Blue Jays face short- and medium-term bullpen questions

The Dodgers got to Drew Storen to score the winning runs late against the Blue Jays, coming out on top 4-2.

TORONTO — It was déjà vu all over again for the Toronto Blue Jays Sunday, and not in a good way.

The Blue Jays couldn’t take advantage of yet another strong start on a day their offence and bullpen offered little support in front of 46,665 on Mother’s Day. In the aftermath of the resulting 4-2 loss, the Blue Jays face short- and medium-term bullpen questions.

At least their starters keep delivering. Marco Estrada, who joined the Blue Jays rotation a year ago this week, continues to surpass expectations. Since joining the rotation last May 5, the right-hander has started 34 regular season games, pitched 208 innings and posted a 3.12 ERA.

Estrada held the Dodgers hitless through five innings Sunday on his way to a strong seven-inning performance. Thanks in large part to his best changeup of the season, he allowed just three hits, including a Joc Pederson home run, while striking out eight and lowering his 2016 ERA to 2.39. Ultimately he didn’t get enough help.

“These things happen,” Estrada said. “There’s times where starting pitchers are struggling, there’s times where relievers are struggling, there’s times where the offence is struggling. These things happen. Hopefully it doesn’t last very long with anybody. Hopefully we can all turn things around and play as a group, play together, because this team’s way too good not to.”

“We’re going to be really successful, but it’s not happening right now,” he added.

In theory Estrada had the kind of outing that should lead to an easy win for the Blue Jays, who showed signs of breaking out offensively against the Texas Rangers but slowed down against the Dodgers. Ross Stripling, by far the least accomplished of the three pitchers the Dodgers threw at the Blue Jays, held Toronto’s lineup in check, allowing just one earned run on one hit in six innings while striking out six.

After Stripling’s strong start kept the game close, the Dodgers scored twice against the Blue Jays bullpen in the eighth. The rally started when Drew Storen allowed both of the batters he faced to reach. Storen, whose fastball was clocked in the 91-92 mph range, walked Chase Utley before Corey Seager doubled. That prompted manager John Gibbons to call on Roberto Osuna earlier than he had planned.

“That was kind of the game right there,” Gibbons said. “(Try to) keep them in check.” But both Utley and Seager would come around to score against Osuna, so Storen has now allowed 11 earned runs in 11 innings this season.

“You’re going to have these stretches,” Storen said. “It’s a matter of how you look at it. You can get caught up in ‘I’m not catching breaks.’ Just keep your head down and do your thing. There’s a reason I’ve had the career I have.”

That track record made Storen an appealing trade target during the off-season, and makes his recent struggles more puzzling. Regardless, the Blue Jays are counting on much more from the right-hander from here on.

“We do need him. That’s just a fact,” Gibbons said. “He was getting through some innings where he looked much better. We’re a month in. We’re trying to build something, build some confidence, get something rolling.”

Storen had three consecutive scoreless appearances earlier in the week, so he says he’s not about to dwell on Sunday’s rough outing.

“I’m just frustrated with today,” he said. “Tomorrow the sun comes up. We’ll be right back after it.”

If the Blue Jays had hit, the bullpen’s struggles might have been overlooked, but they struggled at the plate Sunday with one exception. Kevin Pillar’s extremely productive weekend continued, as the centre fielder picked up two hits. He’s now batting .301 with an .793 OPS after struggling early on as the Blue Jays’ leadoff hitter.

Pillar, who grew up cheering for the Dodgers, scored the Blue Jays’ first run and effectively drove in their second. His third inning double got the Blue Jays on the board and he scored on a perfect slide two batters later, beating a throw from Howie Kendrick, who was playing first base for the first time in four years. Justin Smoak would later score the Blue Jays’ second run after Pillar singled and Trayce Thompson bobbled the ball in right field.

Beyond Pillar, though, the Blue Jays managed just three hits and one walk — not nearly enough to back Estrada’s strong start, especially on a day the bullpen struggled.

In the short term, the Blue Jays will have to tweak their bullpen before their upcoming series against the San Francisco Giants, as Brett Cecil plans to go on paternity leave starting Monday. Reinforcements will be welcome after burning through five relievers, not that the triple-A Buffalo Bisons are necessarily overflowing with dominant bullpen arms.

The way things are going, the Blue Jays have some longer-term questions, too. Unless their bullpen struggles end, a search for outside help may well be required in the months ahead.

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