TORONTO – The urgency inherent to a 60-game schedule made a return to form for Hyun-Jin Ryu a matter of the upmost importance for the Toronto Blue Jays. In his first two outings, the ace left-hander didn’t look like himself, with command issues marring his opening day outing against Tampa Bay and a dip in velocity compounding matters against Washington last week.
Ryu turned all that around over five dominant innings Wednesday night in a 2-1 win over Atlanta, regaining the power on his pitches along with the pinpoint location he’s known for. Opposing batters swung and missed at 21 of his 84 pitches – an impressive 25 per cent – resulting in eight strikeouts against three walks and a single hit that could easily have been scored an error.
It’s the kind of performance the Blue Jays anted up $80 million, over four years for.
In concert with some opportunistic offence and timely relief work, the 4-5 Blue Jays ended a three-game losing streak and gave themselves a chance to win a series for the first time this year when Nate Pearson starts Thursday’s finale.
Ryu was the driving force in this one, leveraging the combination of video work, flat-ground throwing and refinements that were the focus of his between outings work.
The most dramatic differences showed up in his changeup, which was nearly two m.p.h. harder at 80 than in his last time out and produced 14 whiffs, and his cutter, which was back up at 86.4 m.p.h. and generated five whiffs, rather than the softer slider he used in his first two starts.
Ryu’s four-seamer, which averaged 90 m.p.h. up from 88.8 last week, was much sharper as well, and allowed him to work the inner half with hard staff and then go softer away. That was the recipe he largely rode to dominance with the Los Angeles Dodgers last year and gave Atlanta fits all night on Wednesday.
The Blue Jays needed every one of the zeroes he put up, as Sean Newcomb and the Braves’ bullpen again kept them under wraps. They used some aggressiveness on the base-paths to spur themselves along, with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., of all people, using his legs to get things started.
With one out in the second, he doubled and after a Randal Grichuk single moved him to third, he surprisingly broke for home on a shallow fly ball to right by Danny Jansen. Unwisely, Austin Riley cut off a good Ronald Acuna Jr., throw to the plate, allowing Guerrero to open the scoring.
Then in the fifth, Bo Bichette hit a soft flare to centre that popped out of a sliding Ender Inciarte’s glove for a base hit. He promptly stole second and scored when Cavan Biggio capitalized by ripping a high fastball from Newcomb to right for a base hit.
Thomas Hatch recorded four outs before Adam Duvall took him deep to cut the Blue Jays lead in half. Ryan Borucki struck out a pair to finish off the seventh, Jordan Romano of Markham, Ont., delivered another overpowering eighth, and Anthony Bass survived a hit and a walk in the ninth for his second save.
In the ongoing absence of the kind of breathing room the offence was expected to provide, the Blue Jays increasingly need their arms to pick up the slack. Ryu, in regaining his rhythm, certainly did his part to help cover the gap.