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Deja vu all over again: Blue Jays' Ryu Hyun-jin picks up sloppy teammates for win

All News 14:00 September 03, 2020

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Sept. 3 (Yonhap) -- He's seen all this before.

So far in his first season with the young and still-improving Toronto Blue Jays, South Korean starter Ryu Hyun-jin must be having flashbacks to his Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) days.

Pitching for the Hanwha Eagles from 2006 to 2012, Ryu often had to grab them by their collar and carry them to victories in games that they had no business winning.

In this Getty Images photo, Ryu Hyun-jin of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches against the Miami Marlins in the bottom of the first inning of a Major League Baseball regular season game at Marlins Park in Miami on Sept. 2, 2020. (Yonhap)

Take the 2010 season, for instance. The Eagles finished in last place and won just 49 games. Ryu went 16-4 with a 1.82 ERA that season, tossing five complete games and three shutouts. With subpar defense behind him, striking out batters was often the best way to get out of trouble. The Eagles ranked last in team batting average and runs scored that year, meaning Ryu really had to bear down and keep opponents off the board just to give his team a chance to win.

Now, the Blue Jays are a playoff contender, and their offense has picked up steam after a lethargic start. But their defense still leaves much to be desired, and not counting would-be base stealers getting caught, the Blue Jays have made 23 outs on base, more than anyone in the American League (AL) this year.

Ryu's latest performance against the Miami Marlins was somewhat reminiscent of those long-gone days.

Ryu improved to 3-1 by holding the Marlins to a run over six innings in a 2-1 victory at Marlins Park in Miami on Wednesday (local time). Ryu matched his season high with eight strikeouts, including a pair of them to get out of a second-inning jam created by shoddy defense.

In this Associated Press photo, Ryu Hyun-jin of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches against the Miami Marlins in the bottom of the third inning of a Major League Baseball regular season game at Marlins Park in Miami on Sept. 2, 2020. (Yonhap)

In the fifth, Ryu gave up three straight singles with two outs for the Marlins' only run of the game. Ryu struck out the power-hitting Jesus Aguilar to limit the damage to one run.

Ryu now has 48 strikeouts in 43 innings this season, for a strikeout-per-nine innings (K/9) rate of 10.05.

From his days with the Los Angeles Dodgers, a perennial contender with a stout defense, Ryu built a reputation as someone who pitches to contact. He didn't have a K/9 rate higher than 8.2 in any of his four full seasons there. He trusted his defense to get the job done, and he could be more efficient that way.

Case in point: Ryu threw only 93 pitches for a complete game shutout on May 7 last year against the Atlanta Braves. He had six strikeouts and 13 groundouts.

This year, he has gone six innings four times but needed over 90 pitches for three of those outings. It's partially due to pesky hitters fouling off pitches and grinding out at-bats, but it's also the flip side of having an unusually high strikeout total. Halfway through this truncated, 60-game season, Ryu finds himself among renowned strikeout artists like Shane Bieber and Gerrit Cole on the AL K/9 leaderboard.

In this Associated Press photo, Jonathan Villar of the Toronto Blue Jays (R) is tagged out by Miami Marlins second baseman Jon Berti at second base after attempting to stretch out a single during the top of the first inning of a Major League Baseball regular season game at Marlins Park in Miami on Sept. 2, 2020. (Yonhap)

Numbers show that Ryu is missing slightly more bats than a year ago. His zone contact rate, the percentage of times a better makes contact with a ball in the strike zone, is 81.5 percent this year, down from 84.8 percent in 2019. It would be the lowest of his career if it holds up.

Ryu himself insists he hasn't been pitching any differently.

"My approach to hitters doesn't change just because errors are made," Ryu said in his postgame Zoom media session. "I make adjustments based on where runners are, but I don't change my approach (right after errors)."

In the top of the second, Villar, playing second base, and right fielder Teoscar Hernandez couldn't get to a soft fly to shallow right field by Brian Anderson, who ended up with the bloop single. Corey Dickerson then hit a grounder to Villar for what should have been a double play, but the second baseman instead made a poor throw to second that pulled shortstop Santiago Espinal off the bag.

Villar did make a difficult play up the middle to nab Lewis Brison for the first out of the inning. Then with runners at second and third, it was Ryu's time to take care of business, as he struck out the next two batters.

In this Getty Images photo, Toronto Blue Jays players celebrate their 2-1 victory over the Miami Marlins in a Major League Baseball regular season game at Marlins Park in Miami on Sept. 2, 2020. (Yonhap)

He had to labor through the 19-pitch inning, but in the top of the third, the Blue Jays went down in order in just seven pitches against starter Sixto Sanchez. Ryu could barely catch a breath before going back out for the third inning and missed badly with his first two pitches.

The two-run homer by Lourdes Gurriel Jr. in the fifth provided the only offense for the Blue Jays, who were thrown out on base three times. Villar was the culprit on two occasions.

Villar hit a two-out single to left in the first inning and then inexplicably tried to stretch it into a double, only to be thrown out easily at second. Gurriel Jr. was picked off at first following a pitch in the dirt in the second inning, as he couldn't decide whether to take off for second or stay put at first.

Then in the top third, Villar was picked off at third base as Teoscar Hernandez took off from first to steal second, wasting the Blue Jays' first chance with a man in scoring position.

Ryu, long known as the stoic type who rarely shows any emotions, kept his game face on through all that mess.

"It's not as though our runners got thrown out on purpose; the guys were trying to make something happen," Ryu said. "There's nothing I can do about it as a starting pitcher. My focus was on trying not to give up the first run of the game."

In this Getty Images photo, Ryu Hyun-jin of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches against the Miami Marlins in the bottom of the first inning of a Major League Baseball regular season game at Marlins Park in Miami on Sept. 2, 2020. (Yonhap)

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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