Blue Jays offence arrives in Texas to pick up Estrada

Ryan Goins hit a lead-off double that sparked a ninth inning rally and Roberto Osuna earned his 18th save of the year as the Toronto Blue Jays defeated the Texas Rangers.

ARLINGTON, Texas — With two out and two on in the fourth inning on a hot, muggy Monday night, Shin-Soo Choo rolled a ground ball perfectly into no-man’s land between first base and the pitcher’s mound off of Marco Estrada.

The ball came off Choo’s bat at just 55 m.p.h. with a hit probability of only 12 per cent. But it was what baseball people would call a hell of a tough read. As the pitcher, what do you do? Do you try make a play on it? Do you run over to cover first base? These are the decisions that change nights.

And as far as Estrada’s concerned, he made the wrong one. The Blue Jays starter dove after the ball, watching it skip just past his glove and roll towards his first baseman, Justin Smoak, who collected it as Choo cruised into first with a single, loading the bases.

[snippet id=3319157]

Estrada immediately knew he’d made a mistake. That’s why he lay flat on his stomach for a few beats before getting up and dusting himself off. If he’d stayed on his feet, and run over to cover first base as Smoak fielded the ball, he would’ve had a shot at beating Choo to the bag and getting out of the inning. Instead, he had to face another batter. And then another and another. And before he knew it, he was out of the game.

“I’m pretty mad at myself for diving after a ball that I had no business diving for,” Estrada said after what was eventually a 7-6 Blue Jays win. “If I would’ve just covered first base, I probably get the out and the inning’s over with and who knows? It’s a different story.”

The story that played out was an unfortunately familiar one for the struggling Blue Jays starter. After Estrada picked himself up, Elvis Andrus stepped to the plate and bounced an elevated change-up through the hole between shortstop and third to cash two runs. Then, after a Nomar Mazara walk re-loaded the bases, Adrian Beltre crushed a high fastball deep to the right-centre field gap, clearing the bases and knocking Estrada from the game.

“It’s the way baseball is,” Estrada said. “Sometimes those weak hits are going to find a glove and be an out. And sometimes they’ll find their way through and then, unfortunately, a big one comes after that. And that’s what makes it even worse.”

Who’s to say if making the correct read on Choo’s ball would have turned Estrada’s night. You can’t rewrite history. And, with the Blue Jays rallying for two runs in the top of the ninth inning off Rangers closer Matt Bush — thanks to RBI singles by Josh Donaldson and Kendrys Morales — to erase a one-run deficit and win the game, the point is basically moot.

But that moment in Monday’s game does help colour the results on Estrada’s game log, which paints the picture of a very rough month of June that, frankly, couldn’t be going much worse.

There have been four starts, 35 hits, 23 runs, and only 16.1 innings pitched. There has been nearly two full points added to Estrada’s ERA (which now stands at 4.98), the same number of home runs (five, including Mazara’s 435-foot first-inning solo shot on Monday) as he allowed in his first seven starts of the season, and a steep decline in swinging strikes, from an average of 13.1 per game through 11 pre-June outings to nine per game this month.

Three times in June, Estrada hasn’t made it out of the fourth inning. In his 11 starts prior, he pitched six innings or more 10 times.

So, safe to say something’s amiss with the 2016 all-star. And what, exactly, is behind his nightmarish month is anyone’s guess. But you can be sure Estrada and the Blue Jays will do everything they can over the next four days as they search for something — anything — to tweak, adjust or rework before Estrada’s next outing this weekend in Kansas City.

“I’m in a bit of a pitcher’s slump right now — and it sucks,” Estrada said. “Obviously, the results aren’t very good. But I really don’t care right now. I’m just glad that we won.”

That win happened because the Blue Jays offence showed up in a very big way Monday night, while five of the club’s relievers combined for 5.1 innings of hitless, scoreless ball once Estrada left the game.

As is their wont, Toronto’s offence got off the ground thanks to the home run ball. Smoak got into a first-pitch fastball from Rangers starter Austin Bibens-Dirkx in the bottom of the first, sending his 20th home run of the season over the right-field wall. And Jose Bautista smoked a full-count Bibens-Dirkx change-up in the fourth, driving a solo shot of his own 442 feet into the left-field seats.

Then, later on in that fourth inning, a not-as-often seen element to the Blue jays offence presented itself: the two-out hit with runners in scoring position (coming into the game, the Blue Jays were batting .221/.320/.425 in those situations).

It started when Toronto loaded the bases on a Morales double, a Smoak single, and a Russell Martin walk. That brought up Steve Pearce, who laced a first-pitch breaking ball on the plate into the left-field corner, scoring all three runners, and giving Toronto an early 5-1 lead that was quickly erased in the bottom of the inning.

The Blue Jays were quiet until the ninth, when Ryan Goins led off with a liner to left-centre off Bush that the Blue Jays second baseman turned into a double thanks to some uber-aggressive base running. A Kevin Pillar pop out later, Donaldson stepped to the plate and hammered a first-pitch breaking ball into left field, scoring Goins with the tying run.

Donaldson quickly swiped second before Bautista walked and Morales stepped to the plate. The designated hitter drove a 1-1 slider to left, easily scoring Donaldson with the go-ahead run.


“We know what [the Rangers] have got there in the eighth and ninth inning coming out of the pen,” Smoak said. “Those guys are really good. We were able to get to Bush tonight. But guys were just grinding out at-bats and getting on base and we got a couple key hits right there.”

Aside from Estrada’s continued struggles, Monday night was a stirring win for the Blue Jays. It was their third in four games this year against the rival Rangers, their first when trailing after the eighth inning, and a victory that puts the team within a game of the elusive .500 mark they’ve been flirting with for weeks.

“I’m proud of that whole group,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said of his team. “That was a heck of a ballgame.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.