Robbie Ray was good in Spring Training but then he got hurt. He’s been good ever since he got back. That’s good news for us. He was really good for us.”
The surface-level view of Ray paints an encouraging picture, with a 2.81 ERA over his first three starts of the season after a strong Spring Training. That includes a couple of weeks lost to a left elbow contusion after he slipped walking down a flight of stairs late in camp. His six-walk outing last week was unique because he danced out of danger and didn’t allow an earned run, which isn’t sustainable, so performances like Saturday’s are exactly what the Blue Jays will be looking for going forward.