TORONTO – The real issue facing the Toronto Blue Jays is how to get Josh Johnson back in the form they so desperately need, but man it’s hard not to wonder what the Detroit Tigers have in store for Thursday’s series finale.
Tempers boiled over Wednesday night when the defending American League champions took exception to what they described as Colby Rasmus’ “dirty” slide that knocked down second baseman Omar Infante, and then charged out of the dugout when usually jovial right-fielder Torii Hunter had words for Todd Redmond after getting hit in the shoulder.
While the sixth-inning melee didn’t escalate into much as cool-headed players on both sides kept anything resembling a true fight from happening – Canada-Mexico or Dodgers-Diamondbacks this wasn’t – the angry exchanges punctuated an otherwise dull 6-2 Tigers victory.
“Obviously they’re going to be upset, but that’s just part of the game,” Rasmus said. “It’s nothing no different than I ever do, I feel like. I go in hard every time, my intention is never to hurt anybody or nothing like that. I was taught that early in this game and that’s how I play it. I didn’t mean for nothing bad to happen. But it’s no different than any time I ever come in.”
Did he wonder if the Tigers might retaliate?
"I'm going up there ready to hit, if they hit me that's part of the game, too," he said. "Take it, put some ice on it, and go about my business."
The aforementioned Johnson buried his team early for a second straight start, and while an Emilio Bonifacio error on a sure double-play ball started the problems, the hulking right-hander let things slip away on a two-out, three-run shot by Alex Avila that made it 4-0.
It's a different game if Johnson limits the damage.
Max Scherzer cruised from there en route to establishing a franchise record at 13-0 to open the season, becoming the first pitcher to accomplish the feat in the majors since Roger Clemens started the 1986 campaign 14-0.
Yet all that got pushed to the background.
"We're really mad about that slide, that's a very dirty play in my book," Scherzer said. "When you watch it on replay, his spikes are up, he's sliding late. Rajai Davis is running there, he's going to be safe at first, we're most likely not going to turn two there.
"There's no reason to slide in like that. I feel like he should be suspended."
Maybe, but it's worth noting that the Tigers again had trouble playing nice with an American League East team. Over the weekend Miguel Cabrera had a heated exchanged with Tampa Bay Rays closer Fernando Rodney after a pitch up and in, and the next day Rick Porcello hit Ben Zobrist intentionally, earning himself a six-game suspension.
Against the Blue Jays, Jose Bautista appeared to exchange words with both catcher Brayan Pena and a few Tigers in the dugout Monday, and then there was Wednesday's drama.
Rasmus irked his opponents while breaking up a double play in the fourth, catching Infante's left shin with his right leg on a hard, aggressive but arguably reasonable slide. Infante crumpled to the ground and had to be helped off the field, leaving with a shin contusion as X-Rays came back negative.
"I thought it was a dirty slide, simple as that," Hunter said. "The lateness of his slide, the spikes were high, it was all wrong, 5-0, Rajai Davis is running. It made no sense to do that at all. I've been around the game, trust me, I've broken up a lot of double plays, you're not going to do it that way. Rajai Davis running, 5-0, come on, man. He knows he messed up. Look in the mirror."
Intriguingly, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons refused to offer his judgment.
"I don't comment on those kind of things publicly, possibly controversial plays," Gibbons said. "It's got to be because you're asking about it. That never does anything good. That could always inflame some things, so I'd rather not comment."
In the sixth Redmond, taking over for Johnson, allowed a leadoff single and then had Hunter 0-2 before a pitch got away from him, striking the right-fielder in the left shoulder.
Hunter immediately had words for Redmond, and as he was directed to first, players slowly crept out of the dugouts, although no mass scrums ensued.
"I just vented," Hunter said.
Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia was among the players to help calm things down.
"The events of the game made him more upset," Arencibia said. "Earlier in the game his teammate gets taken out, people are upset and that's what leads to that. Any other time, he understands 100 per cent that is never on purpose.
"I was telling him, 'Come on man, we're not trying to hit you on purpose.' Torii's one of the best individuals in the game, as a person he's as first class as they come, he understands. After it was all said and done, he knew we weren't trying to hit him."
Home plate umpire Mike Estabrook warned both clubs after order was restored in the bottom of the frame, and rather than retaliating against Rasmus or anyone else, Scherzer allowed a pair of runs and things played out quietly from there.
The question now is will Justin Verlander leave it at that Thursday, or do tempers flare up in the finale?
WHERE THINGS STAND: The Blue Jays (41-43) dropped to 3-7 since their 11-game winning streak before a crowd of 28,958, and will be seeking to avoid a third straight series loss Thursday when Esmil Rogers (3-3, 3.12) faces Justin Verlander (8-5, 3.77). The Tigers (45-38) won their second in a row after dropping six of seven.
J.J. STRUGGLES: Blue Jays manager John Gibbons believes Josh Johnson pitched better than his line of five innings, seven hits, six runs, one earned, and two walks, but the right-hander wasn't having it.
"I'm not really doing my job," he said.
He wasn't making any excuses for himself, saying "I've got to pick up my teammate," when asked about the impact of Emilio Bonifacio's error, and "I've still got to pitch through it, still got to be able to find ways to get outs and make better pitches and not throw so many pitches," when it was suggested he hasn't been getting any breaks of late.
The prime problem right now?
"Slider's kind of here and there, I'd like to get that more consistent, be able to throw it for strikes," he said. "It's there sometimes, and all of a sudden it's breaking a little bit more and out of the zone and not starting it on the plate. That's when the pitch count starts climbing."
REDMOND ON SUNDAY?: Todd Redmond threw 42 pitches over three innings and says he'll be fine to start on Sunday in place of the DFA'd Chien-Ming Wang.
"That worked out perfect," Gibbons said. "He got some good work in. He did a nice job. So, yeah, he should be able to make that start on Sunday. You never really know what happens between now and then, but he's in line. He's in good shape to do it now."
BANGED UP: While Adam Lind (mid-back) and J.P. Arencibia (right shoulder) both returned to the lineup Wednesday, the Blue Jays were again without slugger Edwin Encarnacion due to a sore hamstring.
Gibbons said before the game that "we think he'll be fine (Thursday), sure hope he's fine (Thursday)" but they would use caution with their slugger.
"Things like those hamstrings, if you rush that, you re-injure it or make it worse, then you're shot," Gibbons said. "So you buy him that extra day."
Encarnacion hurt himself while running on a 3-2 pitch in Boston.
Lind, meanwhile, played for the first time since leaving Sunday's game when his back tightened up. Starting at DH - he would have played first had Encarnacion been ready - he went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts.
Arencibia, whose right shoulder was sore from his collision at home with Shane Victorino on Saturday, was robbed of extra bases by centre-fielder Austin Jackson's leaping grab against the wall in the second, and finished 0-for-4.
Gibbons praised Arencibia for blocking the plate against Victorino and not shying away from the contact.
"Big run there, game on the line, I think you have to do that, you're playing to win the game," he said. "Different throws dictate the play you make, but sometimes you have to deliver a blow yourself, too. Everybody's gunning for you every chance they get, there's nothing wrong with you inflicting a little pain yourself."
QUOTABLE: While discussing athletes playing through injuries, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons brought up Boston Bruins centre Patrice Bergeron. "That might be a little extreme but that's pretty common in hockey. You're not going to find that in this game."