Rays’ doubleheader sweep highlights lack of rotation depth for Blue Jays

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Thomas Hatch throws to a Tampa Bay Rays batter in the first inning of the second game in doubleheader American League baseball action in Toronto, Saturday, July 2, 2022. (Jon Blacker/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

TORONTO – The day began with a full stadium, Kevin Gausman on the mound and high hopes for the Toronto Blue Jays. It ended nearly nine hours later with a lopsided loss in a far emptier ballpark.

Along the way, Gausman took a 100 m.p.h. line drive off his right ankle, Casey Lawrence hauled 5.2 innings of emergency relief on short rest and Thomas Hatch coughed up 10 runs in a failed spot start. If there was a common theme to Saturday’s doubleheader losses, it was the lack of pitching depth behind the Blue Jays’ front five.

In the opening game of the day, Wander Franco hit a comebacker off Gausman’s ankle, leading to a scary moment at Rogers Centre. While catcher Gabriel Moreno scrambled to finish the play, Gausman went down hard and the rest of the Blue Jays held their breath.

[brightcove videoID=6308979643112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Thankfully, X-rays came back negative and the official diagnosis was a right ankle contusion. At this point, the Blue Jays aren’t sure whether Gausman will be able to take his next turn, scheduled for Thursday in Seattle with plans to continue evaluating him in the coming days.

“You feel for a guy like that,” said Lawrence, who replaced Gausman after a brief warm-up in the Blue Jays’ bullpen. “You don’t want anybody to go down in those situations. At the same time, you know you’ve got to be ready to go out there and perform. You’re still thinking about it, hopefully everything’s OK. But then you’ve got a job to do: get major-league hitters out.”

The 34-year-old Lawrence did plenty of that Saturday afternoon, giving the Blue Jays 5.2 innings of relief on 87 pitches just four days after throwing 99 pitches at triple-A on Tuesday.

“That’s a great job by Lawrence,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “He deserves a lot of credit.”

“It’s part of the job description,” Lawrence noted. “I left it all out there.”

But Shane McClanahan was absolutely dominant for the Rays, limiting the Blue Jays to just one run on three hits while striking out 10 in one of the best pitching performances against Toronto all year. Beyond a first-inning RBI single from Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the Blue Jays managed very little in front of the 39,426 in attendance.

“Usually I don’t talk about the other guys, but he was really good,” Montoyo said. “He keeps you off-balance. He pitches like a guy who throws 90 or 91, but he doesn’t. He throws 97. It’s tough. He’s a good pitcher. One of the best pitchers in baseball for sure.”

[brightcove videoID=6309007165112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

The Blue Jays lost the opener 6-2, and things only got worse once Hatch started pitching. Recalled from triple-A Buffalo because of the doubleheader, Hatch allowed 10 runs on 12 hits, including three home runs. While his track record shows he’s capable of more, the 24,180 in attendance saw a pitcher who looked completely overmatched on the way to an 11-5 loss.

The Blue Jays managed a little more offence in the second game, including home runs from Guerrero Jr. and Bradley Zimmer, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the damage allowed by Hatch.

Combined with the scary moment with Gausman earlier, the day highlighted the vulnerability of this starting rotation. Should Gausman or anyone else need to miss a turn, Lawrence, Hatch and Max Castillo represent the next layer of depth for the Blue Jays.

After Saturday, the Blue Jays will presumably prefer to avoid Hatch, who will likely be optioned before Sunday’s game. And as necessary as Lawrence’s innings were, he still allowed six runs. That leaves Castillo, a rookie with all of four big-league appearances, whose last minor-league start came a month ago.

Bullpen game, anyone? That’s hardly an appealing idea, but as the Gausman comebacker reminded us, the unexpected often happens in baseball. Put simply, the Blue Jays are ill-suited to handle any more hits to their rotation. Changing that should be a priority along with augmenting a bullpen that would benefit immensely from another closer-calibre arm.

In recent weeks the Blue Jays have been monitoring the trade market for pitching help, and those efforts are sure to intensify as the Aug. 2 trade deadline approaches. Of course, big-name players haven’t been traded yet with reclamation projects easier to find than impact arms right now.

[brightcove videoID=6308992846112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Along those lines, the Blue Jays announced the acquisition of Anthony Banda during the doubleheader. A 28-year-old lefty, Banda had recently been designated for assignment by the Pirates after posting a 6.41 ERA in 23 relief appearances with Pittsburgh. Despite the ugly ERA, he’s striking out four times as many hitters as he walks thanks to a 95 m.p.h. fastball and a change-up he uses liberally.

Montoyo was absent from the Blue Jays’ dugout for most of the second game, while coach John Schneider took over as acting manager and first-base coach Mark Budzinski was replaced by bullpen catcher Luis Hurtado. Afterwards, the Blue Jays said Budzinski was dealing with a personal matter and asked that fans and media respect his privacy.

Eventually, the Blue Jays will need more pitching help. They didn’t need to allow 17 runs to the Rays to understand as much, but this one-sided day at the ballpark certainly drove that point home.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.