'Fired up' Ray fans 14 in latest gem, keys win

August 26th, 2021

TORONTO -- When got Tim Anderson to swing over a slider for his 14th strikeout of the night, he finally let it all out.

This was Ray’s 111th pitch on one of the most humid nights of the summer in Toronto, capping off seven brilliant innings of one-run ball and tying his career high for strikeouts. Ray spun towards the Blue Jays’ dugout and stomped off the mound, both fists pumping as he howled. It was a celebration and a plea.

Ray needed runs. Just like last week, when he’d pitched eight equally dominant innings, the offense was disappearing behind him. Alejandro Kirk heard the call, though, lacing an RBI single into center field in the eighth to spark the Blue Jays to an eventual 3-1 victory over the White Sox at Rogers Centre on Wednesday. It’s a win the Blue Jays needed, but even more than that, it’s a win they owed their ace.

“I had guys on base, turning the lineup around again and I knew it was probably my last hitter. I just dug deep,” Ray said. “I threw three really good sliders and got the punchout. I was just really fired up. The fans were loud, they were getting behind me. It was just a really cool experience. I was definitely fired up."

The slider that Ray ended his outing with was a weapon all night, baffling hitters in all counts. He threw the pitch 45 times resulting in 28 swings and 17 misses, an incredible rate even for Ray.

“He’s obviously come pretty close to perfecting that slider that just comes at you in the strike zone and takes a bite toward the third-base line,” said White Sox manager Tony La Russa. “Our game plan was to take it if we could recognize it. And that’s easier said than done.”

Over and over, Ray has put wins on a platter for the Blue Jays, but the rest of this roster has been miles from matching his consistency. Through five starts in August, he owns a 1.59 ERA over 34 innings … without a single win to his name.

Just a year removed from leading the Major Leagues in walks, Ray holds a 2.72 ERA and has put himself in the middle of the American League Cy Young Award conversation. We’ve always known these outings were in there, but it’s Ray’s consistency that’s been most amazing in 2021. Ray profiled as the hot-and-cold pitcher who tantalizes with his talent, but rarely strings it together over weeks or months. Now, you can almost fill in his stat line before the game starts.

It’s only fitting, too, that it was Kirk who broke through to pick up his starter. The rookie and Ray have paired together well, stretching all the way back to Spring Training, and Ray went out of his way multiple times to highlight Kirk following the game.

“It was very emotional,” Kirk said through a translator. “The fans here in the stadium, they were so loud. It was unbelievable. I just went into my at-bat and I was talking to myself, trying to have a good at-bat and get a base hit. Thank God it happened.”

The same problems persist for the Blue Jays, as this wasn’t an offensive outburst by any means, but they’ll take a win on the back of a one-man show in the meantime. With the Red Sox losing on Wednesday night, the Blue Jays move within 4 1/2 games of the second AL Wild Card spot.

One encouraging takeaway is that it was one of the roster’s youngest players to come through in the clutch. Late hitting has been a problem, and one of the main reasons has been players pushing too hard in big moments, trying to give 110 percent when 100 percent will do.

“It just shows that we can grind things out,” Ray said. “The guys in that clubhouse know that a game like tonight shows we’re able to grind it out and get a victory in the end. Early on, their pitcher was throwing really well and we were able to wait him out. We got into a situation where we had guys on, runners in scoring position and it was a huge hit by Kirk there, being able to come through in that situation. These guys are learning how to take that moment and run with it.”

More complete efforts will be needed as the Blue Jays try to make their run in September, but justice was served on Wednesday with Ray being the main factor in the win, even if it wasn’t credited to him.