MINNEAPOLIS -- A true ace stops a skid when their team needs it most. Robbie Ray just continues to fit that definition, and he’s looking a lot like the AL Cy Young Award winner while he does it.
Ray led the Blue Jays to a 6-1 win over the Twins on Saturday night at Target Field, and it’s one they desperately needed just hours after a Giancarlo Stanton grand slam gave the Yankees a win over the Red Sox. The win keeps the Blue Jays two games back for the second Wild Card spot, with New York and Boston tied at the top.
The most impressive part of Ray’s performance is that he didn’t have his best stuff out of the gates and walked four batters for the first time since April 18, just his second start of the season. He battled early, needing 45 pitches through the first two innings, but the 2021 version of Ray no longer lets those starts spiral into a 4 1/3-inning outing. Instead, he buckled down, dominated and gave the Blue Jays six innings of one-run, three-hit ball.
“It’s been fun to watch. I think every start -- except the one where he only went four innings against the Orioles -- I’ve been hugging him every outing when he comes out after 100 pitches,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “He’s been our best. He’s been the Cy Young. He should win the Cy Young.”
With his ERA now at 2.68, Ray leads the Major Leagues in strikeouts and has barely had a misstep in what will go down as one of the great pitching seasons in Blue Jays history. He’s gone from a Cy Young dark horse to a contender, and at this point, he has to be considered the favorite over Gerrit Cole, who owns a 3.08 ERA.
“That’s been my focus all year. Coming in, putting up zeros and giving my team a chance to win, but especially tonight,” Ray said. “Knowing that this is pretty much a must-win ballgame for us to stay where we are, to stay in this thing, it felt like tonight was a must-win for me. To be able to go out and do that was huge.”
Ray set up the win, but it was the Blue Jays’ other pair of free-agent signings who brought it home in Marcus Semien and George Springer. The Blue Jays spent big last offseason with games like this in mind, and coming off three consecutive losses, this was exactly the type of performance they needed to see from their stars.
After Teoscar Hernández launched his 31st home run of the season to give him his team-leading 111th RBI, Semien hit No. 43, tying him with Davey Johnson (1973) for the most home runs hit by a second baseman in a single season in AL/NL history. This goes beyond just being a career year for Semien, who projects to land inside the top five of AL MVP voting.
“I think these guys are ready,” Semien said. “Yes, we’re young. Yes, playing in a playoff race may be a little bit new. With fans in the stands now, it’s a little bit different than last year, but we’re ready. I think the young guys we have are ballplayers. We go out there and do our thing and play our game no matter what the circumstances are. I’ll take us over anybody.”
Ray and Semien are the usual suspects, leading wins all season long. You’ve seen it before. The performance the Blue Jays got from Springer might have been the most encouraging piece of this win, though, and Springer needed it.
Springer entered Saturday hitting just .157 over 21 games since returning from the IL on Aug. 30. He was scuffling atop the lineup, and when he struck out in the top of the fifth, chasing a pitch low and away, Springer finally showed some frustration when he slammed his bat and helmet into the ground. His next trip to the plate, Springer finally connected, launching a two-run shot to left field to give the Blue Jays some insurance. It’s the sign that he and the Blue Jays have been waiting for with the clock ticking on their 2021 season.
In a perfect world, the Blue Jays are clicking from top to bottom every night. Saturday’s win was close, but at some point over the last seven games, they’ll need one of their many stars to pick this team up and drag them to a win. Perhaps it’s Ray, Semien or Springer again, but the Blue Jays aren’t lacking in game-changing talent. Now, it’s about continuing to show it when it matters most.