Robbie Ray was coming up aces — again.
Through five innings at a Rogers Centre electrified by a monster RBI double from Vlad Guerrero Jr. in the bottom of the inning, Ray had allowed just one hit and managed to get DJ LeMahieu to ground out to open the sixth.
Couple that with an out-of-town update beamed through the open-roofed dome showing the Boston Red Sox losing lopsidedly to the Orioles, suddenly the let’s-get-to-the-playoffs party was ready to rock among the sellout crowd of 29,659.
And then Ray took one on the chin. And another. And then one more for good measure in what could be the hard-throwing lefty’s final act in a short but near spectacular tenure with the Jays.
First, a shot to the right (from the Yankees Anthony Rizzo), then one to centre (from the next batter Aaron Judge, with his second of the game) and then the knockout blow, also to centre, a two-run shot from Gleyber Torres.
Just like that, the Jays were on the canvas, Ray was out of the game and the Yankees well on their way to a clutch and critical 6-2 win that put their AL East rival’s playoff aspirations on life support.
Just like that, a one-hitter turned Ray into a punch-drunk pitcher left to hand the ball to manager Charlie Montoyo and exit the mound, barely able to look up at the crowd applauding his breakthrough season.
And just like that, the Jays’ playoff hopes took a sideswipe and will require a huge weekend with some help from both coasts of the U.S. to qualify.
Anthony Rizzo of the New York Yankees celebrates his home run with Aaron Judge in the sixth inning. COLE BURSTON/GETTY IMAGES“They can hit,” a sullen Ray said after matching a career-high for homers allowed. “They’ve proven it all year. That’s a tough lineup from top to bottom.”
All losses with so much on the line have an excruciating element to them. But this was a tough one to stomach on so many fronts for the Jays, who dropped two of three to the Yankees and now need a magical final weekend to advance.
For Ray, it was the most untimely of nights to allow five earned runs, his most of the season. And his usual strikeout prowess was missing as the Yankees laid off his slider. Ray had just four strikeouts, his fewest since Aug. 2, but still is the heavy favourite to capture the American League Cy Young Award.
Worse yet, the four hits he allowed were all homers, with Judge’s first of the night — a mammoth 455 shot just below the scoreboard in centre — opening the scoring in the first inning and the rock ’em, sock ’em sixth the lefty’s ultimate downfall.
Boston did go on to lose 6-2 in Baltimore, meaning the Jays now trail both Boston and Seattle by a full game for the second wild-card spot and are a distant three behind the Yankees, who can smell the wire.
It almost certainly will necessitate a weekend sweep of the Orioles here while hoping the Red Sox drop at least one to Washington and Seattle at least one to the Los Angeles Angels.
The Jays certainly haven’t helped themselves down the stretch of what is now a four-horse race, losing six of their past 10.
“We have to win every game now for sure,” Montoyo said, his one-game-at-a-time mantra now loaded with urgency.
That they are still alive heading to Game 160 will feel like a hollow accomplishment at this point, however, but given the wild swings in this race, they’ll see what happens.
If the Jays don’t make it through, it’s a solid possibility that Thursday’s outing was Ray’s last as a Jay, a brilliant campaign that saw him emerge as the ace of the Toronto staff. His 5.1 innings in his regular-season finale included three walks and four strikeouts.
It was the four hits allowed that had the lefty shaking his head in disbelief as Montoyo took him out of the game. Four hits, all of them leaving the park and all of them no-doubters.
When the Bronx Bombers go bombing, they do it in style. In their past 21 games, 74 of their 110 runs have been scored via the long ball. And Thursday was the fourth time this season they’ve banged out five or more.
The three from a run of four batters in the sixth was as prodigious as it gets, of course. But forget the silliness of questioning whether Montoyo left Ray into long. The bull of the Jays staff was pitching like the Cy Young favourite he has become.
He just happened to run into a formidable group of Yankees hitters confident and competent enough to administer the knockout blow.
While Ray was the main victim, the Yankees had a fifth hit (and a fifth homer) in them off the bat of centre fielder Brett Gardner, a solo effort in the ninth … Helping keep the Jays within reach was righty Nate Pearson, who threw two scoreless innings of relief, striking out four while featuring a fastball hitting 102 miles per hour … The Jays’ bid for a rally began in the eighth when red-hot Bo Bichette blasted a leadoff double but fizzled rather spectacularly when Teoscar Hernandez, Corey Dickerson and Alejandro Kirk struck out in order … They got the lead man on in the ninth, as well … When he’s on, Judge can be one of the most prolific sluggers in the game and that was certainly the case in this series. His pair of homers on Thursday bumped his season total to 39 … The Jays tied it up in the second on a two-out double from Dickerson that drove in Bichette, who led off the inning with a single.
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The Jays have had to worry about every out and every inning — almost literally — before they can plan for the potential wildness of next week.
But pitching coach Pete Walker admits the coaching staff has advanced planned for every possible permutation that awaits.
“We’ve thought it all through, obviously the different scenarios,” Walker said. “But really, our focus is on winning each night, but we have adjusted things.
“It will be good to have (Jose) Berrios and Ray available for tiebreakers and wild cards.”
Meanwhile, the array of possibilities for next week have been mind-boggling for the Jays, even with Thursday’s result.
Among the craziest of scenarios, the team had to plan for a season-ending game here on Sunday — with a strong possibility of it being must-win, followed by a potential trip to Seattle for a game Monday and with a win, back to New York for a wild-card game Tuesday.
And that’s just one of a dozen or more potential scenarios that tend to boggle the mind, especially with the Mariners being prominent in the fray.
AROUND THE BASES
For the season-ending series against the O’s beginning on Friday, Montoyo plans to run out Steven Matz, Alek Manoah and Hyun-Jin Ryu as his starters … Lourdes Gurriel Jr. wasn’t available on Thursday, nursing the injured finger gashed by teammate Randal Grichuk’s cleat.