The Twins have been dispatched, now the Trop awaits

On another series win, the Ryu problem, Donaldson's return, Semien's love of the daytime, Bo's defence, Matz and Richards' success, VLAD, Gerrit CLOLe, the week ahead, scoreboard watching, and more!

The Toronto Blue Jays bounced back from a dud of a game on Friday night to take two straight from the Minnesota Twins, giving them seven series wins in a row and running their September record to a remarkable 15-3. They now sit in sole possession of the second AL wild spot at 1.5 games ahead of the New York Yankees (and 1.0 games behind the Boston Red Sox). So let’s talk about it!

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Friday (Blue Jays 3 - Twins 7)

Not what you want to see! Here’s three down…

▼ Hyun Jin Ryu

After Friday’s debacle, it really seemed like the Jays had a Hyun Jin Ryu problem on their hands. Then on Sunday we learned that he was headed to the injured list with neck tightness. This doesn’t exactly alleviate the problem, but it at least makes it go away temporarily, which is about as much as the club could hope for right now.

And make no mistake, it’s a problem. Ryu had a bit of a wobble in June, but looked like his typical self in April, May, and July. At the start of August his ERA for the season was a tidy 3.26. Since then he's allowed 35 earned runs in just 43 2/3 innings. His ERA in September is 10.45. He's been unable to make it out of the third inning in either of his last two starts.

It makes you wonder if this is less a sudden onset of an injury — Ryu said he felt fine after Friday's start, but per the Sun’s Rob Longley, GM Ross Atkins said Sunday that the big lefty had woken up with neck pain — and more a chance to hit the reset button on a guy who has simply hit a bit of a wall.

There is both good news and bad news in all this. The bad is obvious. Ryu is a great pitcher who was pitching like an ace quite regularly until not very long ago. Losing that is a blow. The fact that he’s not even halfway yet through his four-year, $80 million contract with the Jays is also concern, at least a little bit. And, frankly, potentially more so because he’s not a pitcher who can overpower guys. He needs to be perfect to survive — and he’s great at that, it’s just… that doesn’t exactly get easier as guys age.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. One item on the good side of the ledger is the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any great explanation for what’s happened to him here. His velocity, spin rate, release points, and his percentage of pitches to find the edge of the zone haven’t wildly fluctuated as the results have gone south. He’s just sort of been getting hit harder.

Also good? The fact that Ryu hit a similar wall at the end of 2019 with the Dodgers and managed to pull out of it well. Granted, that situation wasn’t quite as bad as this, and didn’t come after a season that was nearly as inconsistent as his 2021 has been. But the parallels are rather interesting.

On August 17 of that year, Ryu gave up four runs over 5 2/3 innings in Atlanta — just the second time he'd allowed more than three earned runs all season. His next outing, August 23, saw him give up seven over just 4 1/3 innings against the Yankees. Then on August 29 he gave up seven again, this time to the Diamondbacks, while lasting just 4 2/3. His next start, September 4, went a little bit better, as Colorado only scored three times against him, but he uncharacteristically walked four in that one and lasted just 4 1/3.

At that point the Dodgers announced that Ryu would be skipped when his turn in the rotation next came around. He didn't pitch again until the 14th of September — nine full days off — and like magic he went back to normal. He closed out the year with three straight seven inning starts, allowing just three runs total, with 13 hits and no walks over 21 innings of work.

Funnily enough, Rotoworld noted earlier that season that Ryu had been placed on the 10 day injured list with neck soreness on August 2, despite the fact that he had seemed fine when tossing six scoreless innings against the Rockies two days prior. "So it's possible the Dodgers are up to their roster high jinks again," they added. Hmm.

So maybe a bit of maintenance helps this all simply go away.

