Blue Jays head into unexpected weekend off still seeking breakout at plate

Teoscar Hernandez hit two home runs for the Blues Jays but it wasn’t enough for the win as they fell 6-4 to the Nationals.

TORONTO – You know what the Toronto Blue Jays could really use? Well a few things, maybe. A home stadium, for instance, or someone to play this weekend. A closer or a centre-fielder would help, too.

But beyond the health and safety questions that are persisting league-wide and beyond the injuries already impacting the Blue Jays’ roster, what the club could really use is an offensive breakout.

One week into the season, they’re averaging just 3.57 runs per game. And since they have yet to score more than six runs in a game, manager Charlie Montoyo has had to navigate more than his share of leverage innings.

At times, that’s led to the overexposure of relievers Sam Gaviglio and Shun Yamaguchi, both of whom should now be relegated to low-leverage spots whenever possible. And other times, it’s meant sub-par pitching performances leave the Blue Jays in a seemingly inescapable hole. That was certainly the case Thursday, when the Toronto offence couldn’t recover from a disappointing Hyun-Jin Ryu start and the Blue Jays lost the last game they’ll play for a while, 6-4.

“Yes, I am looking for our offence,” Montoyo said afterwards. “And I’d bet my house they’re going to start hitting pretty soon. There’s a few guys who haven’t hit yet, but I’d bet my house that they will. And the moment that happens, the way our pitching is pitching, we’re going to be okay.”

Despite a two-home run day from Teoscar Hernandez and a solo shot from Cavan Biggio, the Blue Jays managed little offence against the Nationals. The Toronto lineup is too talented to keep averaging less than four runs per game long-term, but the sooner the Jays start scoring runs in bunches, the easier it will be for Montoyo to manage his bullpen.

At least Hernandez has been hitting, building on the strong finish to 2019 that saw him post a .939 OPS in the second half. After a week, he leads MLB with four home runs thanks to a more selective approach at the plate.

“I’m trying to get more good pitches to hit,” he said. “I think that’s the key … I know I have the power to drive the ball out of the park.”

Meanwhile, if any hitter personifies the struggles of the team, it’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who grounded out three times in four trips to the plate. Guerrero Jr., who was the Blue Jays’ DH Thursday, is hitting just .172/.200/.276 one week into the season.

“He’s struggling right now,” Montoyo acknowledged. “But he’s a guy we believe in. We all know his potential, so I actually think these couple days off will give him a chance to regroup and I think he’s going to be okay.”

To be fair, the Blue Jays haven’t been playing at full strength. While Randal Grichuk (back) remained sidelined Thursday, shortstop Bo Bichette returned from the hamstring soreness that sidelined him for the previous three days and made his presence known immediately. On the first pitch he saw, Bichette hit home plate umpire Joe West with his backswing, chasing West from the game with Vic Carapazza taking over behind the plate.

Then, on the second pitch Bichette saw, he hit a leadoff double down the right-field line. He’d score two batters later when a pop-up off the bat of Lourdes Gurriel Jr. dropped in for an RBI single – one of three hits he’d collect on the afternoon.

But on the same day Bichette returned, left quad tightness forced Derek Fisher out of the game early. Considering Fisher had been playing well with Grichuk sidelined, that timing has to be frustrating for the Blue Jays.

A better start from Ryu would have created more margin for error, but the left-hander allowed five runs on nine hits in his second start with the Blue Jays. The approach he took was notable, even for a pitcher who typically relies heavily on off-speed stuff. Of the 93 pitches Ryu threw, just 12 were four-seam fastballs, and none of those were particularly fast. While he averaged 90.6 m.p.h. on his way to last year’s NL ERA title, Ryu topped out at 90.7 m.p.h. Thursday before giving way to Thomas Hatch.

“I feel healthy and I feel good, so I think moving forward it’s going to get better,” Ryu said afterwards through an interpreter.

Even if Ryu’s effort fell short, Hatch impressed for the second time in as many chances. The right-hander, who was acquired from the Cubs in last summer’s David Phelps trade, pitched 2.2 scoreless innings of relief while topping out at 95.1 m.p.h.

But Hatch’s performance was too little, too late so the Blue Jays head into their unexpected four-day break on a two-game losing streak. Most seasons, a weekend off this time of year would be a welcome respite from the grind. Now, it’s yet another reminder of how precarious the entire 2020 season is becoming.

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