Best Birds For All Time (Series Preview: Tampa Bay Rays (89-54) vs. Toronto Blue Jays (80-63))

It began as all expected it would: With a 47-year old grown-ass man screaming obscenities at another man for looking at him funny.

Friday’s game between the surging Toronto Blue Jays and the eventual victors: The lowly Baltimore Orioles, was pretty uneventful save for a few things, the most mundane being the underperformance of American League Cy Young candidate Robbie Ray. The first instance of weirdness occurred in the bottom of the second inning, when a scuffling Ray, who had surrendered a triple to Kelvin Gutiérrez and a walk to Austin Wynns with no outs, supposedly grew suspicious that the Orioles were stealing signs off him and looked into Baltimore’s dugout a bit too long for Orioles manager Brandon Hyde’s liking. Hyde, a man hired for pretty much the explicit purpose of having a warm body fill the manager’s seat while the Orioles tank for the future, took to the top steps and began screaming at Ray turning a non-issue into an expletive-filled tantrum that that’s almost as hilarious as it is bewildering.

This must be the famous “managers standing up for their guys” strategy that Charlie Montoyo-hating fans who base way too much of their baseball opinions on hockey keep talking about. Proving the superiority of this approach, Hyde would watch Ray shut down the Orioles for the remainder of his short start.

The next instance of weirdness came in the top of the sixth when, with Lourdes Gurriel Jr. on second base with one out, Randal Grichuk hit a ground ball to second base. Instead of taking the safe out at first, second baseman Jahmai Jones chose to toss the ball to third base to try to get Gurriel but uncorked a terrible throw that third baseman Gutiérrez did an equally terrible job of getting in front of. Lourdes rounded third to score only for relief pitcher Fernando Abad body-checked him in a move that didn’t exactly look accidental.

The only thing more bewildering than why in the fuck Abad would choose to do that was the relative lack of media attention or reaction it got relative to Hyde’s blow-up. Thankfully Gurriel wasn’t hurt and the Jays would go on to uneventfully lose the game 6-3. Not the best start. But the Jays would have more chances to come out of Baltimore with a favourable result.

And boy did it ever look like the Jays were gonna fuck it up when they went into the seventh and final inning of Game 1 of the doubleheader down 10-7 after Hyun Jin Ryu got knocked around and the newly-activated Ross Stripling didn’t do much better. Teoscar Hernández got the inning started with a leadoff double, followed by a Corey Dickerson walk. Gurriel would bank a deep single off the right field wall do drive in Teo, while Jake Lamb would drive in Dickerson with a deep sacrifice fly. Danny Jansen would meekly fly out to left field to leave pinch-runner Jarrod Dyson on first base with two out, bringing George Springer, who has been visibly struggling with injuries over the past couple of weeks, to the plate.

He did alright.

Little did we know this was only the beginning of one of the wildest 24 hours in Toronto Blue Jays history.

In Game 2, spot starter Thomas Hatch held the Orioles to one run. Unfortunately, Baltimore starter Keegan Akin, who was sporting an ERA of 7.00 in 79 and two-thirds innings, no-hit the mighty Jays offence through six. Baseball is so strange.

The seventh inning got started with a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. single, ensuring that the Jays at least wouldn’t suffer the worst possible humiliation right after the terrific comeback in Game 1.

And then Bo Bichette reminded everyone of the immense gulf of skill between the Baltimore Orioles and the Toronto Fucking Blue Jays.

And so did Alejandro Kirk. And Marcus Semien. And Teoscar Hernández. Their dingers plus the offensive contributions of others put the Jays on the path to an 11-2 win in a game that looked like they might get no-hit until the last inning.

And Sunday was pretty neat too.

In a four-game set that very much looked like a trap series until well into Saturday, the Blue Jays have not only returned to contention, not only gotten to the point where not every loss feels like a catastrophe, but have claimed a playoff spot thanks to the combined efforts of not only the Blue Jays but the Chicago White Sox and New York Mets.

@ESPN: Fuck your Red Sox/Yankees Wild Card Game.