Of course, the other good news about it is the fact that Ryu has pitched like the Blue Jays’ fifth — maybe even sixth! — best starter for a little while now, so having his status suddenly in question maybe makes it easier for the Jays to finesse their way into keeping their franchise pitcher off of their playoff roster (should they get there). It’s a notion that I would have found absurd earlier in the season, but that can’t be ignored at this stage. You can’t put playoff games in jeopardy just to spare a guy’s feelings — though I would imagine that would be a trickier conversation here than it was in 2015 with Mark Buehrle or 2016 with R.A. Dickey, because neither of those guys were going to be coming back to the Jays the following season, and Ryu will be. He’s really good and important and it sucks that he’s struggling. But here we are.

Anyway, this game was bad.

▼ The Josh Donaldson revenge game

The love-in between Jays fans and Josh Donaldson over the weekend was very nice. I don’t know if the wound was too fresh back in 2019, when he first returned to the Rogers Centre as a member of the Atlanta Braves, or if the intensity of this year’s playoff race has made Jays fans more engaged than they were in the dog days of August in that lost season, but it felt this weekend like he was back for the first time. Or maybe it was just that he was returning for the first time to a building that’s as electric as the era of his Jays career we all best remember.

Or, at least, as close to it as it can be with pandemic restrictions in place — as Donaldson himself humbly noted.

The jersey exchange with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at the end of the three-game set? Genuinely beautiful stuff. Donaldson saying all the right things? Touting Vlad for MVP, and talking down the case for Shohei Ohtani? Truly great. And all of this understandably made some Jays fans a bit nostalgic not just for that great, brief era of Blue Jays baseball he was so central to, but for what might have been. After all, Vlad started just 94 games at third base before being moved off of the position that Donaldson was ostensibly dealt to open up for him.

I’ve been clear for a long time that I think there was more to the story than that. The Jays, I believe, didn’t want to make guys like Donaldson and Marcus Stroman focal points in the clubhouse as their new generation of talent ascended to the major leagues. They wanted to get a little bit younger and more agile with respect to when to hit the gas pedal and how best to build back into a contender. They, presumably, were concerned at the way he bristled at the shift toward the new High Performance department.

Fortunately, all that stuff felt more like water under the bridge than ever this weekend. Fans’ outpouring of love for Donaldson felt more about him and less about giving a middle finger to the guys running the team than the way it might have two years ago.

He’s a big personality, and rightly a Blue Jays legend. And now that this is, without question, Vlad’s team, and Bo’s team, and George Springer’s, and Teoscar Hernández’s, etc., etc., etc., the fact that he wanted to be here all along is maybe not quite so threatening or polarizing. (It’s still disappointing that he’s not, of course.)

I certainly enjoyed the chance to appreciate him without so much of the baggage. But maybe even better was the way he appreciated Blue Jays fans right back.

However! Going 2-for-5 with a home run and a double in a 7-3 Twins victory? Bro! You’re killing us here! C’mon, man!

▼ Three hits off Michael Pineda?!?!

Corey Dickerson had two hits in this one. Jake Lamb had an RBI double. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. picked up a hit. Teoscar had a walk. Vlad had a walk and a homer in the bottom of the third, though it unfortunately was a solo job that came a frame after things had gone sideways on Ryu.

Everyone else? Nada. And while Michael Pineda is a competent enough pitcher that this shouldn't be a terribly surprising outcome — his ERA on the season is a half run better than Ryu's! — it nonetheless was for a Blue Jays team that has been bulldozing teams for the last few weeks and needed badly to keep up with the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL wild card race.

Not great! Fortunately, things would get better for the Jays in the light of the next day…

Saturday (Blue Jays 6 - Twins 2)

Now this is more like it! Here’s three up…

▲ Daytime Marcus Semien

The Blue Jays are 37-16 in day games this season. A big reason why? Marcus Semien. The second baseman blasted his 40th home run of the season in this one, adding his name to a short and impressive list of Blue Jays to have reached that milestone: Jesse Barfield, Tony Batista, Carlos Delgado, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnación, Shawn Green, José Bautista, José Canseco, George Bell, and, of course, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. He also wouldn't likely have done so if not for the ridiculous success he's had, for whatever reason, in day games.

