Ray set for Toronto return on Wild Card stage

October 8th, 2022

TORONTO -- For , a return to Toronto carries a sense of the surreal.

The Rogers Centre mound is where the left-hander blossomed into one of MLB’s elite pitchers and resurrected himself in a trying stage of his career. And it’s where he’ll lead the Mariners in the type of game they signed him to a massive contract last offseason, an outing that could advance Seattle to the AL Division Series and a date with division-rival Houston.

“For me the past two years that I've had, there's been a lot of growth,” Ray said on Friday before Seattle took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three AL Wild Card Series against the Blue Jays, who he'll face in Saturday's Game 2. “Obviously, last year the success that I had, this year being able to make some changes throughout the year to adapt and kind of change the pitching repertoire, I feel like there has been a lot that's changed since then.”

Ray, who won the AL Cy Young Award with the Blue Jays last year, didn’t travel with the Mariners to Toronto in May due to COVID-19 vaccination stipulations, which were lifted in Canada last Saturday. He started against his former team on July 9 in Seattle, leading the Mariners to a tense 2-1 victory that was part of the club’s 14-game win streak.

“It's going to be interesting, for sure,” said Ray, who has a career 2.49 ERA and 89 strikeouts over 65 innings across 10 starts at Rogers Centre. “I faced them earlier in the year and had some success, but obviously, this lineup is a really good lineup. They can hit the ball really well.”

Ray, who was traded from Arizona to Toronto during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, endured his worst big league season that year, compiling a 6.62 ERA and surrendering 13 homers in 51 2/3 innings. It was such a tough go that Ray returned on a one-year, $8 million deal in free agency to re-establish his value. He proceeded to win the AL's top pitching award while leading MLB with 248 strikeouts and pacing the AL with a 2.84 ERA and 193 1/3 innings.

That led Ray to sign a five-year, $115 million contract last year with Seattle, which at the time was the richest under president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto. Ray was open to a return with Toronto, but in the mad dash scramble of transactions leading up to the lockout on Dec. 1, the Blue Jays instead signed Kevin Gausman to a nearly identical deal of five years and $110 million, essentially to replace Ray.

Though Toronto announced on Friday night that Gausman will start Game 2, Ray downplayed the potentially intriguing component to the matchup. He then outlined what went into his decision, citing the environment, the analytics staff better exploiting his stuff and more.

“Seeing the team, talking to the guys, you know, it seemed like a really good fit,” Ray said. “Obviously, the financials behind it were a big part of it too because I'm trying to set up my family for a long time. I'm not going to sit here and lie to you. That was a big part of it, the money aspect of it as well. Those were kind of the two biggest factors for me.”

Last year, Toronto and Seattle remained in postseason contention until the season’s final day before ultimately falling short. Even with a 20-year playoff drought, Ray saw a Mariners team with the potential to take the next step.

“Winning the Cy Young last year, the highest honor you can win as a starting pitcher, now it's time to take it to the next level and win a World Series,” he said recently. “And that's what I want to do every single year, but I could tell that this team, the way that they were going, the path that was laid out for this team, it just seemed like the perfect fit.”

He’s also meshed well with a young clubhouse and embraced the leadership opportunity that he spoke of when he was formally introduced in December before he put up a 3.71 ERA over 189 innings across 32 starts. Now, the biggest one yet is on the horizon.

“It's a great opportunity for Robbie, but kudos to our ownership group for stepping up at the point when we had an opportunity to add the pitcher and the quality of person Robbie Ray is,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He's meant a lot to our team this year.”