SEATTLE – The first reunion between Robbie Ray and his former Toronto Blue Jays teammates since the defending American League Cy Young Award winner left via free agency took place in the T-Mobile outfield Thursday afternoon.
Ray, pants tight as ever, slapped hands and traded hugs, big smiles all around. The grind of a three-home-city season in 2021, particularly in Buffalo when a sizable portion of the club stayed in the same hotel, forged enduring bonds. “It was like a bunch of brothers just hanging out,” he recalled. “And I talk about it all the time – that was a special group we had. It didn’t matter who it was, on a nightly basis it was five, six, seven, eight of us hanging out eating pizza, eating wings in Hyun Jin (Ryu’s) room or my room, just being guys. It brought us closer together for sure.”
Among the strongest of those connections was the one he built with Alek Manoah, which made their high-octane duel won 2-1 Saturday night by the surging Seattle Mariners, all the more compelling. The two exchanged chirps during that outfield gathering Thursday – “I’ve been joking with him that it’s going to be like a father-son reunion out on the mound,” said Ray – before going at each other before a rowdy split-loyalty crowd of 41,210.
While Ray didn’t get as deep in the game, he ended up surrendering one run less than Manoah, limiting the damage against him to a George Springer solo shot in the sixth after escaping a bases-loaded, none-out jam in the fifth unscathed.
Manoah, mixing in his sinker more aggressively against a lineup featuring five left-handed and switch hitters, put zeroes through six. Then J.P. Crawford opened the seventh with a single against the shift and recent acquisition Carlos Santana, someone who would have made some sense for the Blue Jays, unloaded on an 0-1 heater middle up for a two-run shot.
That was the difference, as the Blue Jays loaded the bases with two out in the ninth but Diego Castillo induced a game-ending groundout from Matt Chapman, dropping the visitors to 1-5 on their West Coast swing. They’ve now dropped eight of their past nine, two of those losses coming since a players-only meeting before Friday’s 5-2 loss in 11 innings, underlining the growing urgency around the club.
Manoah more than did his part over 7.1 innings of brilliance, holding the Mariners to two runs on three hits and four walks with seven strikeouts. It made for an impressive bounce back from an odd outing against the Athletics in which he allowed a season-high five runs but probably deserved better.
Ray, meanwhile, held the Blue Jays to three hits and two walks while striking out six, an outing reminiscent of the dominant form he showed throughout his brilliant Cy Young season, even if he got there in a different way. Throwing primarily sinkers, a pitch he incorporated this season so he could attack the outer edge of the plate against righties and not be wholly dependent on high four-seamers and low sliders, he was in charge through four before walks to Alejandro Kirk and Teoscar Hernandez and a Lourdes Gurriel Jr. single loaded the bases.
Ray recovered by striking out Matt Chapman, getting Santiago Espinal on a soft flare to second and Ramiel Tapia on a weak grounder to short.
The Blue Jays made a run at keeping Ray but ultimately handed Kevin Gausman a $110-million, five-year contract a day before the lefty agreed to a $115-million, five-year deal with the Mariners. Between the extra $5 million and the difference in taxes between Washington State and Ontario, the gap between the deals is wider than it looks so the 30-year-old moved on.
“Everybody talks about the money and you want to you want to be in a situation where you can set your family up for a long time. Honestly, that was one of the main factors in coming here as far as that goes,” said Ray. “And then my family, we love the Seattle area. We’re an outdoor family. We’re always hiking, we’re always doing stuff outdoors. And this was the perfect area for us to do that. It just seemed like the right fit.”
The same applies to the Blue Jays with the similarly talented Gausman, who won’t start Sunday as his right ankle continues to heal after being struck by a Wander Franco rocket last weekend. Tuesday is now his next target date, with Max Castillo expected to feature prominently as a starter or bulk arm in his place in the finale.
That it will be a salvage mode afternoon at the end of what’s been a difficult trip to cap a stretch of 31 games in 30 days isn’t ideal, but such is life for the Blue Jays right now. Manoah made only one mistake but right now, that’s one too many.