ARLINGTON, Texas — Have you ever seen that gif of a golden retriever teetering over the edge of a pool, pawing at a tennis ball? The ball’s, like, right there. He can ever so slightly touch it with his nose. But every time he paws at the water, he pushes the ball a little bit farther away, keeping it just painfully out of his reach.
That’s like the Toronto Blue Jays and .500, basically. Nine times this season they’ve clawed their way within a game of an even record, and nine times they’ve failed to get there following their latest defeat, 11-4, at the hands of the Texas Rangers.
“It’s been a battle trying to get back to that .500 mark,” said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, whose team has been outscored 72-24 in its nine attempts to do so. “The tough part, the disappointing part, is it seems like we get knocked around pretty good on that day.”
It’s getting a little absurd, especially the performance of Blue Jays starting pitchers in those nine contests. Thursday, Marcus Stroman took his first stab at levelling his team’s record after Joe Biagini, Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, and Francisco Liriano each tried twice, and each time fell short, pitching to a collective 10.58 ERA in those eight starts.
You would think, with Stroman and his 3.15 ERA this season on the mound, that number couldn’t possibly get worse. And you would be wrong — so, so wrong — because things went south awfully fast for Stroman Thursday, as he allowed seven runs on seven hits — three of them homers — over four rough innings. Blue Jays starters have now put up an 11.15 ERA over those nine attempts to reach .500, and haven’t made it past the fifth inning in their last four tries.
Speaking of trends and the Blue Jays, it wouldn’t be a day in which the sun arose from the east without a fresh injury on this ball club. Thursday’s victim was Josh Donaldson, who was scratched from the lineup about an hour before first pitch with left knee soreness.
A couple days ago, Donaldson was performing some stretching exercises with a pad beneath his left knee. At one point, he tried to put his knee down on the pad and missed it, driving his knee, and his entire body weight behind it, into a concrete floor.
That hurt. But Donaldson played through it for a couple days, until he experienced an amount of swelling that he felt uncomfortable taking the field with. He says he’s confident he’ll be able to return to the Blue Jays lineup Friday when they begin a three-game series in Kansas City.
“I told Gibby I don’t think it’d be a great idea for me to go out there and push it right now,” Donaldson said. “But I feel like it’s day-to-day for sure. Hopefully I’ll be in there Friday.”
Donaldson was joined on the bench by Steve Pearce, who suffered a right knee contusion Wednesday night when he ran into a wall in left field. Pearce was available to pinch-hit on Thursday, although he would’ve been pinch-run for if he reached base. Like Donaldson, it was likely in Pearce’s best interests that he didn’t try to tough it out through the injury.
So, it was from the bench that those two watched as the Rangers scored first, when Adrian Beltre shot a well-located Stroman two-seamer into left field for a first inning double that plated Elvis Andrus from first base. Texas then got a couple more in the second, when Mike Napoli went down to get another two-seamer, muscling it over the right field wall for a two-run shot.
“I just didn’t have a good feel for my pitches out there,” Stroman said. “Kind of at the end, everything didn’t feel like it was necessarily coming out the same. I’m not really worried about it. Just didn’t have a good feel for my sinker — and all of my other pitches kind of play off that.”
And Stroman’s troubles continued in the third, when he opened the inning with a four-pitch walk of Andrus, who stole second and moved to third on a groundout. For a moment, it looked like Stroman might get out of it, as Russell Martin — making his sixth start at third base this season — gunned down Andrus breaking for home on a contact play to give his pitcher two outs.
But then Rougned Odor hammered a first-pitch single to centre, putting two runners on for Carlos Gomez. Stroman got ahead 0-2, threw a couple balls, and then left a breaking pitch on the plate that Gomez lined off the foul pole in left to put Texas up by a half dozen.
There was a similar refrain with one out in the fourth, as Stroman got ahead of No. 9 hitter Robinson Chirinos 0-2, threw a couple balls, then left an elevated change-up on the plate that the Rangers catcher drove 395-feet to left-centre for Texas’ third homer of the game.
“I was battling it all day but that’s something you’re going to run into as a pitcher,” Stroman said. “They made me work a lot and they capitalized on some bad pitches that I made. They swung it well all game. I wasn’t locating like I normally am down.
“I just wasn’t executing when I needed to. I went and identified some things on video and feel like I’ll be able to make some quick adjustments and I feel like I’ll be much better next time out.”
Meanwhile, Rangers starter Martin Perez kept the Blue Jays contained through four innings, scattering four hits with no damage done. But Toronto’s hitters had some two-out fight in them come the fifth, when a rally began immediately after Darwin Barney hit into a double play and Dwight Smith Jr., was hit by a pitch.
Luke Maile cashed Smith with a ringing double to right-centre before Jose Bautista walked, Martin singled to drive in Maile and Justin Smoak walked to load the bases. That brought up Kendrys Morales, who drilled a 1-0 change-up into right field, scoring Bautista and Martin to give the Blue Jays a four-run inning.
That outburst brought the Blue Jays within three, and they stayed there for a couple innings as Cesar Valdez came on in relief of Stroman for the fifth and temporarily held the Rangers in check. But in the seventh he allowed a hard single to the wall off the bat off Beltre, before leaving a 1-2 change-up on the plate to Gomez, who obliterated his second homer of the day 432 feet into the left-centre field stands.
And a 10th Texas run was scored in the eighth, when Troy Tulowitzki got in the way of Chirinos during a rundown between third and home, which allowed the Rangers catcher to cross the plate due to interference. An 11th came on a Beltre sacrifice fly two batters later.
That was more than enough to send the Blue Jays packing with a series split. For the ninth time this season, the .500 mark was within reach but will have to wait for another day. The tennis ball remained in the water, just painfully out of reach. While the Blue Jays’ lack of success in those games is perplexing, nonsensical, and at times absurd, their fortunes have to turn at some point. Right?
“If it was a team that never won big games and hadn’t experienced them, I might look at it differently,” Gibbons said. “We just haven’t been able to get over that hump yet. But we will.”