Robbie Ray handed the baseball to Charlie Montoyo and walked slowly from the mound at the Rogers Centre, not looking up, maybe for the last time as a Toronto Blue Jay.
It wasn’t the story he wanted to write on this special night, with so much on the line. It wasn’t the way he wanted to complete his miraculous season with the Jays.
When he pitches next, maybe it will be in Toronto, with free agency looming maybe it will be someplace else, maybe it will be an unlikely wild-card game. But this season, now with the Cy Young Award a relatively wide-open race, is so much like this rather wonderful Blue Jays season. It was almost there, almost incredible. It was, wild card or no wild card, special and memorable.
And now there are only three regular-season games left to play for the Jays and so much uncertainty for the final weekend of this American League season.
And the question for Ray, which he won’t answer necessarily yet, is what is in his future, and frankly, where do the Jays go with him and without him?
There is some bittersweet to this final weekend in Toronto. Ray was the Blue Jays’ best starting pitcher from beginning to end. Marcus Semien, playing out of position at second base, has had a brilliant season. and he too will likely take his final swings as a Jay on Sunday afternoon. He’s a free agent as well, and yet the Blue Jays still can’t seem to fight their way to a wild-card spot with a Cy Young-like season from Ray and an MVP kind of year from Semien.
They may lose one or both before next season begins — and how do you replace either?
Ray has been a giant on the mound for almost the entire season. This morning, the boxscore will lie just a little bit. It will have Ray pitching just more than five innings, giving up five earned runs, and that is accurate but not necessarily reflective. After Aaron Judge hit a home run in the first inning — the kind of shot that the marvelous Judge can manage — the Yankees led 1-0 before Ray settled down rather brilliantly.
He went 16 straight batters after the Judge home run and didn’t give up a hit. And it wasn’t just that he didn’t give up a hit. He gave up lazy fly balls. He gave up easy grounders. He was spectacular until he went through the Yankees for that dangerous third time. That number that drives the pitchers of old somewhat crazy but the statistics people will tell you has significant merit.
In the sixth, Ray made a rather sweet fielding play to get the first out. And then everything fell apart.
Anthony Rizzo hit a home run with one out to tie the game 2-2. Judge followed that with another bomb and it was 3-2 Yankees. Ray then walked Giancarlo Stanton on pitches the Jays thought were strikes before Gleyber Torres hit another home run — a three-homer inning against the American League’s best pitcher this season — and it was 5-2 New York.
Four hits against Ray. That was great. Four home runs. Not so great.
And this coming on a night when Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. gave the Jays an early opportunity. Bichette had won the second game of the series on Wednesday with a late home run after an early home run. Guerrero had been quiet of late until he hit a run-scoring double in the fifth inning which looked like it was going to be a home run after the Jays won an umpire challenge on an apparent double play.
When you win those, as inconsistent as they might be, you think things are going the Jays’ way. The Jays got the run. Ray looked almost unhittable … until he was — and give the Yankees credit for that, their blasts coming at the most opportune time.
The Jays now trail the Yankees by three games with three to go, which basically rules them out of that first wild-card spot. Seattle and Boston are a game ahead of Toronto. In a game of numbers, the walls are closing in on the Jays.
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Ray was so close to being near perfect on Thursday night. He may not have had his unhittable slider, but the Yankees couldn’t solve him through the first five innings. Couldn’t even manage a hit after the Judge home run. And then what looked great, wasn’t, the story in some ways of this Blue Jays team and this season.
With two MVP candidates, a Cy Young candidate, an infield hitting with record power numbers, a deep starting pitching staff — maybe the deepest in the division — and a lights-out closer, they still find themselves in fourth place in the East.
Like Robbie Ray’s first and perhaps only full season as a Blue Jay, there was magic all around. And now the Jays are left to figure out how this season got away from them.