Season ends for pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu but his impact on Blue Jays resurgence was real

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It is perhaps easy in the moment to think of Hyun-Jin Ryu as the Blue Jays starter who went from ace to uncertain in the span of a couple of years.

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It is also easy to evaluate the first three seasons that the South Korean starter has spent here as unfinished business.

Those feelings might be particularly prevalent today, now that Ryu’s season has ended due to a forearm injury, which the team announced on Tuesday. The news, while not surprising, includes a date with a surgeon, possibly for the dreaded Tommy John procedure.

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But the recent events and a downturn of form may also dull the memory that Ryu was an American League Cy Young Award finalist in his first year with the team, a turn-the-corner moment for the rebuilding Jays.

So to dismiss the big lefty’s impact on the current trajectory of Canada’s only major league team is to miss both the point of his arrival and a stellar first season with the Jays that helped turn a 95-loss team into a playoff participant.

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When general manager Ross Atkins secured Ryu to a four-year, US$80-million deal back in December of 2019, it was a message delivered — loudly enough — to the rest of the baseball world.

In short, it announced that no longer would the Jays be fringe players in either free agency or the trade market.

“I see the (first) pandemic year as him being integral to turning us around as a team,”  Atkins said after announcing Ryu’s immediate fate. “He was a stabilizer for us. You could lay your head on a pillow at night (knowing) that he was going to absolutely keep us in the game.

“That was a massive impact for us in 2020. I feel very good about that acquisition.”

There are many reasons Atkins should feel this way, starting with the impact Ryu had in that pandemic-shortened 2020 season when his steadiness helped lead the Jays to the playoffs.

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Also high on the list is the fact that Ryu is a client of super agent Scott Boras, who a couple years earlier infamously had characterized the Toronto front office as having the “Blue flu.”

Subsequent signings of players such as George Springer (six years, $150 million), Jose Berrios (a seven-year, $131-million extension) and Kevin Gausman (five years, $110 million) to name three, have changed that perception. And Ryu marks the beginning of that movement.

It wasn’t always smooth dealing for Ryu, who had been such a force with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but you can’t question competitiveness. In his 49 starts with the Jays, the team’s 32-17 record was testament to that.

“He was our ace,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “He was one of the main reasons we made it to the playoffs in 2020. This year he pitched and he wasn’t 100 per cent and still when he took the mound, he gave us a chance.

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“That tells you about what kind of guy he is and what kind of pitcher he is. You have to appreciate that about Ryu. He’s a really good teammate.”

One player who has treasured the fun-loving, good-guy-in-the-clubhouse side of the Ryu that the public doesn’t see, is the team’s current en Fuego starter, Alek Manoah.

From treating him to some epic Korean BBQ meals, to setting an example work-wise, to helping him navigate the nuances of early life in the big leagues, Ryu and Manoah became fast pals.

“The biggest thing was watching the way he works,” Manoah said. “That’s the impact he’s had on me. The way he goes about his routine. The way he competes. The way he takes care of his teammates.

“And for me, he was a huge help when he took me under his wing when I first came up her and kind of showed me the ways a little bit. He’s been a really big influence on my career so far.”

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Whether Ryu has thrown his last pitch for the Jays remains to be seen. Part of it depends on whether the surgery to repair his forearm is Tommy John and how long the recovery takes.

In the short-term, the team will hope Ross Stripling continues his stellar work in a starting assignment. Back-to-back games of brilliance in K.C. and Detroit will be followed by a date with the Yankees this weekend, which will be solid test for the veteran swingman.

Clearly the Jays will also look seriously at opportunities to bolster the rotation prior to the trade deadline, be it for depth or another high-end starter.

Then there’s Nate Pearson, whose been derailed by injury in illness so often that no one in the organization wants to get too bullish on his prognosis. But the once super prospect is building his innings in Buffalo, including a scheduled appearance on Tuesday.

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All those solutions have likely been in the works for weeks now, as Ryu has fought through his struggles with a tenacity worthy of admiration.

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“It got to the point where he just said I want to compete as quick as humanly possible and (he) felt like this was the best way to do that and he’s going to focus on doing that for us,” Atkins said of the door to Ryu’s season being slammed shut.

“He’s professional, a very tough individual and has perspective. But he’s extremely disappointed he won’t be part of this in the near term.”

This departure — for however long it turns out to be — shouldn’t diminish the significance of his arrival and the building it began.

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