Robbie Ray was himself in his 2021 debut on Monday against the Yankees, dancing out of trouble and flashing the dominant potential that makes him one of the most important variables on this Blue Jays roster.

The Blue Jays fell, 3-1, which tends to happen when you’re facing Gerrit Cole, but given the organization’s recent run of injuries and COVID-related IL stints, it’s encouraging to see someone coming back in the other direction. Ray’s return should have a domino effect on this pitching staff, too, as the Blue Jays work to get their rotation back in order.

“That was one of the bright things about tonight, the way [Ray] pitched,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “He looked the same. He was around the zone. His stuff was really good. It was great to see Robbie Ray pitching like that. It makes me feel really good. Not only me, the whole team.”

The good news is that the top end of Ray’s stuff was sharp over his five innings of two-run ball. His fastball averaged 94.7 mph with a peak of 96.4 mph, according to Statcast, complete with the trademark grunt that’s suddenly a little more noticeable in the quiet confines of TD Ballpark. Ray got whiffs on his curveball and slider, too; his only glaring mistake was a fastball right down the pipe that Kyle Higashioka launched for a two-run homer.

Ray’s control, on the other hand, is what he had to overcome most innings. His walks and ability to get strikes early in counts will always be the difference between him just teasing his high-end ceiling and actually reaching it.

Ray took the edge off his three walks by forcing two double plays, and throughout his strong Spring Training, he was encouraged that his misses were at least near the zone as opposed to being wild. The 45 walks he posted in just 51 2/3 innings last season between the D-backs and Blue Jays clearly won’t cut it, but if he can live closer to a rate of 4.0 walks per nine innings, that’s when we’ll see him at his best. Back in 2017, when he posted a 2.89 ERA as one of the best lefties in baseball, his walk rate was 3.9 per nine innings.

“It felt good to get back on the mound. I felt like everything was right around the zone the whole night,” Ray said. “I made some really good pitches, got some double-play balls that were huge. Big picture, definitely a good outing to build off of.”

The reality of the Blue Jays’ rotation is that between now and the postseason run they’re aiming for, an addition is likely, especially given that they have payroll flexibility and the seventh-ranked farm system in baseball. Having Ray pitching well would be a major benefit, though, especially with Steven Matz off to an excellent start and one of baseball’s top pitching prospects, Nate Pearson, working his way back from a strained right adductor.

“Now you’ve got Ryu, with Matz dealing,” Montoyo said. “When Ray pitches like that, you feel like you have a chance every day, and that’s what everybody wants.”

Rowdy breaks the goose egg

Going into Monday’s game, Rowdy Tellez was tied with Socrates Brito (2019) and Pat Borders (1991) for the longest streak of at-bats without a hit to open a season, at 0-for-21. With two strikes against Cole, the big first baseman made sure he stayed out of the record book.

Tellez ripped a single back up the middle with an exit velocity of 108.7 mph, and Cole narrowly danced out of the way of. Given Tellez’s lack of positional versatility, he simply needs to hit, so it’s a welcome sign for the Blue Jays to see a big exit velocity resembling those he put up early in camp before cooling late. The dugout had fun with it, too, as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. seemed to be signaling for the ball to be taken out of play.

“It’s a fun clubhouse, and everybody is happy for him. Everybody was yelling from the bench,” Montoyo said. “He was happy. He’s been having good at-bats, so that was good to see him get that base hit on a breaking pitch.”