Unconventional Oct. role? Ray's been there

September 24th, 2020

Wednesday night in Buffalo, N.Y., was the quintessential start, and that’s exactly why the Blue Jays have such an interesting decision waiting for them this postseason.

The Blue Jays’ lopsided 14-1 win over the Yankees didn’t yet clinch an official playoff spot after the Angels also won, but Toronto now will determine its own fate on Thursday and can punch its ticket with a win alone. Ray will be part of that playoff push, and his first two innings against New York’s lineup offered up both sides of the argument.

In the first inning, it was 2017 Robbie Ray, the All-Star who posted a 2.89 ERA over 162 innings. After retiring one of the league’s top hitters in DJ LeMahieu, Ray got Aaron Judge to hit a simple pop fly in foul territory that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. botched, but that didn’t matter. The left-hander came back to strike Judge out with a four-seamer down and in. Six pitches later, Ray buried a 95.6 mph fastball at the knees of Giancarclo Stanton, freezing the big slugger and ending the inning.

“Ray looked really good. Somebody asked me today if this was a big test for him, and it really was,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “Against that lineup, that right-handed lineup and how he pitched.”

That’s a key point from Montoyo, as Ray was facing a lineup full of right-handed hitters. If he’s going to be brought into a playoff game at any point, whether it be the first inning or the sixth, he’ll need to be able to handle stretches of righties, which he did early against three of the game’s more intimidating hitters.

Ray was in full control for those 13 first-inning pitches and his confidence was evident. Then, when he took the mound for the second inning, he showed the other side of that coin.

A pair of walks to Luke Voit and Aaron Hicks slowed Ray’s pace and, after a single by Gio Urshela, the bases were loaded. Ray and catcher Danny Jansen then appeared to get their signs mixed up, leading to a passed ball and an unearned run. That was the only run to cross against Ray over his four-plus innings of work, which included five strikeouts and four walks. The 27 pitches he needed in the second, however, indicated a noticeable departure from how he looked in the first.

When the Blue Jays acquired Ray from the D-backs at the Trade Deadline, he was leading baseball in walks. That’s still the case by a comfortable margin, with 49 over 55 2/3 innings, but it’s clear to anyone watching -- especially that first inning -- that Ray’s talent could change a series when he’s on.

Toronto’s playoff rotation lines up with ace Hyun Jin Ryu at the top, and he’s expected to be followed by right-handers Taijuan Walker and Matt Shoemaker, if a third game is necessary in the Wild Card Series. Ray is a strong candidate to be a No. 4 starter should the Blue Jays advance to the American League Division Series, but in the Wild Card Series, he could be called upon as a bulk reliever, potentially following someone like Shoemaker.

If he can channel Wednesday’s first inning as opposed to the second, it’s a plan that just might work. It won’t be new to Ray, either.

“Thankfully I’ve done it before and I’ve done it in the postseason,” Ray said. “I’ve done it in the 2017 Wild Card Game, I came in after the starter. I’ve done it before and I’ve done it in pressure situations. Thankfully I have that, but I’m here and I’m doing whatever I can to help the team win.”

In that NL Wild Card Game, Zack Greinke ran into trouble in the fourth inning, so the D-backs turned to Ray for the fifth with a 6-4 lead over the Rockies. The left-hander allowed one run over his 2 1/3 innings of work with three strikeouts to keep the lead en route to a win. That might be the exact situation in which he finds himself again with the Blue Jays.

With Ray already knowing the ropes of that job, his approach doesn’t change much either. Wednesday was a perfect example of that.

No pre-cooked game plan from a left-handed pitcher will work against a lineup stacked from top to bottom with right-handed bats. It’s about adapting, Ray said, not just to the lineup he’s facing at the time, but to the individual hitters. Against the righty-heavy Yankees, that meant pounding their big bats inside with his heavy fastball.

“It really goes team to team,” Ray said. “Starting, relieving, long innings or short innings, I think it really is a game plan on an at-bat by at-bat basis.”