Semien has just a .736 OPS in 95 night games, having slashed a rather pedestrian .234/.325/.411 in them, blasting just 14 if his 40 bombs. In day games his OPS jumps to an absurd 1.115. (Vlad's OPS for the season is 1.024). Semien has slashed .324/.363/.752 in day games, smashing 26 of his 40 home runs in just 53 of them.

I have no reason to believe this is anything but just random, but it's remarkable! And before you go thinking that the ball carries better during the day, I'll have you know big leaguers as a whole this season have a .412 slugging percentage at night and just a .406 mark during the day. The league average OPS is .729 at night and .723 during the day. Weird!

Anyway, Donaldson homered again in the first inning of this one to put the Twins up 2-0, but the Jays got that back and more in the fourth, and it all started with this blast off the bat of Semien.

▲ Teoscar Hernández and Bo Bichette

Yeah, I’m cheating here by giving this up arrow to two guys, but on the other hand I could realistically be giving it to more of the Blue Jays than just that! Vlad has been absolutely locked in lately, and in this one worked a pair of walks and also singled at 110.3 mph off the bat. George Springer, who is clearly not at 100% but doing whatever he can to help the team, had a pair of walks of his own, as did Breyvic Valera — who also added a hit for good measure. But, though Teoscar Hernández only had one knock in the game, it was a huge one: a three run shot with Vlad and Bo on base to put the Jays up for good and cap their four-run fourth.

OK, so maybe it wasn’t exactly an impressive blast — a 42° wall-scraper that wasn’t terribly unlike the weird one Mike Zunino hit off Robbie Ray back on Wednesday. But the runs counted!

Bichette's day was different, as he led the way for the Jays with three hits, going 3-for-4 with a run scored and a pair of RBIs on this bases loaded single in the seventh to all but assure victory.

With a home run on Sunday, Bo is now up to a 120 wRC+ on the season, and sports a slash line of .294/.342/.468. Pretty good stuff for a guy who also looks better every day at shortstop. Hey, and speaking of that, this play was real good! (On the first baseman’s part too!)

▲ Steven Matz

There are four reasons why the recent struggles of Hyun Jin Ryu haven’t felt catastrophic for this team, and Steven Matz is one of them. (The other three, of course, are Robbie Ray, José Berríos, and Alek Manoah.)

Matz allowed that early two-run shot to Donaldson, but he settled right down after that, getting through 5 2/3 innings with just three hits and two walks against. His ERA over 64 1/3 innings in the second half of the season now stands at an impressive 2.80, which basically means that exactly as Ryu has faltered, Matz has been there to pick up the slack.

Over that span his strikeout rate is down, walks have been slightly up, but he's done a significantly better job of keeping the ball in the ballpark. His HR/FB% has dropped from 16.4% in the first half to just 7.5% in the second, and as such his rate of home runs per nine inning has gone from 1.41 to 0.70.

What's behind this? Well, like several other pitchers working with Jays pitching coach Pete Walker, he's throwing his fastball/sinker more, going from 46.3% and 44.9% usage in April and May to 60.5% here in September. That's come at the expense of his slider, as he now primarily works with the sinker, change, and curveball. (His slider usage peaked in May at 16.5%; it's at 2.6% this month).

Another thing is that he’s figured out a way to get some more spin on the ball back, after his rates took a bit of a dip around June, when the league suddenly cracked down on "sticky stuff."

He’s also moved several inches toward first base on the rubber over the last two months, which seems to have helped.

Are these changes enough to keep this recent run of success going? It’s hard to say. I’m not seeing much change in the quality of contact he’s giving up, and yet fewer balls in play are going for hits and fewer flyballs are going over the fence. Add in the fact that his strand rate is also a bit above average in the second half, and I can’t help but wonder if some regression is due for him. But I’ll take what I can get from a fourth/fifth starter at this point! Two months of a 2.80 ERA is really just gravy. Matz has had a really nice year and clearly this was another good one from him.

Sunday (Blue Jays 5 - Twins 3)

Not quite a laugher, but the Jays raced out to an early lead and had enough pitching firepower to never look back. Here’s three up!

