With Superior Depth Everywhere, Rays Bounce Blue Jays From Postseason

Postseason baseball is supposed to be nonsense, a combination of drama and chaos that results in the best laid plans and prognostications of men and metrics being ruined with ease. Every now and then though, you get a game or series that plays out on the field the way it should on paper. Such was the case in Tampa, where the No. 1 seed Rays did as everyone expected and swept the eighth-seeded Blue Jays out of the way with a comfortable 8–2 win in Game 2 to advance to the Division Series.

There was a chance, before things began, that the scrappy young Jays could maybe steal one off the Rays and force things to a winner-take-all Game 3. But the deck was arranged so heavily in Tampa’s favor that those odds were low from the start and plunged as it went on. The Rays had a better and more flexible lineup. They had a better rotation. They had a better and deeper bullpen. They had a better defense that was always in the right spot at the right time. They had home field advantage (for whatever that’s worth when the official attendance is just the few dozen Rays employees and team family members who were sitting in an otherwise empty Tropicana Field). Toronto’s best selling point was that anything can and often does happen in a short series, and the Rays snuffed that out so quickly that, by the time the third inning of Game 2 rolled around, it was hard to see how anyone at all had talked themselves into a Jays upset.

The best hope Toronto had was the man on the mound, left-hander Hyun-jin Ryu. After excelling in his first regular season with the Blue Jays, the rock of the rotation had been pushed to Game 2 to get him some extra rest. That decision didn’t work out. With his team’s season on the line, Ryu needed 25 pitches to get through the first inning, in which he loaded the bases with none out and somehow allowed only a single run. He couldn’t escape his doom in the second, however. A Kevin Kiermaier single and a Mike Zunino homer made it 3–0. Six batters later, with the bases again loaded, Hunter Renfroe lofted a high cutter into the left-field corner for a grand slam. Just like that, it was 7–0 Rays. Ryu’s day was done, and so were the Blue Jays.

You can quibble if you want with Toronto’s choice to hold Ryu instead of starting the series with him. But had it been Game 1 or 2, the outcome would’ve been the same: a Tampa lineup optimized to beat him. Of the Rays’ hitters penciled in for Wednesday afternoon’s clincher, all but regular second baseman Brandon Lowe swing from the right side. In Game 1, Kevin Cash stuck as many lefties as he could into the order against the right-handed Matt Shoemaker. Seeking the platoon advantage isn’t exactly rocket science on the part of the Rays. But building that advantage into the roster such that Cash can plug in opposite-handed hitters whenever he needs to goes a long way toward explaining how Tampa ended up with the AL’s best record and that No. 1 seed. The team’s depth is endless, and few can match its ability to put players into the best possible situation and create maximum production out of relative nobodies like Randy Arozarena or Mike Brosseau.

Take Renfroe, for instance. In a vacuum, the Rays would probably love to undo the trade that brought him to Tampa, as it cost them not just the objectively better Tommy Pham but also Jake Cronenworth, who promptly turned into a Rookie of the Year contender in San Diego. Renfroe’s awful 2020 season — .156/.292/.393 with a 76 wRC+ and -0.4 WAR — made that deal look even more lopsided. But while Renfroe is one of the many cheap low-contact sluggers that now float around modern baseball, he also demolishes left-handed pitching, boasting a .574 slugging percentage and 137 wRC+ against them in his career. As such, there he was starting against Ryu, and there he was striking the big blow against the southpaw, putting the game out of reach with his grand slam.

That’s what the Rays do: At every spot, they have an edge, usually by design. They platoon brilliantly, they have a gauntlet of hard-throwing relievers from both sides of the mound (even despite losing roughly two dozen of them during the season to injury), and when all else fails, they can roll out Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow atop the rotation. The latter didn’t have a spotless outing, giving up two long homers to Danny Jansen that went about a mile in combined distance, briefly forcing a trainer visit as he looked to be in some discomfort during the fourth inning. But that was a small smudge on an otherwise spotless day, and he still went six innings with eight strikeouts. Most teams would kill for blemishes that look like that.

With Toronto out of the way, Tampa now awaits the winner of the Yankees-Indians series that will pit it against either the AL’s most fearsome rotation or the hated division rival with a lineup built to torture opposing pitching. Whoever advances, the Rays will be ready for them. They always are.

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1 year ago

I wasn’t expecting anything too upsetting, but I’m glad the Jays made it to the post-season. Giving the young core just a taste of [October] baseball is what will have them coming back for more in the future. The window is opening, and the sun sure is shining bright!