CLEVELAND – As promising as their first two games were, it’s what happens on days when Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow aren’t starting that will ultimately provide the tipping point on which way the Toronto Blue Jays season goes.
Joel Carreno — pitching in the rotation’s three spot Sunday afternoon but optioned to triple-A Las Vegas afterwards for reliever Aaron Laffey — offered up a mixed bag during his first big-league start, fighting through six innings of four-run ball in a 4-3 loss to the Cleveland Indians.
The Blue Jays nearly made it three comeback wins in a row, erasing a 2-0 deficit in the fourth on Edwin Encarnacion’s RBI double and Brett Lawrie’s sacrifice fly, and then putting a run up in the eighth on Adam Lind’s RBI single to pull within one.
But reliever Vinny Pestano struck out both Encarnacion and Lawrie to end that threat, and Chris Perez closed things out by inducing a bases-loaded pop up from Jose Bautista in a nervous ninth before 10,518 at Progressive Field, preventing the Blue Jays from their first three-game sweep to open a season since 1992 against Detroit. Their last 3-0 start was in 1996.
“We’ll take two,” said Bautista, who lamented getting a pitch to hit but not connecting with it. “We should have won all three games, we feel like.”
Their next action comes in Monday’s home opener against the Boston Red Sox, with sophomore Henderson Alvarez set to start against Felix Doubront.
The capper to 37 innings in Cleveland — 16 innings in Thursday’s curtain-raiser, 12 more Saturday and finally a regular nine in the finale — offered a good test for Carreno, with the Indians featuring eight hitters batting from the left side (six southpaws and two switch) against the right-hander.
Primarily throwing his fastball and slider, the 25-year-old impressed in 11 games out of the bullpen for the Blue Jays last summer, but a noticeable trend then was that lefties (.250/.308/.375) hit him harder than righties (.161/.212/.258).
Bounced from rotation consideration by GM Alex Anthopoulos’s bullpen makeover, Carreno was stretched out this spring once optioned down and showed growth in the use of his changeup to counteract lefties.
That helped catapult him into the rotation when Brett Cecil faltered, and will be key in whether he finds long-term success as a starter or not.
“I think his overall poise,” Farrell said when asked what he liked about Carreno’s performance. “He ran into an issue in the second inning but didn’t let things unravel, which is consistent with what he showed a year ago when he was with us. He threw a few more changeups in the role as a starter than he did out of the bullpen a year ago, and when he’s right he puts the ball on the ground.”
Aside from clean first and sixth innings, Carreno often needed to skirt trouble, allowing six hits and four walks, while striking out three.
The damage against him came during the second, when Carlos Santana clubbed a solo shot to open the frame and Jack Hannahan added an RBI single later in the inning, and in the fifth, when Santana launched his second of the afternoon, a two-run blast that made it 4-2.
“I think I did a good job except to Santana,” said Carreno. “I was behind in the count his first at-bat and I threw a fastball right in the middle and he got a good swing. His second home run, he was looking for a slider and I left it up, hanging in the strike zone.
“I was just trying to keep my team in the game and do the best.”
Carreno struck out three, and with the Blue Jays not needing a fifth starter again until April 21, he was sent down and Laffey, who was considered for the rotation during the spring, recalled to pitch out of the bullpen.
“We’re looking forward to Aaron getting here,” said Farrell. “It gives us a third left-hander with a very heavily loaded left-handed hitting lineup in Boston.”
Who slots in behind Henderson Alvarez and Kyle Drabek later this month isn’t decided yet, and it’s possible Carreno may get another shot. After initially being assigned to double-A New Hampshire, he now swaps spots in Vegas with Laffey, who was the opening day starter for the 51s, getting thumped for seven runs on 11 hits and a walk in 4.2 innings for Sacramento.
“I was expecting more than one start, but that happens, you know?” said Carreno.
The Blue Jays offence, meanwhile, will certainly be glad to turn the page on the Indians rotation, after scratching out just four runs, two earned, on eight hits and five walks in 22 innings against starters Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Sunday’s winner, Derek Lowe.
Yunel Escobar (2-for-19), Colby Rasmus (1-for-15) and Eric Thames (2-for-13 after starting 0-for-11) were among those to have the toughest go.
“We ran up against some very good starting pitching in this series,” said Farrell. “They worked deep into the game, they worked quick, they put the ball on the ground, they got key strikeouts in some spots. Setting aside falling behind early in the game, this is a team that plays right to the last out, which is very consistent with what we did a year ago.”