Blue Jays lack sharpness to overcome off-kilter offence against Atlanta

Nick Markakis hit a walk-off home run to give the Atlanta Braves the 4-3 win over the Toronto Blue Jays.

TORONTO – Nate Pearson wasn’t as sharp with his command and his slider as he was during a sterling big-league debut last week. Also not sharp Thursday night was the handling of the Toronto Blue Jays’ lineup card — a snafu with Jacob Waguespack preventing the right-hander from entering the game in the sixth inning after he had already warmed up on the mound.

In and around all that, the still-off-kilter Blue Jays offence, diced up by Touki Toussaint for six innings, erased a two-run deficit in the seventh inning but went quiet again right after, setting up Nick Markakis to deliver a walk-off homer against Wilmer Font in a 4-3 Atlanta win.

So, there was a lot for the 4-6 club to process as it headed to Boston for three against the Red Sox, with Tanner Roark set to take the ball Friday, like most of his teammates still trying to find some rhythm in this unique season.

“Our approach needs to get better – we’re chasing way too many bad pitches right now,” manager Charlie Montoyo said of his offence, which began the day with a chase rate of 31.7 percent, ninth highest in the majors. “Hopefully the more we play, the better that will get.”

Pearson went five innings during his second big-league start, allowing three runs on two hits and three walks with five strikeouts, and even without his best stuff, still impressed.

The main damage against him came in the first, when Freddie Freeman followed a Dansby Swanson walk by hooking a slider diving down and in over the wall in right-centre.

“I definitely wanted it in but wanted it more backfoot so if he was going to swing at it, he’d miss it,” said Pearson. “Obviously I left it up just a little bit, and he put a barrel on it pretty well.”

Atlanta hitters grinded the rookie for most of the next four innings, too, scratching out another run in the fourth when Marcell Ozuna singled, took second on a wild pitch, moved to third on a Markakis groundout and scored on an Adam Duvall fly ball.

Pearson ended his outing at 79 pitches, again primarily relying on a fastball that averaged 95.2 m.p.h. and touched 99.2, and a slider that generated three swinging strikes, compared to eight in his last time out.

“I just battled through my pitches and not getting the strike calls that I thought were right there. It was a grind,” said Pearson, who felt his delivery was sound but planned to watch video in order to make sure. “It was very hot, humid, just trying to find the strike zone at times, had some success and then had not so much success.

“But I only gave up two hits. Really have to focus on throwing strikes from here on out, that will change the whole dynamic.”

Things got weird once Pearson came out of the game in the sixth. Down 3-1, manager Charlie Montoyo called on Waguespack, who was optioned in the morning to help get the Blue Jays down to 28 as rosters were cut from 30, but then recalled a couple of hours before the game when Trent Thornton was placed on the injured list with elbow inflammation.

Only something went wrong, as home-plate Alan Porter called over crew chief Marty Foster as Waguespack warmed, compared lineup cards and told the right-hander he was ineligible because he wasn’t listed.

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Under the 2019 rulebook, rule 4.03(c) says, in part, that “as a courtesy, potential substitute players should also be listed, but the failure to list a potential substitute player shall not make such potential substitute player ineligible to enter the game.”

However, there are several items that govern player eligibility, such as, “in accordance with Major League Rule 2(b)(2), each Major League Club must designate on its lineup card in advance of that game each player eligible to play in the game as a pitcher, a position player, or a ‘Two-Way Player.’”

Further, section 5.1.2 of Major League Baseball’s 2020 Operations Manual says that, “all players eligible to participate in the game, regardless of position, must be included on that game’s lineup card.”

In part due to COVID-19 protocols, there are other wrinkles this year, too, including the digital exchange of lineup cards prior to the game. Clubs are responsible for ensuring that the lineup card is accurate before it’s provided to the opposing team and umpires.

Bench coach Dave Hudgens is responsible for that digital submission.

“It was on all our cards,” said Montoyo. “For some reason, the ones they had, [Waguespack] wasn’t on it.”

The Blue Jays had submitted the move to Major League Baseball in advance of the game and Montoyo tried to plead his case to Porter. “I said, ‘Dude, we did make the move,’” he relayed. “It goes digitally. I don’t get to see it. And he said, ‘No, we don’t have it.’ There’s nothing else I can say because the one he has is the one that counts.”

Whatever the reasoning behind the confusion, the end result is pretty binary – the umpires either have the player on the lineup card or they don’t. So Waguespack warmed for nothing, Rafael Dolis took over, and he stranded a leadoff Freeman double that Lourdes Gurriel Jr. lost in the lights.

That loomed large the next inning when the Blue Jays, limited at that point to just a Bo Bichette homer, tied things up in the seventh. Gurriel opened the inning with a single and advanced to third on a Rowdy Tellez double and scored on a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. groundout to narrow the gap. And after Randal Grichuk also grounded out, Teoscar Hernandez delivered a pinch-hit RBI single that made it 3-3.

But the Blue Jays didn’t manage another hit from that point on, as their bats largely remain stalled. Whether it’s through traditional stats — they began the day 22nd in batting average at .215, 29th in OBP at .266 and 23rd in slugging at .368 — or advanced metrics (their sweet spot percentage of 27.7 last in majors, their hard-hit ball percentage of 34.5 is 18th, and their expected weighted On Base Average of .302 is 25th) the offence is badly underperforming.

That proved costly when Font took the ball after shutdown innings from A.J. Cole in the seventh and Jordan Romano in the eighth, and watched Markakis, in his first game back after initially opting out of the season, hook a curveball over the wall in right.

Maybe if Waguespack gets into the game, the Blue Jays still have Romano for the ninth and there’s a different outcome in extra innings. Or maybe Atlanta puts up more runs in that sixth and the rest is moot. Either way, Pearson became the latest starter to give the Blue Jays a chance, and eventually the offence needs to do its part to capitalize.

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