Blue Jays’ search for rotation stability continues to elude them

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Francisco Liriano, front left, walks to the dugout after being relieved during the third inning of a baseball game against the Detroit Tigers, Saturday, July 15, 2017, in Detroit. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

DETROIT – One reason for the Toronto Blue Jays’ underwhelming season? They have rarely had their starting rotation intact for long.

But as the second half began, manager John Gibbons finally had his rotation together. The group that led the American League in ERA last year was in place, seemingly essential to any kind of second-half surge.

“Really, right now, it’s kind of what we envisioned,” Gibbons said Saturday afternoon.

Any hope of starting the second half with a string of strong performances was soon erased with a frustrating 11-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Francisco Liriano was hit hard Saturday and, making matters worse, neck tightness forced him to exit the game in the third inning.

Early in the game catcher Russell Martin couldn’t tell exactly what was happening with Liriano, only that something was bothering him. By the third inning, the left-hander had walked the bases full and Martin could sense that something wasn’t right.

“He’s a warrior out there,” Martin said. “He tries to battle through things, but you don’t want to be too aggressive, especially when you’re not feeling right, so I think he did the right thing.”

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The Blue Jays sent Liriano back to their team hotel after he exited the game Saturday, and he’ll be re-assessed Sunday, at which point the club should have a better sense of his health. In the meantime, there’s no guarantee that he can make his next start against the Boston Red Sox next week.

“Hopefully it’s no big deal,” manager John Gibbons said. “Just one of those things where he slept wrong or something.”

Regardless, the five earned runs he surrendered Saturday raised his season ERA to 6.04. Combine those poor results with the uncertainty surrounding his health, and it’s extremely difficult to envision the Blue Jays getting much of a return for Liriano, who earns $13.67 million this season. That reduces the trade options for the club executives who hope to add some young talent to the team in summer deals.

Blue Jays hitters, meanwhile, were neutralized on a day Michael Fulmer pitched like an ace for the Tigers. The all-star right-hander — “one of the best young pitchers in the game,” to borrow Gibbons’ description — shut the Blue Jays down completely, allowing just one run over eight innings.

“He was attacking,” Martin said. “Good life on the fastball, good movement and a good slider to go with it.”

If the Blue Jays hadn’t worked some deep counts against Fulmer early in the game, he would have had a chance to go all nine.

“They showed [patience] in the first few innings,” Fulmer said. “A lot of three-ball counts, a lot of full counts. They put some good swings on balls. They fouled some good pitches off.”

That was really it for the Blue Jays at the plate: full counts, foul balls and a season-low two hits. By way of comparison, Nick Castellanos, Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez all homered for the Tigers, who faced Mike Bolsinger, Lucas Harrell and Aaron Loup after Liriano’s exit. Harrell could pitch on back-to-back days if needed, so Gibbons wasn’t worried about bullpen depth ahead of the series finale.

Marco Estrada will start for the Blue Jays Sunday, when they’ll look for a series win against the Tigers before continuing their road trip in Boston and Cleveland.

“We expect Marco to be good tomorrow,” Gibbons said.

With consecutive series against first-place teams on the horizon, they’re counting on it.