TORONTO — The ‘where’ has been decided: triple-A Buffalo. But now what to do with Lourdes Gurriel Jr.? How to do it? How to save the baseball soul of Gurriel, who was removed after three innings from Sunday’s series finale loss to the Tampa Bay Rays following a costly throwing error and has since been optioned.
Charlie Montoyo said the minor leagues were a possibility even ahead of a meeting with general manager Ross Atkins and the team’s coaching staff on the heels of an 8-4 loss to, in Montoyo’s words, to decide “what we’re going to do with him … what our next plan is for him.” They may not be there with Gurriel yet, but we’ve seen the nuclear manifestation of a total breakdown of throwing mechanics: The Thing. The Yips. Steve Sax Syndrome or Disease. The thing now is to arrest it somehow. Some place.
“It’s all right here I’m telling you,” Montoyo said, pointing to his head. “It’s tough. I’ve seen it before. People have worked through it and hopefully he can. You can tell it’s got bad, and he knows it.”
This has been a Sum of All Our Fears kind of weekend in Toronto sports, wrapped up at the Rogers Centre in front of a crowd of 20,512 that saw the Blue Jays remain winless through five series. Marcus Stroman’s earned-run average dropped to 1.99, but unfortunately his record fell, too, to 0-3 on an afternoon when he seemed out of sorts from the start. The guy who has been the first person out of the dugout to greet teammates whenever they do something, who took the entire team out for dinner in Boston and who even pledged yesterday that he’d go and hit grounders himself to Gurriel if it would help his teammate? That guy gave way to a brooding, shoulders slumped wearer of frowns and puzzled looks.
And that was before Gurriel’s second throwing error in as many games.
With two out in the third inning and Michael Perez on first base, Gurriel unleashed a tentative throw wide of the bag from about 30 feet away on a bouncer off the bat of Ji-Man Choi. Perez went to second, bringing Avisail Garcia to the plate. Garcia drew a 10-pitch walk before Brandon Lowe singled in Perez for the Rays’ first run. Stroman’s 34-pitch inning ended on a fielder’s choice grounder off the bat of Daniel Robertson. Gurriel and Montoyo disappeared down the dugout and when the Blue Jays took the field in the top of the fourth Alen Hanson was at second.
Gurriel can hit, there’s no doubt about that. But he was found waning at shortstop last season, which is a position of considerable organizational depth, beyond the fact that it is currently manned at the Major League level by Freddy Galvis, the Blue Jays’ best player. Bo Bichette plays short; so does Kevin Smith who is, in fact, a better defender than Bichette. Third base? Let’s see if Vladimir Guerrero Jr. can play there. First base? Take a number: Justin Smoak might be traded this season. Rowdy Tellez has power. And while no one in the organization can say it publicly, first is an option for Guerrero if he can’t handle third. Designated hitter? Maybe, but the Blue Jays have spent two years trying to turn that position into a rotationary spot for extra lefty-righty balance or to give players a day off.
The plan all along for Gurriel was to turn him into a super-utility player. But to do that, to become another Ben Zobrist, it’s vital a player have one infield position in which he excels. Nobody wants a utility player who needs to be replaced for defence late in games.
“Everybody who plays professional sports can make a mistake sometimes,” said Galvis, who has been working with Gurriel on his throwing. “Today, I think he was too worried about making a good throw to first base and then he didn’t make it and sometimes that thing goes a little bit to your head.
“Sometimes you have to put everything together just like a swing, you know? Maybe sometimes your hands are going down or your body is too far or something like that. It’s the same when you are taking grounders; you have to put everything together.”
The Rays blew open the game in the eighth inning against Blue Jays relievers Javy Guerra and Tim Mayza, the latter of whom gave up a two-run, pinch-hit single to Mike Zunino and a three-run, pinch-hit home run to Guillermo Heredia, as Rays manager Kevin Cash emptied his bench of right-hand hitting options against the left-handed Mayza. Billy McKinney, who had a pair of doubles, added a two-run home run in the ninth to wrap up the scoring.
There was a dissonant tone to this afternoon from the start, even before Gurriel threw away the ball. Stroman, catcher Danny Jansen, pitching coach Pete Walker, and the rest of the Blue Jays starters turned heel as they were strolling in toward the dugout after Stroman’s warmup. The national anthems were about to start, and the group – Blue Jays starters go down to the bullpen for warmups and then walk in together as a show of support – returned to the ‘pen for the playing of the anthems.
Stroman never seemed comfortable, although he put it down to concentration and trying to keep the Rays at bay.
He threw 19 pitches in the first inning, and despite getting a first-inning run when McKinney stroked a lead-off double and came around on a Galvis single – it was the first run his teammates scored for him this season – Stroman’s pace was still much slower than usual, and was marked by frequent strolls around the mound, rubbing the baseball. He fussed about Ramon De Jesus’ strike zone (field level microphones picked him up yelling: ‘That’s a strike!’ in the direction of the home plate umpire after an 0-1 pitch to Choi in the fourth). He frowned at and tossed away several new baseballs, at one point missing the throw back to the mound from Jansen. As he left the field following the third inning, shoulders slumped, he brushed by Rays third base coach Rodney Linares, who gave him a pat.
A former Gold Glove winner, Stroman bounced a toss to first baseman Justin Smoak and then made a two-base fielding error on a bunt single attempt by Kevin Kiermaier to open the fourth. Kiermaier would score the Rays’ first run on an Austin Meadows’ grounder after Willy Adames reached on a checked-swing single that third baseman Brandon Drury couldn’t bare-hand.
The Rays weren’t immune to mishaps, either, en route to a 12th win in 16 games that matches their best-ever franchise start. They committed two errors, and starter Charlie Morton laboured through a 20-pitch first inning of his own, crossing up catcher Michael Perez. Television shots of the Rays dugout showed Morton craning his neck and stretching while Stroman grinded through his start. The Jays hitters, to their credit, had a hand: McKinney led off the game by stepping out before each of Morton’s first five pitches of the game, before hitting his first of two hustling doubles.
Lost in the muck and mire was an immaculate inning thrown by Thomas Pannone in relief of Stroman: nine pitches to strike out Garcia, Lowe and Robertson in the fifth inning, the third time that’s been done by a Blue Jays pitcher (Roger Clemens and Steve Delabar also accomplished the feat) and the first time it’s been done at the Rogers Centre.
The Blue Jays left immediately following the game to open a seven-game, nine-day road trip beginning Monday in Minneapolis against the Minnesota Twins. Given his minor league managerial history and his own playing career as an infielder, you know in some ways that Gurriel’s situation is a bit personal for Montoyo.
“It’s a young kid struggling mentally with his throwing right now,” Montoyo said about the decision to remove Gurriel from the game. “I talked to him and he said: ‘Yeah, I feel it,’ so, you know, you have to be careful with that. The future’s bright for Gurriel. We don’t want to make this worse than it is.”