Blue Jays offence covers up Liriano’s shaky performance

Justin Smoak hit two home runs as the Blue Jays edged the Red Sox 8-6 to split their four-game series.

BOSTON – You’ve probably forgotten, but man, remember how hitting can cure a lot of ills? A 1.2-inning outing from your starter isn’t necessarily a killer if your offence is capable of putting up a whack of runs, the way the Toronto Blue Jays did in an 8-6 win over the Boston Red Sox on Thursday afternoon.

Behind a four-run outburst in the third inning – helped by Brock Holt dropping a Steve Pearce flare that went for a two-run single – and a trio of add-on runs courtesy of Justin Smoak, now up to a career-high 62 RBIs, the Blue Jays overcame a 3-1 deficit and Francisco Liriano’s fourth start of two innings or less.

Now, it certainly helped that Red Sox started Doug Fister and not ace Chris Sale, who was pushed back a day for some extra rest. Boston’s blunders in a slop-fest start to the afternoon were a gift, and, as is the Blue Jays’ way in 2017, they white-knuckled the end. But outhitting flaws was supposed to be a strength for the 44-51 Blue Jays, who managed a four-game split at Fenway Park to carry a 3-4 mark on their 10-game road trip into Friday’s opener at Cleveland.

"It was 3-1 at the time, so it’s not like we were down a bunch," Smoak said of the rally. "We know what we can do as an offence, it’s still early in the game, keep having good at-bats, we were able to do that, we caught a break there with the sun ball and we were able to capitalize on that."

Still, even in victory there was collateral damage, with Liriano’s performance front and centre.

Taking his regular turn after leaving his last outing with a bout of neck stiffness, the left-hander had his velocity against the Red Sox but couldn’t escape a messy second. He allowed three runs on five hits and a walk in 1.2 innings, throwing 54 pitches, 35 of them strikes. Coming the day after Aaron Sanchez could only go four frames because his blister troubles returned, it dumped another heavy load on a beleaguered bullpen.

"The neck feels great, it didn’t bother me at all, that wasn’t the issue," said Liriano. "I didn’t make pitches when I needed to, and, I don’t even know, I’m just not making pitches."

Marco Estrada can really do his team a solid by bouncing back from his recent struggles with a long outing Friday, when Sanchez is due to play catch and see if the blister, which he said is less severe than previous ones this year, will allow him to make his next start Monday.

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Beyond the obvious need for innings, Liriano’s outing was also important from a broader context with the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline looming. The Blue Jays have taken some calls about Liriano from teams shopping for a starter, likely to assess the cost of down-market arms. Both he and fellow pending free agent Estrada could be backup plans for teams whose primary targets are either moved elsewhere or too pricey, but both will need to show signs of a turnaround in the coming week.

"I try not to think about it," Liriano said of the uncertainty. "I’m trying to get better and trying to go deeper into games, learn from my mistakes and trying to get better every start. I feel like I have my stuff, I feel like I’m still making pitches, but I’m missing some pitches and making a couple of mistakes."

Against the Red Sox, Liriano allowed back-to-back doubles in the second to Xander Bogaerts and Sandy Leon to tie the game 1-1. Then, with men on the corners, he caught a break as Pearce couldn’t catch a Holt bloop, but recovered to throw out Leon at home for the second out. Liriano couldn’t take advantage of it, as Mookie Betts followed with a two-run single that made it 3-1 Red Sox.

After a Chris Young walk, manager John Gibbons came to get Liriano.

"That’s one of those points where you know you need some innings out of him but you can’t let the game get out of hand and there’s no coming back," explained Gibbons. "That’s where our bullpen did a tremendous job."

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Francisco Liriano didn’t make it out of the second inning Thursday. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Dominic Leone got the final out of the second – the first of seven straight batters he’d retire – and in the third, Holt was camped under a two-out Pearce flare that clanked off his glove after he lost it in the sun, allowing a pair to score and tie things 3-3. Ryan Goins then delivered a two-run single later in the inning to put the Blue Jays ahead for good.

Smoak hit the first of his two solo home runs in the fifth, extending the lead to 6-3, added an RBI single in the sixth to make it a four-run game, and after Dustin Pedroia’s three-run drive in the seventh made it a 7-6 contest, he crushed No. 26 this season in the top of the ninth to provide more breathing room.

"We’re fully capable of that," Gibbons said of all the runs. "We haven’t been getting much of that lately, but I still think we will. In a game like today, especially when your starter goes out that early, you’ve got to slug it out."

Props go to the bullpen for largely keeping the Red Sox under wraps, with Leone locking things down through the fourth, Joe Biagini adding two shutout frames, and after Barnes got roughed up, Ryan Tepera delivered four outs ahead of Roberto Osuna closing it out for save No. 24.

The Blue Jays last scored eight runs on June 25 in an 8-2 win over the Kansas City Royals that pushed them to 36-39. Until Thursday, they’d scored more than four runs only five times since, and when a team can’t outhit or outpitch its other issues, it finds itself in the kind of bind the Blue Jays are facing right now.