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SCOREBOARD WATCHING

The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees both took series losses against the White Sox and Mets respectively, losing two of three. Game three of the Mets/Yankees Subway Series was a real barn burner especially, a back-and-forth affair in which the Yankees singled out Francisco Lindor for chirping, to which Lindor responded by hitting three crucial home runs, including the eventual game-winner. Hilarious stuff. Have fun missing the wildcard game you stuffy fucking dorks. Eat shit.

The Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners both kind of fucked themselves, losing two of three to the Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks, respectively. Not doing a great job at holding their end of the “making the Red Sox and Yankees eat shit and die” bargain.

TRANSACTION NEWS

Ross Stripling was activated from the IL on Friday, with Kevin Smith getting sent to Triple-A to make room. Stripling, who had eked out a stable spot in the starting rotation, will have to settle for a long relief job down the stretch. His first game back on Saturday went pretty unambiguously poorly, but hopefully, we can chalk that one up to getting back into the swing of things.

Smith never looked comfortable as a hitter in 17 games with the Blue Jays, sporting a .094/.194/.188 slash line and 7 wRC+ (yes, you read that right). He did look like a fine defender at third base in a limited sample size, but not fine enough to make up for his bat and stand apart from Jake Lamb and Breyvic Valera.

Thomas Hatch was called up from Triple-A for a spot start during Game 2 on Saturday as the 29th man, returning to the minors after a perfectly respectable start, though he did leave the game after only four innings wit. Tayler Saucedo, who had gutted out a three-walk, somehow zero-run outing on Friday, was also optioned, with reliever Anthony Castro coming up in his place. Saucedo’s low-strikeout, high-walk results limit him to low-leverage, though he did fill something of a niche as the Jays’ second lefty out of the pen behind Tim Mayza but ahead of Ryan Borucki and Kirby Snead. Castro was stellar for a very short big league stint earlier this season but has struggled mightily since an IL stint in April and May, his high strikeout numbers being deflated by walks and hard contact. In that vein, he had a pretty typical Anthony Castro outing on Saturday before being sent down for Trent Thornton, who certainly looked like Trent Thornton on Sunday.

BEST BIRDS

Hitter: Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (4) 18 plate appearances, .538/.667/1.308, 17 total bases, 9 Weighted Runs Created, 0.54 Win Probability Added, 0.35 WPA/LI

Honourable Mentions: Teoscar Hernández, Bo Bichette

Remember before the All-Star Break when Lourdes Gurriel Jr. was putting together a lost season? Since then, he’s slashed .323/.398/.574 with a 160 wRC+, thanks in part to a walk rate of 10.8 percent. We knew Gurriel was a streaky hitter going into this year, and he did end up salvaging his season, but boy does he make it interesting.

Pitcher: Adam Cimber (1) 1 ⅔ innings, 5 batters faced, 0 hits, 0 earned runs, 2 strikeouts, 0.76 FIP, 0.13 Win Probbility Added, 0.13 WPA/LI

Unlike the offence, in which I could reasonably point at five or six guys and award them Best Bird, there wasn’t much going on with the pitching. I went with Adam Cimber, who kept the Jays in the game on Friday after an uncharacteristically early Robbie Ray exit.

Honourable Mentions: Steven Matz, Thomas Hatch

BEST BIRD STANDINGS

Hitters:

  1. Vladimir Guerrero Jr.- 12

  2. Marcus Semien- 7

  3. Bo Bichette- 7

  4. George Springer- 7

  5. Lourdes Gurriel Jr.- 4

  6. Teoscar Hernández- 3

  7. Joe Panik- 2 (now on the Miami Marlins)

  8. Randal Grichuk- 2

  9. Santiago Espinal- 1

  10. Cavan Biggio- 1 (10-day IL)

Pitchers:

  1. Robbie Ray- 14

  2. Hyun Jin Ryu- 9

  3. Alek Manoah- 6

  4. Ross Stripling- 4 

  5. Steven Matz- 4

  6. José Berríos- 2

  7. Julian Merryweather- 2

  8. Adam Cimber- 1

  9. Trevor Richards- 1

  10. Anthony Kay- 1 (Triple-A)

  11. Anthony Castro- 1 (Triple-A)

  12. Ryan Borucki- 1 (Triple-A)

SCHEDULE/PROBABLE PITCHERS

Monday, September 13 (7 p.m. EST/5 p.m. MST): TBD vs. Alek Manoah

Tuesday, September 14 (7 p.m. EST/5 p.m. MST): Drew Rasmussen vs. José Berríos

Wednesday, September 15 (7 p.m. EST/5 p.m. MST): Michael Wacha vs. Robbie Ray

THE OPPOSITION

Pythagorean Record: 88-55

Run differential: +177 (775 runs scored, 598 runs allowed)

Season Series vs. Blue Jays: 8-5

Record since the last series vs. Blue Jays: 36-17

Last 10 games: 5-5

The Rays have continued to be the Rays, to frustratingly stellar results. Going into Monday, Tampa Bay is on pace for 101 wins, which would be a franchise record. They’ve gotten production up and down the order, with career years from Brandon Lowe and Mike Zunino, and excellent rookie campaigns from Randy Arozarena and especially Wander Franco, who had been dangerous before going down with an injury. This on top of the usual platoon shenanigans from Joey Wendle, Austin Meadows, Kevin Kiermaier, Brett Phillips, Yandy Díaz, Ji-Man Choi, Manuel Margot, Francisco Mejía, and lefty-killing Trade Deadline acquisition Jordan Luplow make this a horrifying lineup to face. Oh, and they also have Nelson Cruz. Because of fucking course they do.

The pitching has been surprising, not in the sense that it’s been bad. The Rays have done their usual schtick of loading the bullpen with all sorts of circus acts. They’ve confounded hitters with the likes of Andrew Kittredge, Pete Fairbanks, Collin McHugh, Olympic medallist David Robertson, J.T. Chargois, Adam Conley, J.P. Feyereisen, and the recently activated Nick Anderson to boot. Just the most infuriating relief corps that can seemingly make any hitter on Earth think “who the fuck is Louis Head and why is he kicking my ass???”

The more surprising thing is the lack of a real quality starting rotation, at least on paper. With Tyler Glasnow out after undergoing Tommy John surgery, Shane McClanahan has done a solid job as the staff ace, though he’s on the 10-day IL right now. Chris Archer was back for a little bit before his hip flared up on him, and the likes of Michael Wacha, Ryan Yarbrough, and Luis Patiño have ranged from mediocre to just kind of bad. One intriguing starter for them, however, has been Drew Rasmussen, who was acquired in the same deal that sent future Blue Jay Trevor Richards to the Milwaukee Brewers. Rasmussen mainly uses two pitches: A high-90s four-seamer that he’ll throw two-thirds of the time, as well as a slider that he’ll throw almost all the time otherwise, and both pitches are filthy. He’s been excellent for Tampa Bay, but he’s also averaged under four innings per start after mostly working as a reliever this season.

Best Players:

  • Brandon Lowe, Second Base, .238/.338/.503, 131 wRC+

  • Mike Zunino, Catcher, .204/.294/.548, 128 wRC+

  • Joey Wendle, Third Base, .275/.324/.540, 110 wRC+

  • Randy Arozarena, Left Field/Right Field, .274/.355/.464, 128 wRC+

  • Shane McClanahan (10-day IL), Starting Pitcher, 3.58 ERA/3.24 xFIP, 27.5 K%, 7.3 BB%

Underperformers:

  • Ryan Yarbrough, Starting Pitcher, 4.90 ERA/4.61 xFIP, 18.3 K%, 4.4 BB%

  • Michael Wacha, Starting Pitcher, 5.37 ERA/3.94 xFIP, 22.8 K%, 5.7 BB%

  • Luis Patiño, Starting Pitcher, 4.62 ERA/5.07 xFIP, 23.0 K%, 9.6 BB%