(1) Tampa Bay Rays vs. (8) Toronto Blue Jays
In advance of the Wild Card round starting today, we’re going to break down each series for you. In this article, we cover the top-seeded Rays against the eighth-seed Toronto Blue Jays, broken down by Amanda Levine and Chelsea Ladd, respectively.
Regular Season Results
In the regular season, the Toronto Blue Jays went 4-6 against the Tampa Bay Rays in the five one-run contests and 2-1 in three two-run games. Despite this, the Jays outscored the Rays 48-44 on the year.
The last time Toronto faced the Rays Game One probable starter Blake Snell, he went out and struck out nine batters in over 5.2 innings pitched, the last of three appearances Snell made against Toronto. The Jays have not faced Tyler Glasnow this season, but it’s safe to say his fastball that averages 96.9 mph (according to Statcast) will not be a comfortable matchup in Game Two. The Bluebirds will face Charlie Morton if there is a Game Three.
Against Morton on August 23, the Jays only struck out four times, hit one home run, and six other hits. Morton allowed six earned runs and one walk. Although he only went a full four innings, he did pitch to two batters in the fifth before receiving the loss in his first game of 2020. It will be telling to see how Toronto lines up against Snell, Glasnow, and Morton in this series.
The Rays’ toughest matchup will be when they face Hyun-Jin Ryu. Tampa only faced him twice this year as Ryu threw 9.2 innings, giving up seven hits, four runs, and striking out ten.
Tampa Bay Rays (40-20)
It feels as if the regular season was just starting to heat up, but the 60-game season wrapped up this weekend with the Tampa Bay Rays winning the AL East, their first division crown since 2010. A shortened season led to an expanded playoff bracket that will have the Rays face off against their divisional opponent, the Toronto Blue Jays.
This season, the Rays battled more pitching injuries than most any other team yet still finished with the best record (40-20) in the American League. Tampa has always been notorious for its starting rotation and bullpen depth with Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, and Charlie Morton leading the team. This year, the pitching depth proved itself as ten pitchers landed on the 45-day IL. Morton and Ryan Yarborough both saw stints on the 10-day IL, but after all of that, the Rays were still able to have the strongest pitching staff in the league. According to MLB.com’s Richard Justice, Tampa has the strongest pitching rotation in the postseason. Snell and Morton have both proved in 2019 their abilities to pitch during the playoffs, but Glasnow has struggled. This year, he’s shown improvements as he led the team in K/9 with 14.3 (Snell was second with 11.3) and threw the most innings (57) out of the five starters. It’ll be interesting to see how he does this year as Glasnow will get the ball in the second game of the Wild Card Series.
In a season of pitching injuries, the Rays starting lineup saw some of their top hitters land on the IL — and some at the worst time. As of right now, it is unclear whether Ji-Man Choi and Yandy Díaz will be ready for the Wild Card Series as they are both on the 10-day IL. The Rays are encouraged though, as manager Kevin Cash expects both of them to be ready to start the series.
Díaz did well for Tampa last season in the Wild Card game against the Athletics at the Oakland Coliseum. He went 3-for-4 with two home runs, but wasn’t able to produce against the Astros in the ALDS; the designated hitter went 0-for-9 against Houston. Choi was hitting .230/.331/.410 before landing on the 10-day IL. If Choi isn’t ready for the Wild Card Series, the Rays will turn to Nate Lowe to play first base and Randy Arozarena to play in the outfield. Austin Meadows, runner-up for the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year award, will most likely miss the postseason, as he landed on the 10-day IL at the end of the regular season. The biggest test the Rays will have is their lineup being productive at the plate. With Meadows likely to miss the entire postseason and Díaz and Choi possibly out for the Wild Card, Lowe and Arozarena will have to fill in those spots for Tampa.
