Robbie Ray’s grunts resonated through Rogers Centre for the first time Monday.
Whiffs have accompanied Ray’s audible exclamations all season, but in the opening innings against Cleveland, the grunts were met with loud contact.
Toronto’s starting pitching dominated in the first true home series of the season, allowing two runs across three wins against Kansas City. Ray matched those two runs against in the first three innings Monday, failing to record a strikeout until his 69th pitch and allowing five pieces of hard contact.
Allowing six hits, fighting command, and with no run support through the game’s first five innings, Ray kept Toronto in the contest without his premier stuff. While the American League’s best offense put up zeroes, Ray changed his gameplan, battled around leadoff walks, and stranded extra-base hits to keep the door open for a Blue Jay win that never came.
"We had to make some adjustments," Ray said, "It seemed like there was not that much chase, not that much swing-and-miss today. So we tried to just get some soft contact, be in the zone a little bit more, and just get some ground-ball outs ... We grinded through six today."
Ray owned a 2.3 walks per nine coming into Monday’s outing but struggled to locate early, missing the zone with 14 of his first 39 pitches. The southpaw’s newfound command has been the biggest factor in his outstanding 2021, a year removed from leading the league in free passes.
“They made me battle for it," Ray said. "Props to them for doing that.”
Toronto’s fielding picked Ray up at times — gunning a runner out at the plate in the third — and let him down too, committing two errors. But most of the time, Ray worked himself out of jams.
After a leadoff walk, stolen base, and Alejandro Kirk error, Ray found himself with a man on third and no outs in the fifth. While a run scores in that circumstance over 84% of the time, Ray slowly walked back to the mound as he had all day. He calmly went into his stretch, toed the rubber, and recorded the next three outs to strand the runner 90 feet away.
As the crowd erupted following a José Ramírez swing and miss to the end the inning, Ray started his trot back to the dugout unfazed. While Ray Houdinied around nine baserunners without his best stuff, recording his 16th quality start of the season, rookie Eli Morgan confounded Toronto’s lineup.
Failing to pitch more than five innings in any of his first eight career starts, and allowing three or more runs in each outing, Morgan’s five shutout innings put him on pace for his best start ever. He was working towards a sixth shutout frame until Vlad Guerrero Jr.’s bat collided with an inside fastball.
Ray was imperfect, walking the second-most batters of his season, but productive. With Cleveland hitters jumping early in-zone pitches Monday, Ray pivoted the plan to drawing soft contact and missing barrels. He was allowed to come out for the sixth inning, despite reaching 97 pitches in the first five frames, because his 3.04 season ERA and team-leading 118.1 innings pitched earned that opportunity. Reliever Rafael Dolis was warm and waiting if Ray found more trouble, but it never came.
"The more [Ray] throws, the better he gets," manager Charlie Montoyo said after the game. "They did a good job getting his pitch count high, but I knew he was gonna keep us in the game."
Following dominant starts from Alek Manoah and the newly acquire José Berríos, Ray’s two-run performance was Toronto’s third-best start in the last three days. He has the lowest qualified ERA in the rotation, leads the Blue Jays in strikeouts (by 60), and has been the team’s best starter through 100 games. Even when he’s off, Ray has been effective.
The Blue Jay bullpen suffered another loss Monday, but at least in Toronto’s current rotation, Ray's level of performance is now the standard.
“That’s the beautiful thing about our pitching right now,” Montoyo said. “We feel good every day about winning the game.”