TORONTO – In the midst of a long stretch of consecutive games, a pitching staff needs the occasional reset, a game in which the starter goes deep, or the offence boat-races the opposition, so the bullpen’s top arms can get a breather.
The Toronto Blue Jays, who are in high leverage late in games nearly every time out, really needed one of those Saturday, having ridden their relief corps particularly hard over the past week, which included a doubleheader Thursday, and with a bullpen day set for Sunday.
Only 36 relievers headed into Saturday’s action with 11 or more appearances and the Blue Jays have five of them, second only to the six on the Los Angeles Dodgers and Angels, who have both played more games. So, seven or – dare to dream – eight innings from Hyun Jin Ryu would have been a gift from the heavens.
Instead, the Tampa Bay Rays were their pesky selves in grinding the ace lefty for 94 pitches over five otherwise strong innings, and then held the fort on the mound until Kevin Kiermaier delivered a pinch-hit single in the 10th inning for a 2-1 win.
Ryu allowed only a run on three hits with six strikeouts, but was still unable to change the club’s troubling lack of rotation innings, with starters having logged 106.2 of the 221.1 frames so far, an unsustainable 48 per cent.
“Ideally, I should be able to control my pitch count every inning but it’s something I can’t really control, sometimes it’s up to the hitters,” Ryu said in comments interpreted by Bryan Lee. “In an ideal world, I’d like to throw less pitches to each hitter so I can have more pitch count available heading into late innings. That’s how I should go about it.”
The pitch count started running away from him during a three-up, three-down third, which featured nine pitches to Yoshi Tsutsugo, six to Mike Zunino and eight the Mike Brosseau.
Joey Wendle – a late add after Yandy Diaz took a ball off the face during BP – worked him for nine pitches in the fifth before slipping a hit-and-run single through the vacated shortstop spot. That put men on the corners with none out, and set up the only run against him on a Manuel Margot fielder’s choice in the next at-bat.
Still, Ryu needed 30 pitches to cleverly limit the damage in that fifth, ending his night.
“Their hitters kept on fouling off pitches, and if it wasn’t something they were looking for, they were able to still connect and foul it off,” said Ryu. “You just have to credit the hitters in that respect.”
And so, the Blue Jays were left to cover four-plus more innings of leverage with Jordan Romano, who leads the team with 13 appearances, Rafael Dolis, A.J. Cole, Ryan Borucki and Thomas Hatch all down, and Anthony Kay and Sam Gaviglio in reserve to follow Trent Thornton on Sunday.
That Wilmer Font and Julian Merryweather delivered 3.2 outstanding innings before Anthony Bass, the only member of the leverage group available, took over with two out in the ninth underlines the depth manager Charlie Montoyo has to work with.
“Anytime your bullpen is thin it stresses you out a little bit but we played extra-innings because our bullpen did a great job,” said Montoyo. “Merryweather was outstanding, Font was really good.”
Eventually, though, there’s a comeuppance for making the bullpen haul so many innings, and one of those bills came due in the 10th.
Bass, asked to go an inning-plus for the second time this week, needed to put up a zero after Travis Shaw hit into a double play in the top half to strand the go-ahead run at third. But leadoff man Tsutsugo advanced Manuel Margot to third, and after Ji-Man Choi was intentionally walked to set up a double play, pinch-hitter Kiermaier ripped a game-winning single.
Six-game win streak, over then and there. Had Bass escaped that jam, the Blue Jays were down to one arm in the bullpen, so they really needed to win it in the 10th.
“We only had Sammy left,” said Montoyo. “We’ve got more arms (Sunday) now.”
A contributing factor was that the Rays – who have eight key arms on the injured list – locked down the Blue Jays offence on a night they pieced the pitching together. Aaron Slegers gave them four perfect innings out of the gate and after Sean Gilmartin surrendered Cavan Biggio’s bases-loaded walk in the fifth, they held the line.
A promising sixth that started with consecutive singles was undone by a Vladimir Guerrero Jr., double play, while in the seventh, Biggio was thrown out at home trying to score from second on a two-out wild pitch.
“It was aggressive. He was trying hard and he’s a good baserunner. I was OK with it,” said Montoyo. “I was looking at the catcher, I wasn’t looking where he was when he took off. But I love how the kid plays. He wants to score. He wants to win the game.”
The Blue Jays didn’t have another chance until the 10th, when with men on the corners, Shaw hit a grounder right to Brosseau at first. He stepped on the bag and then threw out Biggio at second to end the inning and strand pinch-runner Santiago Espinal at third.
Dating back to last season, the Blue Jays are now 4-11 at Tropicana Field, with four walkoff losses. The Blue Jays are 3-5 in a majors-high eight extra-inning games, and 7-4 in one-run contests.
“We’ll have to learn how to close out these kinds of games and win these close fights. But honestly, we’ve been doing really well in that respect leading up to this game, and today, unfortunately, it didn’t happen,” said Ryu. “From a pitcher’s perspective, we have to go out there with the mindset that we’re going to keep this game close, and if we do that I think the hitters will come around and win the games for us.”