Mitchell on the Blue Jays' logic behind pitching Ryu in Game 2
TORONTO — The story the tea leaves were telling over the past few days pointed to something being up, but no one was going to believe it until it actually happened.
Traditionally, when your lone ace is rested and thought to be ready to open a best-of-three postseason series against a legitimate World Series contender, you hand him the ball and don’t think twice.
To kick off the organization’s first postseason trip since 2016, the Toronto Blue Jays decided to buck traditional thinking, instead pushing Hyun-Jin Ryu to Game 2 of the wild-card round on Wednesday and announcing veteran right-hander Matt Shoemaker will start Game 1 on Tuesday evening at Tropicana Field against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Calling the decision “creative” when he explained it Monday afternoon, Jays manager Charlie Montoyo pointed to the way his pitching staff was structured throughout the 60-game regular season.
“In a three-game series, the goal is to win two of them,” Montoyo said. “Putting our ace in the middle makes sense to us for several reasons. Plus, our bullpen’s fully rested. We said we were going to be creative from the beginning and that’s how we got here, being creative.
“To beat one of the best teams in baseball, we’re going to have to be creative.”
That creativity Montoyo points to is the lack of a traditional rotation — other than Ryu, of course — that’s counted on to pitch deep into ballgames.
Over 60 games, the Jays got just 255.1 innings out of the rotation, 27th-most in baseball, while the bullpen threw 269.1 innings, fourth-most in baseball.
With Shoemaker on some sort of pitch count Tuesday — he’s only thrown three innings and 54 pitches since Aug. 21 due to a lat strain that he returned from Sept. 21 — it’s clear that the bullpen will be relied on heavily in Game 1, with lefty Robbie Ray potentially following the veteran right-hander.
Putting Ryu in the middle of Shoemaker and Taijuan Walker is also designed to, ideally, give the bullpen a rest in Game 2 when their ace will be asked to get as many outs as possible.
Unlike a traditional five or seven-game series, Ryu can only pitch once, so the Jays are placing equal importance on each game, and his start will be seen as a must-win, no matter if it’s Tuesday or Wednesday.
Of course, being down 1-0 with a handful of tired relievers won’t be ideal and the criticism will be swift if that happens, but that’s the risk the Jays are willing to take.
“The goal is to win two, so it doesn’t matter when he pitches,” Montoyo said. “That makes a big difference. If it was five (games), then you’d have him for two (starts). A three-game series, pitching the second game with an extra day, that’s our best chance.”
Ryu’s schedule has been talked about a lot this summer.
The Los Angeles Dodgers had a tendency to give the oft-injured lefty five days off between starts rather than the traditional four, but the numbers are similar regardless of rest over the course of his career.
This year, the Jays gave Ryu an extra day seven times in 12 starts, and he responded with a 2.29 ERA, compared to 2.74 on regular rest.
That result is skewed a bit, however, by the fact he was more hittable with an extra day, evidenced by a .605 OPS against on four days and a .620 OPS against on five days of rest.
It would explain a lot if Ryu physically felt he needed the extra day of rest, especially coming off a season-high seven innings and 100 pitches in his final outing of the season on Thursday, one that helped the Blue Jays clinch with three games to spare.
But Montoyo shot that down, saying Ryu didn’t request more rest and that the 33-year-old was physically fine.
They likely wouldn’t want to even hint at some sort of injury limitation, even if it’s debatable what kind of edge the Rays would gain in that scenario.
“We’re looking at the numbers and our best chance and that’s what we came up with,” Montoyo said.
The decision to go with Shoemaker over Walker, who was clearly their second best starter this season with a 2.70 ERA and a .214 batting average against, was about all of the lefty bats the Rays can insert into their platoon-based lineup.
While Walker held right-handed hitters to a measly .178/.252/.263 slash line, lefties teed off to the tune of a .265/.351/.518 slash and an ugly .869 OPS.
With those numbers in mind, it’s clear Jays decision-makers weren’t keen on exposing Walker to a deep and talent Rays lineup early on in the series.
On the other hand, Shoemaker has been able to get either side out with the same success rate throughout his entire career and has limited lefties to a .194 batting average this year.
“Last time he pitched he was really sharp,” Montoyo said of Shoemaker. “He was throwing 94, 95 (mph) because he’s been rested now. I really feel good about him taking the mound. He’s been one of our best pitchers all year, he just got hurt.”
Shoemaker found out he’d be making his first postseason start in six years Monday, as the Jays decided to scrap his final regular season start over the weekend in order to keep their options open.
“Postseason baseball, it’s different,” Shoemaker said. “It’s exciting to say the least.
“This is only going to be my second time pitching in the postseason. I got a really good taste of it early on a few years ago and you always miss it when you’re not there.”
Like any pitching decision, the results will tell the story of whether it’s right or wrong.
If the Jays can somehow cobble together enough offence and outs to beat Blake Snell and the Rays in Game 1 and then send their ace to the hill with a chance to finish the series Wednesday, they’ll look like geniuses.
If Shoemaker gets shelled and the Jays use up a handful of bullpen arms, they’ll quickly be facing elimination and the pressure will be on Ryu to save their season, rather than deliver a quick and decisive blow at the outset of the series.
Cunningly creative or overly cute?
The answer to that question lies in the performance of Shoemaker and the bullpen arms that will undoubtedly follow on Tuesday.