Blue Jays’ Ryu back to peak levels in twinbill-opening shutout of Rangers

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There’s been no shortage of encouraging developments for the Toronto Blue Jays over the last week.

Sending four players to the All-Star Game, one of whom created its emblematic moment with an interplanetary home run and came away with the game’s MVP award. Adding a crop of young talent to the club’s farm system through the draft, many of whom are currently undergoing physicals in Dunedin, Fla., and will be announced as having signed with the organization next week. Adding Ryan Borucki back to a bullpen that needs all the help it can get. Adding a win in the standings with a blowout of the Texas Rangers on Friday night.

Watching every team they’re looking up at in the wild-card race taste defeat on Saturday. Seeing Vladimir Guerrero Jr. pick up right where he left off prior to the break, swatting a pair of homers to reach 30 through 88 games, a franchise record. Receiving clearance to cross the border at the end of the month, as perhaps you’ve heard, and return to Rogers Centre to play a true home game for the first time in 670 days.

And then, Sunday, there was Hyun-Jin Ryu. It’s not that he’d been bad. He entered his first outing after the all-star break rocking a 3.56 ERA over 98.2 innings this season, which any team would take. He just hadn’t been as good recently — Ryu carried a 4.91 ERA over seven outings since the beginning of June — as his track record shows he can be.

He wasn’t landing his changeup; he wasn’t commanding his cutter. He’d given up as many home runs in June (six) as he did over the entire 2020 season. He’d walked two or more in six of his last eight starts after not walking two in any of his first nine. In 2019, his final season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Ryu walked two or more only three times over 29 starts. Something was off.

But whatever it was didn’t join Ryu on the mound Sunday, when he performed at peak levels against an admittedly unimpressive Rangers lineup, spinning a seven-inning, complete-game shutout as the Blue Jays took the first half of a doubleheader, 5-0.

Ryu had his fastball sitting 90.6-m.p.h. — a tick above his season average — and touching 93. He had his changeup fading from the bottom of the zone to beneath it, generating seven swinging strikes. He had his cutter up-and-in to right-handers and down-and-away from lefties. He had everything he needed to finish the job with only 83 pitches, 54 of them strikes.

And he looked extremely well rested, which he was. Thanks to the all-star break, the Blue Jays were able to mimic an IL stint for Ryu, who went 10 days between his last outing on July 7 and this one. That isn’t to say that he needed one. But at this point in the season, any pitcher who’s logged nearly 100 innings, like Ryu has, probably does.

It certainly couldn’t hurt. Ryu spent plenty of time on the actual IL during his Dodgers career and is known for pitching through various maladies — the effectiveness he’s still able to achieve in spite of that being a hallmark of why he’s one of the game’s best pitchers. Still, he sat out 10 days with a glute issue earlier this season and, at 34, he’s not going to bounce back from those minor ailments like he used to.

The break also gave Ryu the opportunity to throw a bullpen session, something he typically eschews between outings in favour of prioritizing recovery. And it was a good time for one, as he’s battled his changeup and cutter command for weeks now, struggling to repeat a consistent arm slot with either pitch.

Ryu’s not overpowering anyone with a fastball that touches 91-m.p.h. on a good day, which makes his grasp of those secondary weapons crucial. He needs to spot them where he wants to and prove he can land them for strikes. Otherwise, hitters can go heater hunting and lay off anything cutting, spinning, or fading.

That wasn’t the case from the jump Sunday as, despite some loud contact, Ryu got his first three outs with only four pitches. And despite a George Springer centre field misplay that gifted Joey Gallo a leadoff triple in the second, Ryu got his next three outs with a pair of strikeouts and a pop up, stranding the runner at third.

And despite a couple runners reaching with two out in the third, Ryu escaped by getting Adolis Garcia to swing-and-miss chasing three consecutive changeups. There was no “despite” in the fourth, with Ryu simply retiring the side on eight pitches thanks to three soft-hit balls in play.

As he took the mound for the fifth, Ryu had thrown only 54 pitches. And as he walked back to the dugout after three more hyper-efficient outs, he’d thrown only 61. The sixth wasn’t quite as easy; but it wasn’t exactly stressful, either, as Ryu worked around a Nate Lowe double and retired the side on a dozen pitches. And the seventh was even simpler as Ryu cruised through on 10 pitches, finishing his first complete game as a Blue Jay, and the first for the franchise since Marcus Stroman pitched one over nine innings on April 23, 2017.

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