The Jays blew a big opportunity, now must sweep Baltimore and get help

On an ugly loss, Ray's run, Ray's disaster, Vlad's moment, Judge's power, a late hook, dominance from Pearson, offensive woes, grim hopes, Jays vs. Baltimore, scoreboard watching, and more!

The Toronto Blue Jays could have woke up this morning in a tie with the Boston Red Sox and Seattle Mariners for the second American League wild card spot. Instead, a disastrous sixth inning and a lack of offence pushed their playoff chances to the brink. So let’s talk about it.

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Thursday (Blue Jays 2 - Yankees 6)

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. With Robbie Ray’s potential AL Cy Young in reach, a struggling Corey Kluber on the hill for New York, and Boston losing to the Orioles, the Jays had an enormous chance to get themselves back into playoff position. It didn’t go that way. Here’s three up, three down…

▲ Ray before the sixth

Robbie Ray gave up an unsettlingly mammoth blast to Aaron Judge in the first inning, thoughts of which — at least at my house — hung over every subsequent pitch of the game, especially when Judge and fellow slugger Giancarlo Stanton were at the plate. The effortlessness of Judge’s power is a beautiful thing to watch when he’s not sending a ball 455 feet to the 300 level in straight away centre — or a dagger to your heart. As has been the case all series, the heart of the Yankees’ order felt dangerous in this one. But for a long while, other than that one blast, Robbie Ray blew them all away.

Judge's first homer came with two outs in the first. Afterwards he walked Stanton on five pitches before finishing off the frame. In the top of the second he issued a lead-off walk to Gary Sánchez, but then proceeded to retire 14 batters in a damn row, taking him all the way to the top of the sixth.

He entered that inning looking like he was en route to yet another gem. At that point he'd allowed just one run on one hit, with two walks and four strikeouts. The four strikeouts may have been an indicator that things weren’t going as well as they seem, as was the fact that Ray’s velocity was down slightly (0.7 mph from his season average on the four-seamer), but you couldn’t argue with the results.

Sadly, the results from there would get a lot worse.

▲ Vlad’s moment

It’s no secret that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has been slumping a bit as the season winds down. Yes, he has a 156 wRC+ for the month of September, but heading into Thursday night, since the start of the Jays' road trip to Tampa and Minnesota he was just 7-for-38 over his previous 42 plate appearances, slashing just .184/.262/.289 over this key nine game span.

He began this one in a bad way, too. In his first at-bat he reached for an ugly slider that was way low and a little outside, tapping it to shortstop for an easy ground out. He then ended the third inning swinging through a curveball off the plate for Kluber's first strikeout of the game.

So, with that as the backdrop, it was fantastic when in the bottom of the fifth and the score deadlocked at 1-1 — thanks to Corey Dickerson's double at the end of an outstanding at-bat in the second, which itself probably deserves an up arrow — Vlad finally pulled off a bit of magic to put the Jays into the lead.

As the broadcast noted several times, it was maybe an inch from being a home run — and maybe changing what was to happen next. The building was electrified by the moment, maybe for the first time since Judge’s crowd-quieting blast in the top of the first. As I know you know by now, it wouldn’t last.

▲ Nate Pearson

It’s not time to start thinking about the future just yet, because there will be plenty of off-season for that soon enough. But, boy oh boy, Nate Pearson finally looked like the guy we all think and hope he can be in this one, giving the Jays two outstanding, no-hit innings, issuing a walk, striking out four, averaging 99.7 mph on his fastball, and hitting a true 100 (i.e. without rounding up) on the radar gun nine times, including one pitch that registered 101.8 mph.

Absolute filth. Hey, and if the Jays knew they'd have a weapon like that ready to come out of the bullpen, maybe they wouldn't have stuck with Ray for quite so long. *COUGH*

▼ The sixth inning

Ah yes, the disaster inning. A jaw-dropping gut-punch of an awful potential end to one of the best pitching seasons in Blue Jays history. (I only say “potential” end, because there’s still a chance we see Robbie Ray again in a wild card game, or a game 163. Fingers crossed!)

