TORONTO — Imagine you had a crystal ball.
Let's say, before the season began, this crystal ball—without telling you anything about the season itself—prophesized the Blue Jays would play in the 2021 AL wild-card game.
At that same time, if someone asked you who would start the wild-card game, the answer would be very easy: Hyun Jin Ryu. He was the Blue Jays' ace last year, he finished third in AL Cy Young voting in 2020 and he's got 41 2/3 playoff innings to his name. Sure, he struggled in his one 2020 playoff game, but go ahead and stick him on the mound for any winner-take-all game.
Obviously, this is no longer the case; Robbie Ray has since emerged as the team's bona fide No. 1. He leads all of MLB in strikeouts, ranks first in the AL in ERA, and will undoubtedly be on the hill for Toronto's most important game of the year, whether that's the wild-card or a Game 163.
Ray's emergence helped him steal the 'ace' title from the incumbent Ryu, but the latter hasn't exactly helped himself either. Strong months of April and May carried Ryu to a 3.56 first-half ERA, but things have come unglued in the back half of the season. He's posted a 5.03 ERA since July 18, largely thanks to three seven-run outings, with the latest one happening in a miserable start against Baltimore on September 11.
One theory to Ryu's struggles concerns time between starts. In games like Friday's 7-3 loss to the Twins—where Ryu pitches on five days rest instead of the normal four—he's usually an elite starting pitcher, posting a 2.61 ERA. This one was an ugly, ugly exception.
Ryu allowed one run in the second, but the wheels came flying off in the third. After a Byron Buxton double plated a run, Ryu surrendered two straight homers.
Before manager Charlie Montoyo mercifully came out to end his starter's night, Ryu allowed five earned runs on five hits, threw 48 pitches and didn't record an out before exiting in the third inning.
Minnesota's offense is no slouch, ranking 11th in baseball with a .316 wOBA, and Ryu said he didn't locate his pitches well enough to win.
"I felt pretty good coming into the game," Ryu said through an interpreter. "But it seemed like I left a lot of my pitches over the plate too much, like the two homeruns I gave up … Overall I just gave up a lot of hard hits."
Ryu said he's feeling fully healthy, but also said he's disappointed to not fulfil his duty as a starting pitcher.
"Obviously, it's a little bit frustrating, especially as a starting pitcher, to have an early exit two games in a row," Ryu said. "It's something all starting pitchers would be frustrated about.
"The best way is to forget about the past and get ready for the next start."
The timing of Ryu's wretched stretch is pertinent, given how Toronto has already started re-jigging its rotation for a possible playoff run. José Berríos, now past his abdominal tightness, will start Sunday's game. The goal of that, Montoyo says, is to give rookie Alek Manoah some rest, but it also conveniently lines Ray up for the AL wild-card game on October 5.
As it stands, Ray and Berríos should be Toronto's top two pitchers for any combo of wild-card or tie-breaker games. After that though, the order of the rotation relatively up for grabs. Manoah is coming off his best start of the season—an eight-inning, one-hit shutout of the division-leading Rays—and appears the favorite to be the No. 3 starter in a potential four-man playoff rotation.
Initially, it seemed impossible to write Ryu off. The Blue Jays gave the 34-year-old an $80-million contract just two offseasons ago with the intention to use him in meaningful games in September and October—situations he was used to performing in during his years with the Dodgers. Yet now, as his ERA jumps to season-high 4.34, things are murky. Ryu isn't performing like the stalwart pitcher of years past, and right now it'd be hard to argue against Steven Matz leapfrogging him in a potential playoff rotation.
'The Korean Monster' deserves to pitch during this September push, but as his troublesome stretch continues—he's authored an 8.57 ERA with eight homers over his last eight starts—questions arise about his spot in the rotation.
"It's just his command hasn't been there," Montoyo said. "And that's one of the reasons he has struggled. But he's fine, he's healthy, he hasn't complained. So it's all about his command. If he gets it, he'll be fine, like he's always done in the past."
Montoyo shot down the idea of using an opener in Ryu's next start, but said it's "always an option" to give Ryu extra rest or skip one of his starts.
There are still 15 games remaining, so a lot can change between now and the end of the season, but Friday's outing was brutal. It was a measuring-stick game, one that gauged how real Ryu's issues are and determined how much the Blue Jays can lean on their big lefty in September and beyond.
Unfortunately for Toronto, Ryu's struggles are very real, and Friday's loss to the Twins made it even harder to trust him in games the club desperately needs to win.