The Jays beat Tampa, but the wild card race remains as tight as Robbie Ray's pants

On getting Rays'd in Tuesday's loss, Berríos's scare, Charlie's choice, Wednesday's brilliant Robbie Ray performance, Bo's ribbies, Vlad's piss missles, scoreboard watching and more!

The Toronto Blue Jays bounced back from a tough loss on Tuesday to win the finale of their three-game series with the dreaded Tampa Bay Rays. They’ve now won six series in a row, are 13-2 in September, and still — for now — sit alone atop the American League wild card race. So let’s talk about it!

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Tuesday (Blue Jays 0 - Rays 2)

Well that was certainly a more familiar feeling from a game against the Rays, wasn’t it? Oof. Here’s three down…

▼ José Berríos leaving the game early with “abdominal tightness”

Fortunately here on Wednesday we’ve learned that José Berríos woke up feeling better than expected and should be good to make his next start, but for a while on Tuesday night things didn’t seem nearly so certain. The Jays’ starter did not answer the bell for the top of the eighth inning despite having thrown just 87 pitches and being locked into a tense one-run battle with the Rays. The team eventually revealed that he’d exited due to abdominal tightness. We’ve since learned that Berríos had felt it earlier in the game, owned up to it in the bottom of the seventh, and was smartly pulled from the game even though he felt he would be able to keep on pitching.

Had it turned out to be more severe — an oblique or something — it could have been a serious blow to the team’s playoff chances, because once again Berríos sparkled. A Ji-Man Choi homer in the top of the second was his only blemish on a night where he'd allowed just four hits and zero walks over those seven frames. It's been four starts now since he stopped lifting his hands over his head during his wind-up, and in that span he's pitched to a 1.98 ERA, allowing just seven runs (six earned) over 27 1/3 innings, with 30 strikeouts and only two walks.

It took getting past that initial wobble, but he’s a big part of the rotation now — and I guy I think the Jays are going to work very hard to get signed long-term in the off-season.

▼ Getting Rays’d

Three bloody hits and one walk. Against a parade of create-a-player types? Drew Rasmussen? Pete Fairbanks? J.T. Chargois? David Robertson? Andrew Kittredge? Is this a pitching staff or a boy band? A small team of mortgage brokers perhaps?

Ugh.

Worse, even, than being able to generate absolutely nothing against this crew was the fact that the Jays actually did manage to strike some balls incredibly well. Reese McGuire had a lineout with an .890 expected batting average, George Springer had one with an .860 xBA, and Vlad had one with a .780 xBA. Teoscar Hernández and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. had ones that could have gone for hits, too.

Just a whole evening of the full-on Rays devil magic experience. No thank you!

▼ Where’s Kirk?

Look, I’m not a fan of the Twitter mobs that get their knives out for Charlie Montoyo every single time the Blue Jays lose a game, especially when those have been so exceedingly rare of late. I see a lot of parallels to the way John Gibbons was seethed about by a lot of Jays fans in the early days, either because they thought he was dumb because of his accent, or they didn’t like his on-field demeanor, until one day the team got good and his supposed flaws didn’t matter quite so much anymore — even became endearing qualities.

I also don’t prefer to get worked up about ordinary things managers do. Like, for example, leaving in a switch hitter and a lefty to face a right-handed pitcher instead of bringing in a right-handed pinch hitter.

But, because I think I sometimes need to be clearer about this, my enormous dislike for the dehumanizing way Montoyo gets talked about too often online, or the fact that I also think that most of the supposedly egregious errors he’s made this season don’t seem nearly so bad if one makes even a modest attempt to be fair about them, doesn’t mean I think he’s above criticism.

And so we need to talk about the eighth inning on Tuesday night, when the Jays chose to let Breyvic Valera and Reese McGuire hit for themselves despite being down two runs.

Valera is a switch hitter who came into the game on a little bit of a heater, having produced five hits and six RBIs in his previous two games. McGuire, a lefty, is a bad hitter who has come up with some big at-bats for the club and on Tuesday had one of the Jays' three hits, and also had produced the liner with the .890 xBA mentioned above, on which he was absolutely robbed by Manuel Margot.