▲ That first inning!

The Jays demoralized the Twins — and Luke Farrell (son of former Jays manager John Farrell, and brother of current scouting director Shane Farrell) — early and often in this one. It was delicious.

George Springer was 0-for-2 in the first frame, but other than that only Danny Jansen made an out, as Semien doubled, Vlad cashed him on a ridiculous 115.9 mph single that basically went through the shortstop. Bo then homered to make it 3-0, and then four straight singles later they'd added two more.

Vlad would go on to smash a 101.9 mph double in he second, a 107.3 mph single in the fourth, and a 98.2 mph lineout in the sixth. He’s now up to a 174 wRC+ for the season. Bryce Harper of the Phillies was 0-for-3 with a pair of walks on Sunday, dropping him into a tie with Vlad a 174 wRC+ on the year. The next best hitter, Juan Soto, is at a mere 161. Ohtani is at 151.

Vlad is very good, is what I’m saying. So are several other hitters on this team it turns out!

▲ Trevor Richards

José Berríos was pretty good in this one, but he did give up a two-run home run to Jake Cave in the fourth, and then a solo blast to Ben Rortvedt (who, even with that round-tripper, still has an ugly slash line of .169/.229/.281 over 98 plate appearances this season) in the seventh. The latter cut the Jays' lead to just two runs, making things a little bit scary for a momenty, so I can't in good conscience single Berríos out for praise here, even if he was pretty much fine.

Trevor Richards, on the other hand, continued his excellent season, relieving Berríos to finish the seventh, then coming back for the eighth and striking out the heart of the Twins' order — Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, and Donaldson — on 14 pitches.

Should the Twins’ hitters have been swinging at those pitches? Perhaps not…

But full credit to Richards. He now has 77 strikeouts in 60 innings on the season, and 36 in 28 innings since joining the Jays, despite the fact that he out there throwing 93. The Jays have done a great job not overpaying for velocity on the relief market and finding guys who are able to get it done in other ways. Richards had an 18% strikeout rate last year with the Rays, and this year is at 32.5%. Like Matz, has moved on the rubber over the course of the season — in his case toward third base — which has coincided with an uptick in swing-and-miss on his curve and change from right-handed hitters, who presumably have that much less of an idea of what’s coming at them from that angle.

Like so many other things on this team right now, it’s working. What a world!

▲ Watching the Yankees lose to Cleveland

I know this is supposed to be about the Blue Jays game, and we’ll get to some scoreboard watching later, but I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t absolutely a highlight of Sunday’s action. The Yankees’ ace got lit up by Cleveland to the tune of seven earned runs over 5 2/3 innings, and may well have lost the the Cy Young to Robbie Ray in the process, as he pushed his ERA on the season up over three (3.03; Ray's is at 2.64) and helped the Yankees fall to 1.5 games back of the Jays.

He, uh, was not happy when — in the middle of all this — it was pointed out to him that both the Jays and Red Sox had comfortable leads.


The week ahead

As I just mentioned, the Jays now sit 1.5 games ahead of the Yankees and in firm control of the AL’s second wild card spot. That’s particularly huge because New York hosts the Texas Rangers this week, while the Jays head to the dreaded Trop to face the Rays. That cushion could prove quite enormous, given what we know about how Jays games in Tampa tend to go. That said, the Rays have had a little stumble of late, splitting a four-game set with the Tigers after losing two of three to the Jays, and also losing two of three to the Tigers a week ago.

Here’s a look at the current American League standings.

The Orioles did the Jays no favours on Sunday with a loss to the Red Sox, and the A’s continue to be hot, but there are several teams you’d rather not be if you’re the Jays. Also, don’t look now, but there is definitely a non-zero chance that the Astros catch the Rays for the best record in the league, which would mean the wild card winner gets Houston for the ALDS, rather than Tampa. Neither option is great, obviously, but I think I could guess which one Jays fans would prefer.

Here’s where the Jays will be this week, plus a look farther below at the competition.

