By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Sept. 29 (Yonhap) -- The Toronto Blue Jays' South Korean starter Ryu Hyun-jin will start the first elimination game of the team's opening postseason round against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Toronto manager Charlie Montoyo announced Monday (U.S. local time) that Ryu will take the mound in Game 2 of the American League (AL) wild-card series against the Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. The first pitch is 4 p.m. Wednesday (local time), or 5 a.m. Thursday in South Korea.
This is a best-of-three series in this new postseason format, meaning that Game 2, regardless of which team takes the first game, will be an elimination affair. The Rays were the top seed in the AL after the 60-game regular season and will host every game of the series against the eighth-seeded Blue Jays.
Though Ryu had been expected to start Game 1 as the undisputed staff ace, the Blue Jays are also comfortable having the left-hander on the mound for a chance to either advance to the AL Division Series or stay alive in the wild-card series. Right-hander Matt Shoemaker will start Game 1.
In his first regular season with the Blue Jays, Ryu went 5-2 in 12 starts with a 2.69 ERA, fourth-lowest in the AL. He struck out 72 and walked 17 in 67 innings. For the most part, he lived up to the four-year, US$80 million free agent deal -- the largest contract ever for a Blue Jays pitcher.
"In a three-game series, the goal is to win two of them," Montoyo said. "Putting our ace in the middle makes sense to us for several reasons. Plus, our bullpen is fully rested. We said we were going to be creative from the beginning and that's one of the reasons we got here, being creative."
This will be Ryu's ninth career postseason start. He went 3-2 with a 4.05 ERA in his previous outings, all of them coming with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
By starting Ryu in Game 2, the Blue Jays are giving him an extra day of rest following his final regular season start last Thursday against the New York Yankees. In his best outing of the year, Ryu shut down the AL's highest-scoring offense over seven innings, allowing five hits and striking out four while making a season-high 100 pitches. Ryu also became the first and only Blue Jays starter this season to pitch into the seventh inning.
Over the weekend, Montoyo and the Blue Jays' brass refused to name their postseason rotation, long after the Rays had announced theirs. Ryu, as their undisputed No. 1 starter, seemed to be the logical choice for Game 1, but Montoyo said Ryu was "a little sore" after the Yankees outing and he was keeping his rotation options open. The manager insisted Monday that Ryu didn't ask for the extra day and that the club made the decision for him.
Ryu's numbers in starts after four days' rest and outings following five days' rest are basically a wash this year. Ryu was 2-0 with a 2.74 ERA in four starts on four days' rest, while opponents had a .605 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS). On longer rest, Ryu was 3-2 with a 2.29 ERA in seven starts, and opponents posted a .620 OPS. For his career, Ryu is 21-11 with a 2.75 ERA on four days' rest, and 24-17 with a 3.5 ERA after five days of break.
The Blue Jays will be playing in their first postseason since 2016. They weren't regarded as a playoff team before the season, with a talented but inexperienced core of position players still seen a year or two away from contending. But they took full advantage of the shortened schedule and expanded playoff bracket, and the club with the youngest position player group at the average age of 25.9 will look to thrive with the underdog label against the best team in the AL.
And just as he did all season, Ryu, the sage veteran at 33, will be asked to project a sense of calm and stability on the mound that he has all year, even with a defense that has a tendency to get sloppy.
The Rays hit 28 home runs against left-handed pitchers this year, second most in the AL, and posted the league's third-highest OPS against southpaws with .794.
Their lineup doesn't boast a superstar but instead has a collection of under-the-radar contributors who can put the ball in play and get on base. Brandon Lowe, a second baseman who can also handle the outfield, was their best hitter, with team highs of 14 homers, 37 RBIs and a .916 OPS that ranked him eighth in the AL. Second-year infielder Mike Brosseau posted a .936 OPS in limited opportunities, while left fielder Randy Arozarena surprised with seven homers and a 1.022 OPS in 23 games, taking advantage of extra playing time after Austin Meadows went down with an oblique injury.
Their South Korean infielder, Choi Ji-man, is making progress from his hamstring injury. But even if he's activated for this series, he is unlikely to start against Ryu, given his struggles against left-handed pitching. Choi, who bats left-handed but briefly experimented with switch hitting this season, was just 1-for-13 with six strikeouts against southpaws.
The Rays ranked top five in the AL in walks, on-base percentage and doubles, though they also struck out more than any other team in baseball.
Ryu got a firsthand look at the Rays twice during the regular season and came away with contrasting results.
On Opening Day on July 24, Ryu gave up three earned runs on four hits in 4 2/3 innings in a no-decision. One of those hits was a two-run shot by left-handed hitting Yoshi Tsutsugo. Ryu also uncharacteristically walked three batters.
On Aug. 22, Ryu held the Rays to a run on three hits in five innings. He struck out six and walked none, but that didn't factor into a decision after he left the game with the score tied at 1-1.
The Blue Jays played the Rays tough. They lost the season series 4-6 but outscored the Rays 48-44. Five of those games were decided by one run, and the Jays lost four of them. Three other games were two-run contests, and the Jays went 2-1.
In Game 2, the Rays will counter with hard-throwing right-hander Tyler Glasnow. He went 5-1 with a 4.08 ERA this year and struck out 91 in just 57 1/3 innings, for an impressive 14.3 strikeouts per nine innings. Glasnow led the league with seven wild pitches.
The Blue Jays didn't see him in the regular season.
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