Blue Jays’ pitching staff facing biggest test yet after loss to Rays

Toronto Blue Jays' Trent Thornton pitches against the Tampa Bay Rays during the first inning of a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (Steve Nesius/AP)

TORONTO – About 45 minutes before the first pitch on Sunday, the Toronto Blue Jays’ pitching staff took its first hit on what would prove to be a costly day. Matt Shoemaker, one of the few starters who has consistently given the Blue Jays innings this year, was placed on the injured list with right shoulder inflammation.

Once the game began, it soon became apparent that Trent Thornton wasn’t quite right either. Between pitches at Tropicana Field, Thornton was seen stretching and rubbing his right forearm area. After pitching a scoreless first, he returned to the dugout and told pitching coach Pete Walker his elbow was bothering him again. Suddenly, the Blue Jays had to scramble.

They kept things close until the end only to lose 5-4 to the Rays and fall to 13-13 on the season. The Blue Jays are still in playoff position, but managing their pitching staff for the next week and beyond will require some real creativity.

Even before those rapid-fire injuries to Shoemaker and Thornton, GM Ross Atkins was open about his interest in adding starting pitching. Now, the front office has even more reason to explore deals for starters ahead of the Aug. 31 trade deadline.

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Pitching on two days of rest after a tough return to action Thursday, Thornton never quite looked comfortable. The right elbow inflammation that sidelined him from Aug. 6-20 returned, and forced the Blue Jays to turn to their bullpen earlier than anticipated.

First up for the Blue Jays was Anthony Kay and given the way he responded to the challenge, he’s a candidate to take one of the newly vacated rotation spots. The first opening exists Wednesday, when Shoemaker was slated to start against the Boston Red Sox (Shoemaker underwent testing Sunday, the results of which will give the Blue Jays a sense of how long he’ll be sidelined).

Two days later, the Blue Jays will need to backfill against the Baltimore Orioles. Jacob Waguespack, who threw 48 pitches of his own, will also earn consideration for a start, according to manager Charlie Montoyo.

“We’ll see where we are,” he said. “Like I always say, you can never have enough pitching. It’s unbelievable.”

Depending on how much rest Kay and Waguespack need, Wednesday could theoretically be a bullpen day, but Toronto’s relievers are already being asked to cover all kinds of innings during a stretch where the team will play 28 games in 27 days. Plus, even before Sunday the Blue Jays were already down a starter in Nate Pearson. That’s why the front office is keeping an eye out for outside help ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline.

“If I had to say just one (area), it would be starting pitching. If there’s ways to continue to build upon that depth, we will look to do that,” Atkins said Thursday. “Thinking about pitching and preventing runs is where the focus will be.”

On paper, someone like Kevin Gausman or Dylan Bundy would be an appealing target, but with expanded playoffs in place there aren’t a ton of traditional sellers. That means prices will be likely high for the top arms available with many contenders eyeing the same few trade targets.

More immediately, the Blue Jays will look to Tanner Roark for some innings in Monday’s finale against the Rays. Thornton’s short start meant the Toronto bullpen had to absorb seven innings Sunday and while those games are bound to happen occasionally, they’ve become the norm for the Blue Jays. Through 26 games, the bullpen has pitched more innings than the rotation. With no off days in sight, the challenge will continue.

“I don’t want to use that as an excuse,” Montoyo said. “It is what it is. There’s a lot of teams playing every day.”

At the plate, the Blue Jays didn’t manage much against a Rays pitching staff that’s dealing with many injuries of its own. Teoscar Hernandez hit his 10th home run of the season to get the scoring started in the second inning. That homer was part of an eventful day for Hernandez, who also made a throwing error, drew three walks and stole two bases.

“After the home run I didn’t get any good pitches to hit,” Hernandez said. “I changed my plan and I was a little more patient at the plate. I tried to get pitches I could do damage on and I didn’t get any after that, so I took the three walks.”

Two innings after Hernandez’s home run, a rare Vladimir Guerrero Jr. triple into the right field corner led to the Blue Jays’ second run. For the second day in a row, the 21-year-old was in the DH spot in an attempt to reduce wear and tear on the hard turf at Tropicana Field and keep a key hitter healthy. Finally, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. added a two-run homer to bring the Blue Jays within one run in the eighth.

Starting Tuesday, Blue Jays hitters will have the chance to bounce back against the Red Sox and Orioles. But after a costly day for the Blue Jays’ starting rotation, this team’s most pressing questions exist on the pitching staff.

“We’ll find a way,” Montoyo said. “But because we have so many games in a row, we’ll have to be creative.”

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