Blue Jays' pitching in playoff form during impressive series win over Rays

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TORONTO — It isn't the Toronto Blue Jays' offence that's making them look like a legitimate playoff team right now.

Robbie Ray's seven-inning, 13-strikeout gem on Wednesday capped off a three-game series win against the Tampa Bay Rays in which Blue Jays pitchers held the highest-scoring team in baseball to just six runs.

Toronto's bats, of course, continued to impress in the series — with a total of 14 runs and 28 hits, including two home runs from Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s 45th of the year. But the masterclass in run prevention put the Blue Jays on a new level this week.

"It all goes back to the mound," said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo on Wednesday. "That's the main reason you win in the big-leagues — with a good starting rotation. And they're doing a great job."

Toronto, ON- September 15  -  Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Robbie Ray (38) pitched seven innings to get the win as Toronto Blue Jays beat the Tampa Bay Rays 6-3 at Rogers Centre in Toronto. September 15, 2021.        (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Robbie Ray's Cy Young case continues to grow. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

This was one of the best stretches we've seen all season from Blue Jays starters, and it gave the team a sixth-consecutive series win as it continues to vie for a Wild Card spot in the American League.

Alek Manoah started things off with a scoreless eight-inning outing on Monday, in which he he struck out 10 batters and allowed just one hit without a single walk in the Blue Jays' 8-1 win.

"Manoah coming out and putting the pressure on, going eight strong innings... He set the tone for the whole series," said Ray after Wednesday's win. "It all starts and ends with the starting pitching, and I feel like everybody, from top to bottom, has stepped up to the challenge. That first game of the series was crucial. Manoah stepped up and pitched a huge game for us."

Manoah was followed by Jose Berrios, who delivered seven innings of one-run ball on Tuesday despite being pulled with some discomfort in his side as the Jays fell 2-0. Much to the Blue Jays' relief, Berrios isn't expected to miss any starts as he's recovering well from the soreness.

Ray brought it home with seven frames of his own, tossing 101 pitches and allowing one earned run off a Mike Zunino solo shot in Wednesday's 6-3 win.

Only once did the Blue Jays allow their opponents to score more than one run in the same inning — Joakim Soria surrendered a two-run homer to Brett Phillips in the final game's top of the eighth. Still, Toronto's relievers held up their end of the bargain, limiting Tampa Bay to five hits in five frames.

That they did all of that against the AL East leaders, in front of a loud home crowd, made it all the more significant.

"We think we're better than the other teams we play, so we go out there with that confidence," said Bichette, who had five RBIs on Wednesday, including a three-run shot in the first inning.

As fun as grand slams and 22-run outings may be, allowing the Baltimore Orioles to cash in a total of 25 of their own never is. And though the Blue Jays emerged as winners in three out of four of those games, there were definite red flags with regards to run prevention.

It was a different story this week — and that's precisely why it's a little easier to trust that this team is equipped for the postseason.

"We did everything," said Montoyo. "We caught the ball, we pitched and we had timely hitting."

The American League Wild Card picture is as murky as ever, with a three-way tie between the Blue Jays, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox promising high stakes and intensity all the way until the end of the regular season. After hovering around .500 for a good stretch of the year, Blue Jays players finally get to show what they're made of.

"I feel like everybody thought that's who we were," said Bichette. "Now, we're showing everybody who we are."

For a young team with much to prove, staying focused and actually pulling ahead of the three-way tie in the Wild Card race can be a challenge in itself. That's yet another unique area in which veterans like Ray can contribute.

"It's just sticking to the process," said Ray, who has two Wild Card game appearances under his belt. "You know, everybody's talking about it. It's a Wild Card race, we're in the thick of it, and these are some meaningful games that we're playing. So I feel like if you can just tune out that noise and go about your process every day, then you're going to be in a good spot."

Rarely ever has this Blue Jays team been predictable this year. A Wild Card game would be a fitting next step.

"It's a really fun game to play in," said Ray. "There's a lot of back and forth and anything can happen. Not a lot of it is by the book and you're doing whatever you can to win that game. It's a really fun experience."

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