Hyun-Jin Ryu turned in his worst pitching performance of the season in Toronto’s most important game on Wednesday and with it the Blue Jays were eliminated from the American League playoffs.
The most significant free-agent signee in club history, Ryu was lifted with two out in the second inning. By then he had faced 15 batters and had 11 reach base. Of the eight hits he allowed, two were home runs, the second a grand slam by Hunter Renfroe that pitched Toronto into a 7-0 hole in what became an 8-2 defeat by Tampa Bay at Tropicana Field.
The Blue Jays won nine of Ryu’s 12 starts during the regular season and counted on him to extend the best-of-three wild-card series to its third game. In fact, they skipped over their left-handed ace in Game 1 so he would pitch a possible elimination game.
As it turned out, he struggled with his command, his velocity was down and he got thrashed by the Rays in a manner that had not happened all season.
“I physically felt good,” Ryu said. “I think the mistakes I made hurt me more than the velocity itself. They were getting hits off of all of my pitches. I just didn’t have a good game.”
Ryu gave up hits to four of the Rays' first five hitters but allowed only one run thanks to a base-running blunder by leadoff man Mike Brosseau.
Things spun out of control in the second, when Ryu allowed four hits and a walk and was victimized by a two-out error by shortstop Bo Bichette on an easy grounder immediately before Renfroe lofted a poorly thrown cut fastball down the left-field line with the bases loaded. Against Tampa Bay’s elite pitching staff, a 7-0 disadvantage was too much to overcome.
“It happens,” Toronto manager Charlie Montoyo said of Ryu’s rocky start. “They just did a good job against him. Their approach was outstanding. You have to give their hitters credit."
Bichette, who committed only three errors during the regular season, earlier botched a throw to first base in the first inning. Ryu was only charged with three earned runs but it was clear he was not sharp from the beginning.
“Today is not going to affect our belief in him,” Bichette said. “He really carried us this year. He’s our guy. He has done everything we have asked of him.”
Tampa Bay starter Tyler Glasnow, who survived a mild case of COVID-19 early on, scattered six hits and allowed two runs with eight strikeouts over six innings. The Rays bullpen locked it down from there.
“Honestly, I believe they are the best team in the American League," Montoyo said.
On the up side, Danny Jansen provided Toronto’s offence with a pair of long home runs that were blasted a combined 837 feet. And rookie Nate Pearson pitched two perfect innings and struck out five. He threw fastballs as hard as 101 miles an hour and a change-up at 92.
The Blue Jays unexpectedly reached the postseason for the first time since 2016 in a campaign shortened to 60 games from 162 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They went 31-29 but finished nine games behind Tampa Bay.
The Rays will now travel to San Diego and meet the winner of the New York Yankees-Cleveland matchup in a best-of-five AL Divisional Series.
Toronto struggled at the plate in both games and got little production from its best players. Cavan Biggio went 1-for-8 with six strikeouts. Bichette did not have a hit in six at-bats. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Randal Grichuk each went 1-for-7. Combined, that’s 3-for-28.
Even in disappointment there is a lot to look forward to. The Blue Jays’ 28-man wild-card roster included 19 players who were making their postseason debuts. Toronto was the youngest of 16 teams to make the playoffs.
That was accomplished in a peculiar year during which the team had to play home games in Buffalo because of border restrictions and, related to that, spent the first two weeks on the road.
“I don’t want the last two games to taint what we accomplished this season,” said Ryu, who just completed the first year of four on a contract that pays him US$20-million a year. “We did a great job overcoming a lot of hardships. It was a very difficult time for us due to COVID-19 and a shortened season.”
Before the game, Rowdy Tellez said the Blue Jays were not feeling any undue pressure.
“We are just focused on playing today, and I don’t any of us are worried about being eliminated,” Tellez said.
In the end, the Blue Jays looked as though the pressure got to them. Montoyo said he planned to send his players an e-mail on Thursday thanking them for their effort.
Jansen was disappointed afterward, but looking forward.
“We have a lot to be proud of,” he said. We knocked on the door. Next year, we will go through it. We are hungry for more."