Ray's dominance earns hat tip from Rays

AL Cy Young frontrunner strikes out 13 as Blue Jays continue push for Wild Card

September 16th, 2021

TORONTO -- You’ll see them scattered across the Rogers Centre turf, adorned by pitchers and position players alike, during games of long toss and rounds of batting practice: T-shirts that read “ 2021” on the chest, with a tight pair of pants forming the “a” in the middle.

The shirts were designed by Ray and his wife, Taylor, to support the Jays Care Foundation. But if you didn’t know that, you might think they were campaign swag amid Ray’s pursuit of the American League Cy Young Award.

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Ray was back on the campaign trail Wednesday in a 6-3 win over Tampa Bay, tossing seven innings of one-run ball with 13 strikeouts and zero walks. His Cy Young case is pretty clear right now, as he leads AL starters in ERA (2.64), strikeouts (233), innings (177 1/3) and quality starts (22).

The Blue Jays have won six series in a row, and Wednesday’s victory kept them in a three-team tie in the AL Wild Card race with the Yankees (also 82-64) and Red Sox (one game back in the loss column), who both won on Wednesday night.

No player deserves more credit for that than Ray, and as usual, his strikeout tally was the headliner. He fanned at least one batter in each of his seven innings, helping him to his 10th game with 10-plus strikeouts this season. The only other Blue Jay to hit that mark was Roger Clemens (1997, 1998).

Through three innings, all seven of Ray’s strikeouts ended with a Tampa Bay hitter swinging through a mid 90s fastball. When you’re pretty sure what’s coming and you still can’t hit it, that’s an indication of supreme stuff.

“It's tough to make an argument that that's not the best fastball going right now in the American League,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “It's a simple approach. It's very simple. He's gonna throw it. … So it's kind of one of those tip-your-cap days and tip-your-cap seasons to him.”

Although Ray has thrown five pitch types this season (four-seamer, sinker, slider, curveball, changeup), he’s essentially a two-pitch guy. Four-seamers and sliders account for nearly 90 percent of his offerings.

It hasn’t always been that way. As recently as 2019, Ray had four pitches that he threw 10 percent of the time or more, according to Baseball Savant. Last year, only three pitches hit that mark, and now it’s down to two.

Ray said he works on all his pitches before every start. He never intended to streamline his arsenal this way. Accidental or not, the approach has been staggeringly effective.

​​“It just seems like every time I go into the game, the fastball’s electric [and] the slider’s really good,” Ray said. “And they play really well off of each other. I feel like my slider comes out looking like my fastball, and then it’s gone.”

When a fastball is zipping by a late bat, or a slider is disappearing in the pocket of the catcher’s mitt, shortstop has one of the best seats in the house.

The Rays didn’t hit a single ball toward Bichette on Wednesday, and part of that is because Ray kept striking them out.

“He’s just in attack mode all the time,” Bichette said of the Blue Jays’ ace. “He’s super fun to play behind. … Obviously, he’s got great stuff, but his mindset and approach and everything, he has no fear.”

On Roberto Clemente Day, Bichette fittingly led the offense with five RBIs, three of which came on a first-inning home run. Toronto’s Clemente Award nominee -- in recognition of his philanthropy and off-field community work -- added a single, boosting him to an AL-best 51 multihit games this season.

Toronto’s white-hot streak rolls on, and the positive storylines are difficult to keep track of. The Blue Jays have won 13 of 15 games, their starting pitching allowed two runs to the Rays during this three-game series (0.82 ERA) and five regulars are hitting .350 or better this month.

Amid a heated playoff race, the confidence is high -- justifiably so.

“We think we’re better than the teams we play, so we go out there with that confidence,” Bichette said. “Now we’re showing everybody who we are.”