Tampa’s biggest strength is its pitching, but the Rays also have a solid defense to back up their dominant starting pitchers. The Rays were eighth in errors made among AL teams with 33 and seventh in fielding percentage with a .985%. The team’s defense is led by Kevin Keirmaier who makes incredible plays out in center field. He also led the team in DRS with 10 (as a whole the Rays had an rDRS of 24). Mike Brosseau also adds depth behind their pitching as a utility player who has the second-best rDRS on the team with five.
The Rays playoff history is brief, but the team seems to be turning the corner. Tampa has made it to the postseason for its fifth time and won its third division title (2008, 2010, 2020). After winning the second Wild Card last year, the team beat the Oakland A’s in the winner takes all game. Their postseason run would then be cut short after losing in five games to the Astros. Now, the Rays look to make the World Series for only the second time in franchise history as they haven’t returned since 2008 when they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Toronto Blue Jays (32-28)
Although the Rays are favored in this series, the Jays can still find themselves advancing to the next series. The Jays have announced Matt Shoemaker earned the nod for Game One. Shoemaker boasted a 4.71 ERA in the regular season with a 0.0 WAR and a 5.95 FIP in 28.2 innings pitched. It’s quite a bold move for management to stick Shoemaker in the first game rather than Hyun-Jin Ryu — their best starter.
Ryu will take the mound in Game Two, which depending on the first game, could be the last for the Jays. He finished his regular season with a 2.69 ERA, 1.9 WAR, and a 3.01 FIP. The only problem with Ryu: the Rays are a right-handed dominated lineup that could cause him to be at a small disadvantage.
It has also been announced if there is a need for Game Three, Taijuan Walker will start for the Jays. Walker ended his 2020 regular season with a 4.82 ERA between the Jays and his previous team, the Seattle Mariners. He also earned a 0.6 WAR and a 4.56 FIP. The Mariners traded Walker to Toronto on August 27, 2020. During his debut for the Jays, he threw six scoreless innings and allowed only four hits against the Baltimore Orioles.
As far as offense goes, the Jays have Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Vlad Guerrero Jr., Teoscar Hernandez, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Randal Grichuk. You can expect to see all playing against the Rays right-handing pitching, especially due to the fact the Jays simply do not have left-handed at-bats worth replacing them with. However, the Jays have the option to use Travis Shaw and/or Joe Panik depending on the situation of the game. Shaw earned a line of .239/.323/.427 while Panik found himself with a .225/.340/.365.
Gurriel Jr. left the game on Saturday after he fouled a ball off his foot but returned for the final game, going 4-for-4 with a home run and two doubles. He finished with a team-leading .308 batting average while Guerrero Jr., finished off a 12-for-27 week with his ninth home run of the season.
While I’m not sure the Jays will earn the Game One victory, I feel confident the young scrappy team can pull out a win in the second game with Ryu on the mound. The Jays were 20th in strikeout rate and second-last in walk rate — which concerns me going into the series.
Without a doubt, minimizing baserunning blunders and errors will be key for the team. Unfortunately, they have had their fair share of both this season. Guerrero Jr. has often found himself in the mix of misreading plays when his opponent tries to play small ball. Even if the offense can wake up and make a deep run, it will not matter if errors are committed.
In short, they do stand a fighting chance with pulling off an upset in the series. And if they do, it will be a true underdog story to watch unfold this October. The young Blue Jays brood might just pull off something quite magical, which will be memorable for fans who have not witnessed the postseason since 2016. Tampa Bay in 3.
– Chelsea Ladd
Tampa has been to the postseason before and has the dominant pitching lineup with a former AL Cy Young winner and a runner up for the award in 2019. The Blue Jays have also struggled to put up runs this season and lack postseason experience. Ryu, Shaw, and Ross Stripling have all played in the postseason, but the team’s biggest stars Bichette, Biggio, and Guerrero Jr. haven’t (though their fathers have). The Rays biggest advantage is playing at the Trop. At home this season, Tampa went 20-9. It’ll all come down to Díaz and Choi’s injuries and if their offense can put up runs against the Jays. Tampa Bay in 2.
– Amanda Levine
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)