There are no excuses to be made for Ray leaving meatballs out over the plate for the Yankees’ sluggers to demolish, however it is worth noting that the way this one at least began to spin out of control came down dumb luck and someone else’s incompetence. (Many Jays fans may say two people’s incompetence, but we’ll get to that.)

With one out in the frame, Ray faced Anthony Rizzo with a clear plan: keep the ball high and inside. Ultimately, it turned out to be not a great plan, but it all might have been different but for a bad call from home plate umpire Marvin Hudson.

Ray's first fastball missed high, then this was called ball two.

Not only was the pitch clearly in the TV zone, it was in the zone according to Statcast, and even more so than Ray’s 3-0 pitch, which was called a strike.

A 1-1 count versus an 2-0 count in that situation changes everything. But so it went, and Rizzo managed to take the 3-1 pitch deep, tying the ballgame. Making matters worse is the fact that the homer was a bit of a cheapie, albeit not quite as much of one as Statcast's .380 expected batting average on it suggests. Launched at 42° and 107.2 mph, the ball travelled 368 feet. It would have been a homer in 22 of the 30 major league parks, and unfortunately the Rogers Centre was one of them.

Making matters much worse was the fact that Judge, the next batter up, was not yet done for the night. (Also: the fact that Ray threw him a 1-1 fastball in a location you can absolutely not throw a baseball to with Judge at the plate.)

Once again, absolutely effortless power. And I don’t think anybody needs to check how many stadiums either of Judge’s blasts would have taken.

Now here’s where things get tricky. A team with a better bullpen might have had someone warming up after Rizzo's blast. Robbie Ray, as great as he's been this season, came into this game with a 4.76 ERA when facing batters for a third time in a game. The third time through the order penalty is real, and my understanding was that part of the reason the Jays hired a manager away from those savvy Tampa Bay Rays was to know stuff like this and be unafraid to act against certain baseball orthodoxies — such as Pat Tabler's assertion on the broadcast during this disaster of an inning that Ray had "earned the right" to finish out the frame.

This isn't hindsight being 20/20 either. Plenty of people were saying a pitching change needed to be made in real time before the big damage was done. The problem, of course, is that the Jays have precisely four reliable relievers, one of whom had pitched two nights in a row, one of whom is a lefty that had blown a save a night ago, and one of whom is your closer who "felt something" in his arm the day prior. Given the limitations back there, it's understandable to have wanted to get as much out of Ray as possible. Getting the bullpen going after the Rizzo blast — the first hit Ray had allowed after 14 straight retired — might have seemed premature, and may have also been an insult to Ray and his potential Cy Young campaign. But Charlie and his fellow decision-collaborators are supposed to know better.

Instead, they waited one batter too long. A mound visit after the Judge home run provided some extra time for Trevor Richards to get loose, but it wasn't a whole lot of time. From the moment after Judge's home run when Dan Shulman said "it's Pete Walker to the mound and it looks like they might get something going down in the bullpen right now" to when the next batter, Stanton, was on his way to first with a walk was less than two minutes.

Trevor Richards was basically immediately throwing off the bullpen mound after Shulman said that, so maybe I'm wrong about just how ill-prepared the Jays were for this eventuality — he must have been stretching and readying himself for the call beforehand. But either way, 1 minute and 50 seconds is not a long time for a reliever to warm up.

The Jays chose to leave Ray in to face Gleyber Torres, and, well, you probably know the rest.

▼ An offensive performance

So, the thing is, as terrible as it was that Ray had the worst inning of his season at the worst possible time, and that choices from the bench that may have minimized the damage were not made, you’re just not going to win a lot of ballgames when you only score two runs.

The Jays managed ten hits in this one. They walked twice on top of that. They were 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position, including an 0-for-3 for All-Star Teoscar Hernández.

Hernández is somewhat unheralded on this Blue Jays team because of the big talent that's around him, but what that also means is that he sometimes doesn't face the same criticisms his teammates do. I'm not one to pile on criticisms, but it must be said that he was not good against the Yankees, going 0-for-the-series, and especially making a hash of a huge two-out opportunity in the bottom of the fifth, with Vlad still on second from his big double, and Bo on first after a walk.

