TORONTO – The raised eyebrows started soon after the Toronto Blue Jays lineup began circulating in the afternoon. Cavan Biggio batting eighth, with Lourdes Gurriel Jr., slotting in at leadoff in his place? Danny Jansen batting third, ahead of Teoscar Hernandez and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.? Had the baseball research department’s algorithms gone mad?
More than anything, as it turns out, the jumbled batting order was simply a demonstration of just how much Ryan Yarbrough, the Tampa Bay Rays lefty who pushes 89 m.p.h. on a good day, is in their heads.
Before Friday’s opener of a four-game set at Tropicana Field, the 28-year-old had limited the Blue Jays to 10 earned runs in 45 career innings over 11 games, including 8.1 scoreless frames this season. So, they decided to change things up.
“It’s all about Yarbrough,” explained manager Charlie Montoyo. “He’s been dealing against us since last year, so it’s all about making a lineup that can battle against him. You’ve seen it. Every time he goes out he just pitches great against us, so it was all about not my players, but the best lineup that can beat Yarbrough. That’s why it looks so different.”
Lineup related or not, the Blue Jays changed their fortunes against Yarbrough, managing to score four runs against him for just the second time, the last coming on June 11, 2018. They also avoided their usual torment at the Trop, as after blowing a three-run lead, Biggio delivered an RBI double and Gurriel added a sacrifice fly in the 10th inning for a 6-5 victory.
Canadian Jordan Romano surrendered an RBI single to Yandy Diaz but earned his first save to secure a sixth straight victory for the Blue Jays (13-11), who have ace Hyun-Jin Ryu going Saturday on a bullpen day for the Rays (17-10), who had also won five in a row, including a sweep of the powerhouse New York Yankees.
Given the expanded playoffs, with the top two teams in each division advancing along with two additional wild cards, this final series of the season between the clubs is especially important. The Blue Jays are now 3-4 versus the Rays, and the potential implications are top of mind.
“Regardless of 162 or a 60-game season, the Rays, we know the type of talent that’s over there,” said Biggio. “We know they’re going to be at the top of this division, so we have to treat almost every game against these guys as if it’s a playoff game, especially now with a two-month season.”
Added Gurriel, speaking through interpreter Hector Lebron: “We’re looking at this as one of the most important series of the season right now. If we can win two, three games here, that’s going to help us a lot for a playoff spot.”
Yarbrough isn’t the only Rays player haunting the Blue Jays, as the surging Brandon Lowe prompted Montoyo to pull a rolling Matt Shoemaker after only five innings despite a 4-2 lead, and with him having thrown only 74 pitches and retiring 13 of his last 14 batters.
Ryan Borucki came out for the sixth and promptly walked Lowe – 12-for-27 with three homers, three doubles and a triple versus the Blue Jays this year – to open the frame, and followed with another base on balls to Yandy Diaz.
Jose Martinez then ripped what looked like a single to left but the Blue Jays had Gurriel shifted way over toward centre so it became a double that tied the game. A Joey Wendle single put men on the corners and knocked out Borucki, and only a spectacular inning from Rafael Dolis allowed the game to remain 4-4.
In theory bringing in Borucki, who has been strong in relief thus far, for Lowe makes sense, but it’s also questionable when Shoemaker was pitching well and the Blue Jays are struggling to not overwork their leverage arms.
“It’s all about winning games, man, you know what I’m saying?” Montoyo said in defending the decision. “And yes, we are thin (in the bullpen), we were thin today, and we’re playing every day, we’re going to be thin almost every day. Of course (Saturday), Ryu is going to be (needed) even longer. But we mapped it out the way it worked out, it just happened that Borucki wasn’t as good today.
“When you’re playing a good team and you walk the first two guys, you’re going to get in trouble, they’re going to score. That’s the way it is when you play the best teams in baseball,” added Montoyo. “That’s when Dolis comes in and to me, he was the MVP, first and third with nobody out and he kept the score the same.”
Still, Blue Jays starters have worked only 101.2 of the club’s 212 innings so far and with a bullpen game set for Sunday, using five relievers on a night Shoemaker definitely had more in the tank exacerbates the problem.
The current inning distribution is unsustainable, even in a short season.
“Personally, yeah,” Shoemaker replied when asked if he was surprised about the quick hook. “I understand the matchups and all that, I get it. I didn’t even know my pitch count at the time. Just the competitor in me, in my mind, I want to throw to the ninth inning. Yeah, sure. Of course, I want to be out there, but not to go into that too much, Borucki’s just been nails going out there to face a lefty in certain situations. I get it. Personally, as a competitor, I want to stay out there as long as possible.”
Yarbrough pitched into the seventh even though the Blue Jays ambushed him in the second inning, as Hernandez and Guerrero, with a laser off the bat at 115.9 m.p.h., hitting back-to-back homers that opened the scoring. A Gurriel RBI double and Randal Grichuk run-scoring single later in the inning opened up a 4-1 edge.
The advantage was nearly bigger but Gurriel’s nifty slide at home on Grichuk’s base hit was initially called safe, but overturned by replay.
Shoemaker was the beneficiary of a strong defensive play from Gurriel in a shaky first, in which he allowed a Lowe home run before a Diaz single and Ji-Man Choi double. Gurriel fielded the ball in left and fired a laser home to nail Diaz.
“That was very pivotal,” said Shoemaker. “Obviously any time you limit (the damage) to one run, that’s huge. You can argue, oh we go to extra innings, we could have lost the game with that one.”
Shoemaker settled from there, striking out six while allowing only two runs on four hits and a walk in five frames, giving way to the six relievers that followed. The Blue Jays improved to 7-3 in one-run games and 3-4 in extra innings.
“They’re understanding now that if you play a clean game, you win games like this,” said Montoyo. “If you make a little error, or bad baserunning, you lose those games.”