Pitching matchups

Monday, 7:10 PM ET @ Tampa Bay: LHP Robbie Ray (12-5, 2.64 ERA, 233 K/43 BB/177 1/3 IP) vs. RHP Shane Baz (0-0, -.-- ERA, 0 K/0 BB/0 IP)

Tuesday, 7:10 PM ET @ Tampa Bay: RHP Alek Manoah (6-2, 3.39 ERA, 102 K/31 BB/93 IP) vs. RHP Drew Rasmussen (3-1, 3.00 ERA, 89 K/33 BB/81 1/3 IP)

Wednesday, 3:10 PM ET @ Tampa Bay: TBD vs. RHP Michael Wacha (3-5, 5.56 ERA, 109 K/28 BB/111 2/3 IP)

Thursday, 7:40 PM ET @ Minnesota: TBD vs. TBD

Weekend: @ Minnesota

Worth noting

• With Robbie Ray set to pitching on Monday, the Jays now have him lined up to pitch in the wild card game on October 5, should they make it, and also in the crucial Yankees series in the last week of September. They’ll have to skip someone next Monday in order to keep him on regular rest, but that hardly seems like an issue. Ray would pitch Monday in Tampa (Sept. 20), Saturday in Minnesota (Sept. 25), the following Thursday against the Yankees in Toronto (Sept. 30), with his next turn being Tuesday, October 5th. Seems likely, but nothing is firm yet obviously.

• Facing off against Ray in the series opener at the Trop will be another outstanding Rays prospect in Shane Baz, who will make his MLB debut Monday. The number 11 prospect in baseball according to Baseball America, Baz has "significant reliever risk" but also front-line starter potential, as he throws in the upper 90s with an outstanding slider. "Everything else is still a work in progress," they write, but Jays fans who've watched Alek Manoah all year know how well that can work if your stuff is good enough. Baz has a 1.76 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 46 innings in 10 starts since being moved up to Triple-A earlier this season. He was the third piece of the Chris Archer trade, which also netted the Rays Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow. The lesson: Never trade with the Rays, especially if you’re the Pirates.

• Rasmussen threw five scoreless innings against the Jays last week, striking out only three, but allowing just two hits and a walk as he picked up a win. Would like to see better this time!

• Another chance to tee off against Michael Wacha? You love to see it. And the Jays might need it by that point in this series.

• As mentioned above, the Jays won’t have Hyun Jin Ryu to take his regular rotation turn against Wacha in this one, and per Kaitlyn McGrath of the Athletic, Charlie Montoyo told reporters on Sunday that they will likely give the ball to Ross Stripling. Unfortunately, Stripling isn’t fully built up, so will likely only be able to go four innings. Thomas Hatch acquitted himself well in last weekend’s doubleheader in Baltimore, but may not be an option, as he pitched for Buffalo on Saturday, and so would have to pitch on short rest if the Jays were to use him here. (He did, however, only face 12 batters, so maybe there’s a chance he’s brought up to do some bulk work after Stripling anyway. Would seem to make sense but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.)

• Make a note of the time of Wednesday’s game, because we’ve got some afternoon baseball headed our way! The early start also means the Jays will spend about as little time playing a three game series at the Trop as possible. That works, too.

Scoreboard watching

• As mentioned above, the Yankees get three games this week at home to the lowly Rangers, which is nice for them if they can capitalize. They have a tough schedule after that though, with three in Boston next weekend, three in Toronto the following week before they finish up with three at home to the Rays.

• The Red Sox get two off days this week — Monday and Thursday — on either side of a pair of home games against the Mets. They'll host the Yankees next weekend, then go to Baltimore before finishing on the road in Washington. Clearly the schedule is now in their favour.

• The A's and Mariners aren't done in this race yet, but one or both of them might be after they play four times against each other this week in Oakland. The A's then host the Astros on the weekend before paying Seattle a visit for three games next week, then visiting Houston to finish it out. The Mariners visit the Angels this coming weekend and will host them the following weekend to finish to close out their regular season.