ORONTO – To open the fifth inning Sunday afternoon, Mark Trumbo turned on a J.A. Happ two-seamer and drove it into the ground toward shortstop at a launch angle of minus-40 degrees, with a hit percentage of seven per cent. Aledmys Diaz hesitated initially as both the lefty and third baseman Yangervis Solarte moved to the ball, eventually charging and throwing late to first, where the lead-footed designated hitter had just beaten out the throw.
It should have been an out but it wasn’t. That happens.
Then Happ went back to work, and threw a four-seamer that Renato Nunez rolled over to third base for a tailor-made double-play ball. Solarte fielded it, relayed the ball over to second where Lourdes Gurriel Jr. made an awkward pivot and threw high to first base, preventing the twin-kill.
Another out lost, just like that.
At that point, Happ should have been through 4.2 innings at 78 pitches with no one on base, and if the plays are made behind him, perhaps Trey Mancini doesn’t follow with a single and force the all-star to grind. Instead, Happ eventually surrendered a two-out RBI single to Jace Peterson that erased a 1-0 lead, and needed 36 pitches in all to get through the frame, bringing a premature end to a dominant five-inning, nine-strikeout performance that deserved better.
“It was trending that way, for sure,” Happ said when asked if he felt he was on track for one of his better starts. “I felt good. I tried to get us out of that fifth inning and it cost me some pitches. But I felt good about it, overall.”
In a vacuum, a team can shrug off such small misplays as the inevitable misfortunes inherent to the 162-game season. But for the 2018 Blue Jays, they’re part of a worrying pattern of defensive shortcomings that continually undermine their pitching staff and ultimately, their chances to win consistently.
Though they found a happy ending Sunday, getting two-run homers from Randal Grichuk and Solarte in the eighth inning to rally for a 5-4 win that completed a three-game sweep of the dreadful Baltimore Orioles, one day’s miscues can often carry over to the next day’s contest.
Take Happ, for instance, who lost at least one inning of work, which would have meant at least one inning less for the bullpen to cover ahead of a bullpen game Monday against the Minnesota Twins. Luis Santos will start that contest.
Additionally, contending clubs looking at Happ – the Yankees, Cubs, Dodgers and Giants were among teams with scouts in attendance Sunday – were prevented from seeing him go a bit deeper into the game.
And should Happ get dealt ahead of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline as expected, he didn’t get the proper send-off he should have received from the crowd of 39,021. The 35-year-old is scheduled to start Friday at Chicago against the White Sox and if he’s not gone before then, he’ll surely be gone after.
Happ, who endured two days of near-constant trade questioning during the all-star game, tried to “avoid those what-ifs,” saying, “it’s a tough place to be mentally.”
“It’s a weird thing,” he added about the uncertainty. “In some aspects, I want the next week to go quick, and in some I might look back and maybe not feel that way.”
In his wake, the defensive issues plaguing the Blue Jays will remain, and while defensive metrics shouldn’t be taken as gospel, some of the better measures out there illustrate a fairly troubling reality.
Collectively, the Blue Jays have a Defensive Runs Saved, or DRS, count of minus-27, which is 24th out of 30 teams in the majors. DRS measures the number of runs a defender saves relative to his peers and the Blue Jays are particularly weak up the middle, carrying a minus-9 at second base (28th) and minus-8 at shortstop (23rd).
In terms of defensive WAR, the Blue Jays are 25th at a staggering minus-20.2. For context’s sake, the Milwaukee Brewers lead the majors at 26.3 while the Orioles are last at minus-41.3.
While Blue Jays pitching has had its share of struggles, the defence is not only failing to regularly take hits away, it all too often isn’t making the outs it should be making, either.
“It beats you up and it could turn a game in a hurry, especially a close game,” manager John Gibbons said of the spinoff effect. “Mistakes are going to happen but we’ve just been making too many.”
Those issues also manifested themselves in the top of the eighth inning when Mancini hit a weak chopper up the middle that should have ended the inning and kept the score at 3-1 Baltimore. Instead, both Gurriel and Diaz charged the ball, they collided just as Gurriel fielded it, no throw could be made and Mancini reached as Trumbo crossed with a fourth run.
“That was a communication thing, nobody knew who was taking it. They’ll iron that out, they’re both good players out there. A lot of times if it happens once, it usually doesn’t happen again,” said Gibbons, who added Diaz should have had priority on the ball as the shortstop. “We’ve been talking about our defence, it’s not for a lack of effort, it’s not for a lack of work, but there’s definitely room for improvement. There needs to be.”
Against the Orioles, the Blue Jays managed to outhit their mistakes, as Grichuk launched a two-run homer off Brad Brach to pull back within one, while three batters later Solarte followed with another two-run shot off Tanner Scott that put them ahead.
Against other clubs, more often than not they won’t be as fortunate.