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Blue Jays give nod to pitcher Matt Shoemaker in wild-card opener against Rays

The underdog Blue Jays are hoping to surprise the top-seeded Tampa Bay Rays in their upcoming wild-card series. Toronto’s skipper got things started Monday with an eyebrow-raising starting rotation announcement.

Manager Charlie Montoyo said he’ll start Matt Shoemaker in Game 1 on Tuesday and send ace Hyun-Jin Ryu to the mound for Game 2 at Tropicana Field. Taijuan Walker would start Game 3 if the series goes the distance.

“We said we were going to be creative from the beginning,” Montoyo said. “That’s one of the reasons how we got here [was] being creative.

“And to beat one of the best teams in baseball, we’re going to have to be creative.”

The decision gives Ryu (5-2, 2.69 ERA), who threw a season-high seven innings in his last appearance, an extra day of rest. However, it also means that Walker (4-3, 2.70) — the team’s clear No. 2 option — may not pitch at all.

Shoemaker, 0-1 with a 4.71 ERA over six starts, returned to the lineup last week after missing a month due to shoulder inflammation. Working on a pitch count, he impressed Montoyo in a three-inning stint against the New York Yankees, giving up three hits and one run.

“My excitement level is through the roof,” Shoemaker said.

At one point in Montoyo’s 15-minute video conference with reporters, he was asked if it was possible that he was overthinking the decision, with baseball tradition dictating that an ace almost always gets the nod for series openers.

“Well things have changed,” Montoyo said. “You’re looking at the numbers and we’re looking at the numbers and our best chances and that’s what we came up with.”

The second-year manager has yet to finalize the playoff roster for the series. First baseman Rowdy Tellez (knee) and reliever Jordan Romano (finger) of Markham, Ont., have been progressing and could still make the cut.

Left-hander Blake Snell (4-2, 3.24 ERA) is tabbed to start Game 1 for the Rays, who won nine of their last 11 games. Six-foot-eight right-hander Tyler Glasnow (5-1, 4.08) is slated for Game 2 and Charlie Morton (2-2, 4.74 ) would start Game 3.

For a young Toronto team that feels it belongs in the post-season and is a threat to beat anyone, the Rays will present a stiff test. Tampa Bay (40-20) was the class of the American League over the pandemic-shortened 60-game regular season and owns the top seed to prove it.

Toronto, coming off a rebuilding phase, was a surprise entry in the eight-team AL field at 32-28. The Blue Jays aren’t close to matching the Rays’ pitching depth but boast the offensive pop that could present problems in a short series.

“The contact is big,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “It’s tough to create a ton of swing and miss through their lineup and that presents its challenges. They’re always putting together good at-bats.”

The Blue Jays are brimming with confidence and seem to be peaking at the right time. Toronto earned impressive series wins over the Yankees and Baltimore Orioles last week.

This will be the first post-season meeting between the two teams. Toronto was 4-6 against the Rays this year with four losses coming via one-run decision. The Blue Jays outscored Tampa Bay 48-44 overall.

The Rays were a sterling 20-9 at Tropicana Field and have a deeper lineup with more playoff experience. The Blue Jays were built more for an eye to the coming years, but qualifying in 2020 is a nice bonus that will give the young core valuable reps at a minimum.

“We understand that they’re a good team,” said Toronto shortstop Bo Bichette. “Top to bottom, everything they do, they do it really well. But (we’re) not at all intimidated.”

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