These were guys with the (theoretical) platoon advantage and who had been seeing and striking the ball fairly well. I don’t think it was outrageous to give them a shot there, and it certainly wasn’t surprising to see the Jays do just that. They did, however, have a better hitter on the bench in Alejandro Kirk. And even though Kirk has been pretty average against right-handed pitching this season, producing just a 106 wRC+ in the split, Valera’s and McGuire’s numbers have been worse (74 and 101 respectively). Plus, if we’re going to give those two credit for a tiny amount of recent success, I think we also have to consider that Kirk is 6-for-17 with five walks against right-handers so far in September.

It wasn’t terrible. It wasn’t a fireable offence. It wasn’t the wrong move by nearly as much as many fans seemed certain that it was, and sure as hell didn’t cost them the game. But, like most people, I think Kirk would have given the team a better chance to make something happen and I’d have liked to see him in there.

(You can read a more positive take on Charlie — no, really! — from Brennan Delaney over at Blue Jays Nation. You know, if you’re into that kind of thing.)

Wednesday (Blue Jays 6 - Rays 3)

We’re back, baby! Now that’s more like it! Here’s three up…

▲ Robbie Ray

Man alive, Robbie Ray absolutely shoved once again today. He racked up 13 strikeouts over seven innings of four-hit dominance, walking none and giving up just one run — a 45° moonshot off the bat of Rays catcher Mike Zunino that was so absurd that even Ray, Danny Jansen, and Pete Walker seemed to get a kick out of it.

Ray now has 46 strikeouts against the Rays in just 34 innings of work. Tampa batters have hit him to a tune of just .169/.189/.379 on the season — most of which is Zunino, who has four hits, three of which have been home runs.

“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 told reporters following the game. “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.”

Ray currently leads the American League in ERA (2.64), innings pitched (177 1/3), and strikeouts (233). FanGraphs' version of WAR still doesn't like him, but he had a 1.1 win lead in RA9-WAR over the Yankees' Gerrit Cole before this one, as well as a half win advantage according to Baseball Reference's version of the metric.

He’s going win the Cy Young, or at least get damn close.

He’s also, as Arden Zwelling writes in his latest for Sportsnet, being lined up to pitch in the Jays’ most important games down the stretch and (potentially) into the playoffs.

He writes:

Assuming Berrios remains healthy, the Blue Jays plan to bring him back on four day’s rest to start Sunday’s series finale against the Minnesota Twins. He’d follow Ryu and Matz, who will start the first two games of that series on Friday and Saturday. Then, leveraging Thursday’s off-day, Ray could come back on regular rest — always his personal preference — to face the Rays again on Monday in St. Petersburg, Fla.

There are two priorities at play here. The first is getting Berrios and Ray on turn to pitch in a three-game series against the New York Yankees later this month. With the Blue Jays and Yankees beginning Wednesday tied for the first wild card spot with identical 81-64 records, no one needs to tell you how critical winning that series could be.

The next priority is the season’s final days and beyond.

You’ll have to check out Arden’s piece for the gory details about tiebreakers and play-ins, but needless to say, Ray and Berríos are the starters the Jays are going to be hitching their wagons to in a big way over the next few weeks, and after performances like the ones they put in against the Rays — the team with the most runs scored in baseball so far this season (781, or 10 more than the second place Jays' 771) — you have to feel pretty good about it!

▲ Bo Bichette

Like every hitter on the Blue Jays, Bo Bichette has been on an upswing lately. The thing that's maybe different about Bichette, though, is that he really needed it after hitting a big — and rather visible! — trough.

It felt like 2020 was a down year for a player as talented as Bichette when he "merely" produced a wRC+ of 122 over an injury- and pandemic-shortened 29 games. After all, this was a guy who had a 142 wRC+ as a rookie in 2019. That number was probably on the high side for him — his .571 slugging percentage that season was about 100 points higher than he'd had in Triple-A, Double-A, or High-A — but still, it was surprising to see him at the end of August 2021, nearly five full months into a fully healthy season, sitting with a wRC+ of just 111.

In a matter of weeks, however, it has moved back up to a much more respectable 119 — a total that includes Wednesday's 2-for-3, five RBI performance. Bichette had a sac fly and an RBI single in this one, but the big hit was his first of the game: a three-run shot in the first inning that very quickly changed the mood of the series after Tuesday's debacle.