Michael King was struggling to find the strike zone, and yet Hernández tried to ambush him on the first pitch. King gets a ton of arm-side movement on his sinker, so this one did start out looking much more like a strike, but this is not the pitch you want one of your best hitters putting into play with a chance to break the game open.

Oof.

▼ Outside looking in

It’s not over, but it’s damn close. The Red Sox gave the Jays a lifeline by losing again to the Orioles, meaning that if the Jays sweep the O’s this weekend and each of the Sox and Mariners lose at least once in their series against the Nationals and Angels respectively, there may be games yet to play beyond Sunday. But, as Boston found out this week, sweeping the Orioles is hardly academic. This situation is grim. This Yankees series sucked. Those two losses to the Twins in Minnesota last weekend loom pretty damn large, too.

The day ahead

I’m not going to get into the tiebreakers and game 163 scenarios just yet, because we’ve got a lot of baseball to play before we even need to worry about that stuff. Fortunately, it’s a lot of baseball against the Baltimore Orioles, which at least gives the Jays a fighting chance. Is sure would be nice to see the Jays win and the Red Sox and Mariners lose here on Friday though, wouldn’t it?

Here’s what the standings look like entering play on the last weekend of the regular season.

Not ideal!

Pitching matchup

• Friday, 7:07 PM ET vs. Baltimore: LHP Steven Matz (13-7, 3.88 ERA, 139 K/42 BB/143 2/3 IP) vs. RHP Thomas Eshelman (0-2, 7.20 ERA, 11 K/10 BB/25 IP)

Worth noting

• The Orioles officially have their starter for Friday listed as TBA at the time of this writing, but MASN’s Roch Kubatko is reporting that Eschelman will get the ball, either as a straight-up starter or behind an opener.

• Originally an Astros prospect, Eshelman was one of several players traded to the Phillies in December 2015 for former Jays closer Ken Giles. The Phillies moved him to the Orioles for international bonus pool money in 2019.

• Eshelman doesn't strike guys out and doesn't generate ground balls. He’s also a kitchen sink guy whose average fastball velocity this season is 86.6 mph. So it is perhaps unsurprising that he has a 7.20 ERA this season. He also has a 7.80 ERA over 30 innings in Triple-A.

• He's faced right-handed batters 71 times this season. They've slashed .354/.408/.600 against him. For reference, heading into Thursday's game, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was slashing .313/.403/.597 this season.

• Matz last pitched a week ago Thursday in Minnesota, allowing two runs on seven hits and two walks over just three innings.

• Interestingly, Matz was striking out just 6.5 batters per nine innings in August — a month in which he posted a 1.30 ERA. His strikeout numbers have returned to normal here in September, and so have the results: his 4.21 ERA for the month makes this the fifth of six months this season he's had an ERA above 4.00.

Scoreboard watching

If you thought the scoreboard watching was intense before, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Boston visits Washington at 7:05 PM ET, the Jays host the Orioles at 7:07 PM ET, and then the Angels visit the Mariners at 10:10 PM ET.

As I noted following Wednesday's game, the Red Sox’ trap series with the Nats will begin with lefty Eduardo Rodríguez on the hill for Boston, facing off aganist fellow lefty, Josh Rogers, who maybe — hopefully! — has found something in the second half of this year, as he's pitched to a 2.73 ERA over 29 2/3 innings after being released by the Orioles in June.

The stupid Mariners start their excellent left-hander Marco Gonzalez (2.88 ERA in the second half, rebound back into his usual form after the tough start to the season) at home to Anaheim, who will go with yet another lefty, 23-year-old José Suarez (3.86 ERA).

And, since they’re technically still catchable — more so because they have a date with the Rays over the weekend — I’ll note for the sake of completeness that the Yankees will send their surprising lefty Néstor Cortes Jr. (2.85 ERA over 88 1/3 innings) to the hill against the excellent Rays lefty Shane McClanahan.

A lot of lefties, it seems. That will, I think, probably be the least interesting thing about tonight’s action. Buckle up, Jays fans! It’s not over yet.