Their clubs are making a late push for the postseason, but Ryu Hyun-jin of the Toronto Blue Jays and Kim Kwang-hyun of the St. Louis Cardinals haven’t been part of the fun during the stretch drive.
The two South Korean left-handers have been missing in action for different reasons.
Ryu is on the 10-day injured list (IL) with neck tightness. The Blue Jays said Ryu woke up Saturday, a day after his most recent outing, with “a mild strain” of the neck, but his condition wasn’t considered serious. He did some long toss Tuesday and is expected to come off the IL when first eligible to face the New York Yankees this coming Tuesday at home.
Kim is on the active roster but has been mostly a forgotten man since moving from the rotation to the bullpen earlier this month. He has only made three relief appearances since the switch — on Sept. 7, Sept. 14 and then Thursday (local time) in Milwaukee.
Ryu’s next game, if indeed he’s activated, will be the first of a crucial three-game series at Rogers Centre in Toronto. After losing to the Minnesota Twins 7-2 on Thursday in Minneapolis, the Blue Jays fell one game behind the Yankees for the second Wild Card spot in the American League (AL). Depending on how the rest of the Twins series goes, the matchup against the Yankees could make or break the Blue Jays’ season.
Despite dropping their past two games, the Blue Jays (85-68) are still a robust 16-6 for September, a run that has put them squarely in the Wild Card battle. And they’ve managed that even with Ryu mired in his worst stretch of the season.
Over his past nine starts dating back to Aug. 1, Ryu has a 7.21 ERA. For the season, he is 13-9 with a 4.34 ERA, which would be the worst of his major league career if the season ended today.
Ryu’s two most recent starts have been his two shortest outings of 2021: 2 1/3 innings vs. the Baltimore Orioles on Sept. 11, and two innings against the Twins six days later. Ryu was roughed up for 12 runs on 13 hits, including four homers, in those two games.
Ryu, who finished third in AL Cy Young voting last year, has been supplanted as the staff ace by Robbie Ray, a fellow left-hander and a Cy Young contender himself this year. Even rookie Alek Manoah has outperformed the Korean veteran lately. Jose Berrios, who arrived in a July trade from the Twins, is 3-1 with a 3.00 ERA in September. Steven Matz, nominally the team’s fifth starter, had pitched to a 2.94 ERA in the second half, bested only by Ray among Toronto starters.
Even if the Blue Jays reach the postseason, it’s conceivable that Ryu won’t be in the rotation. Teams typically tighten their starting rotation during playoffs rather than roll with a conventional five-man unit. Considering their recent form, Ray, Berrios and Manoah should be locks for the first three spots, leaving Ryu and Matz to possibly compete for the fourth spot that may or may not come up in a playoff series.
Over in the National League (NL), the Cardinals (83-69) have reeled off 12 straight victories to charge into the second Wild Card spot, 4.5 games ahead of the Philadelphia Phillies.
And they haven’t missed Kim one bit. Veteran starters Adam Wainwright and Jon Lester have turned back the clock. Jake Woodford, who pushed Kim out of the rotation, has allowed only three runs in 13 innings across three starts this month. Following a rough stretch after returning from a long injury layoff, Miles Mikolas has won back-to-back starts.
Kim’s move to the bullpen came after his shortest start of the year on Sept. 4, when he was touched for four runs on seven hits in 1 2/3 innings against the Milwaukee Brewers. The last time Kim went beyond five innings was July 22.
Kim allowed four runs in 2 1/3 innings combined in his first two relief outings following the switch. Then on Thursday, Kim pieced together two scoreless innings in relief of Wainwright.
He came on in the fifth with the Cardinals trailing the Brewers 5-1. He wiggled out of a bases-loaded jam in that inning and then pitched around a two-out double in the sixth inning to keep the Cardinals in the game.
And they rallied with seven runs over their final three innings for an 8-5 win.
Kim’s 6-7 record and a 3.56 ERA are decent numbers, but he hasn’t earned much trust from manager Mike Shildt, who has pulled Kim in early innings of close or tied games.
Losing the starting gig and getting shunned in the bullpen clearly aren’t helping Kim’s value ahead of his impending free agency.
Ryu and Kim made postseason starts on the same day last year, Sept. 30, and neither pitched particularly well. At this rate, they probably won’t get a chance to redeem themselves.