A blast 106.2 mph off the bat that sailed 377 feet in no time. A no-doubter and a perfect way to start the game. The fact that Bo would also knock in the Jays’ next two runs was just gravy.

Of course, his wasn’t the hardest hit ball of the day…

▲ Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

With apologies to Jordan Romano, who could have easily been given our third up arrow of the day for doing a nice job closing this one out after Joakim Soria’s shaky eighth inning made the game closer than the Rays deserved, uh… do you really want to get into all that, or do you want to see some piss rockets?

I thought so.

In the top of the first, with Marcus Semien on first base after working a walk from Rays starter Michael Wacha, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. smashed a double over the head of a weirdly unsuspecting Randy Arozarena.

That one came off the bat at 105.5 mph — so hard that Semien had to put the brakes on at third base — and had a .600 xBA on it. Definitely a tough play, though I think Arozarena would probably like to have that one back. Still, the Jays would obviously take it.

He’d outdo himself on the second one.

This time in the third, with Semien again on base, Vlad hit an absolute piss rope that split the centre and left fielders and reached the fence on one bounce. The outfielders would have no chance this time. The exit velocity? 116.7.

To give you some perspective, only 28 players in the majors all year have hit a ball at more than 116 mph. This was Vlad’s sixth, which gives him the second highest total behind Giancarlo Stanton’s incredible 23.

Also worth noting here is the fact that these were just Vlad’s 22nd and 23rd doubles of the season, and this was his first multi-double game of the season. He simply hits the ball so goddamn hard that it’s tough for him to reach second before the outfielders can get it back to the infield — it reaches them that fast!

Heading into this one Vlad was already leading the league in balls with an exit velocity of 95 mph or greater, and the contest isn't particularly close. Kansas City's Salvador Pérez is his closest competition and heading into Wednesday's action he had 226 to Vlad's 242. Vlad picked up three more in this one. Bo, who ranks fourth on the list, picked up two.

The Jays are a dangerous team, not just in terms of being a tough club who no one with World Series aspirations is going to want to play either now or in October, but literally! It’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch — especially when they’re taking two of three from the Rays.

Scoreboard watching

Lastly, a quick bit of scoreboard watching. Which, it turns out, is not very much fun when you’re relying on bad teams to beat good ones. In Seattle the Mariners went down 3-0 early, tied it up in the third and took the Red Sox all the way to the 10th before getting pummeled for six runs and ending up losing 9-4. Then in Baltimore, the Yankees — Gleyber Torres in particular — tried their best to hand a game to the Orioles, but Baltimore is so awful that they handed it right on back. In the eighth Torres inexplicably blew a double-play by throwing to first, and the extra out ended ended up leading to a go-ahead two-run home run by Austin Hays. Then, in the top of the ninth, the Yankees had runners on second and third with one out, which brought the Baltimore infield in. Brett Gardner barely blooped one over the drawn-in infield, and Torres raced to third and then home — an easy double play if the ball had been caught. Alas, it was not.

Here are the standings at the end of action for the Jays, Yankees, and Red Sox for Wednesday night.

The Jays are, of course, off on Thursday, then host the lowly Twins over the weekend (they'll see Michael Pineda then Bailey Ober in the first two games; both teams' starters are TBD for Sunday).

The Yankees see the Orioles again on Thursday, with Jordan Montgomery facing Chris Ellis (who pitched in Baltimore's lone win over the Jays last weekend). They will then go home for the weekend to face Cleveland, who will send Zac Pleasac and his 4.45 ERA to the hill in Friday's opener. Aaron Civale will follow for Cleveland, then Eli Morgan. (The Yankees' starters for all three games are currently TBD).

The Red Sox, like the Jays, are off on Thursday. They will be back in Boston on Friday for a weekend series with — oh, goddamn it — the useless Orioles. Nick Pivetta's Saturday start is the only one of that series announced so far.

The Jays get the Rays again starting on Monday — this time at the Trop — while the Yankees get the Rangers and the Red Sox are off before beginning a set with the Mets on Tuesday. Could have used some help today, Mariners and Orioles! Cripes!

We’re having fun, aren’t we?