Blue Jays spring takeaways: Gibbons’ use of Loup vs. Rays a strategic move

Toronto Blue Jays ace Marcus Stroman talks about how he is feeling heading into the World Baseball Classic and representing Team U.S.A.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – The Blue Jays’ tough spring continued as they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, leading the Tampa Bay Rays 3-1 through seven innings but ultimately falling 5-3 to fall to 2-7-1 on the Grapefruit circuit.

Here’s what stood out to me about the latest Jays loss:

SERIOUS PITCHING – Four pitchers who are guaranteed to be on the opening day roster got into Sunday’s game, and Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada, Roberto Osuna and Joe Smith combined to throw 6 2/3 innings of one-run, five-hit ball, with no walks and eight strikeouts.

Stroman started the game and went 2 2/3 innings – becoming the first Jays starter to make it into the third this year – allowing a run on four hits and striking out three.

After Aaron Loup got the final out of the third, Estrada made his first appearance of the spring and faced the minimum six hitters over the fourth and fifth. He struck out one, induced only one ground ball, and was helped out by Russell Martin erasing Mallex Smith as the Rays’ speedster tried to steal second.

Osuna pitched a perfect sixth, striking out Kevin Kiermaier and Brad Miller around an Evan Longoria flyout, and Smith followed with a solid seventh, a big rebound off his first spring outing.

Smith’s only other appearance was on March 1, when he threw an inning and gave up two runs on three hits, including a pair of doubles. Smith recorded two quick outs on Sunday before hitting Rays catcher Jonah Heim with a pitch. He then got Nick Ciuffo to hit a knuckling line drive to second that went in and out of the glove of Jake Elmore for an error before striking out Johnny Field to end the inning.

LOUP’S ON – John Gibbons’ use of Loup was noteworthy in Sunday’s loss, because it appeared that there was strategy behind it, which is unusual for a spring training game.

Instead of being given an inning to pitch, regardless of the opponent’s line-up, as is usually the case in pre-season action, Loup was brought in specifically to face a left-handed hitter with two out and a runner on.

When Stroman reached his pitch limit in the third, it was Loup who got the call with a man on first and the left-handed Miller, who hit 30 home runs for the Rays last season, at the plate.

Loup got the job done, inducing a comebacker to the mound that he handled easily, throwing to first for the out to end the inning and strand the runner.

The Blue Jays’ bullpen looks pretty full, with Osuna, Jason Grilli, Joe Biagini, J.P. Howell, Mat Latos and Joe Smith all very likely to make the team. Should they choose to go with a second lefty, it would be either Loup or Matt Dermody, and whoever it is will have to be able to handle left-handed hitters in big spots. Loup has done that in the past, but last year left-handers batted .250/.321/.500 against him. The fact that he was brought in to get one lefty out in a mid-inning situation with a runner on shows that the Blue Jays want to give him a few opportunities this spring to see how he handles that situation.

MAN ON A MISSION – Jose Bautista’s last game with the Blue Jays before heading off to join Team Dominican Republic was another tour de force.

Bautista went 2 for 3 with a run scored and is now 9 for 16 in six spring games, hitting .563/.611/1.063 with two doubles and two home runs.

In his first at-bat, Bautista took a 3-0 pitch from Alex Cobb into the left-field corner for a leadoff double in the bottom of the second inning. On the next pitch, Bautista picked Cobb’s pocket – stealing third base with a head-first slide. He then scored on a sacrifice fly by Steve Pearce to give the Blue Jays the early lead.

Next time up, with two out and nobody on in the fourth, Bautista drilled a hard ground single through the hole on the left side. He grounded out to third in his final at-bat of the afternoon.

Bautista is completely locked in, and it certainly appears as though Team D.R. is going to benefit from that as they look to defend their World Baseball Classic championship.

The Blue Jays are off on Monday, one of their four days off in spring training, and will be back in action Tuesday afternoon with J.A. Happ getting the start against Team Canada. It should be a fun day at the ballpark and I’ll have all the action for you along with Kevin Barker (and some special guest visits!) on the web beginning at 1 p.m. Eastern. You can listen to the broadcast here.

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