The Toronto Blue Jays finished their 10-game road trip the same way they started it — with a disappointing performance from a starting pitcher in which he failed to complete five innings.
Drew Hutchison’s poor start in the finale in Cleveland hurt the Jays more than R.A. Dickey’s flameout in the opening game of the trip, though, because Hutchison was staked to a 6-1 lead in the fourth inning and couldn’t hold it.
It was the fourth time in six starts this season that Hutchison has failed to pitch five innings, and each time the Blue Jays have scored a bunch. In Baltimore the bats got Hutchison eight runs; against the Braves they scored four; in Boston there were nine Jays’ runs on the board through five innings and Sunday afternoon they got him six.
In only one of those games — Atlanta — did Hutchison actually give up the lead before leaving, but pretty much the minimum to expect from a starting pitcher when a team scores a pile of early runs is to at least finish five innings and leave with a chance to get the win.
It’s not just Hutchison, of course, it’s a team-wide issue. A Blue Jays’ starter saw the seventh inning only three times on the 10-game trip, and ironically it was Hutchison, Dickey and the since-demoted Daniel Norris who turned the trick. In the overall, the Jays got just 51.1 innings out of their starting pitchers in the 10 games, an average of barely five innings per start. The starters gave up 42 earned runs for an ugly ERA of 7.36 on the three-city sojourn over which the Blue Jays went 3-7.
Clearly, there’s a problem. But is the problem personnel or performance? After a month’s worth of games, can an entire group be severely under performing or are they just not as good as we thought they were?
Just as clearly, the Blue Jays’ starting pitchers are not this bad. This isn’t a group that’s so poor it’s going to set records for ineptitude, by any means. Through the first month or so of the season, Jays’ starters have posted an ERA of 5.70, which is unsustainably high. The starter with the lowest ERA, Norris, was demoted to Buffalo during the trip after a three-inning, 78-pitch outing (in which he didn’t give up a run — again, the irony!) in order to help him get back to the form he displayed both last summer and this spring, and in order to get another veteran arm into this struggling pitching rotation. Marco Estrada will take the ball against the New York Yankees on Tuesday night in Norris’ place.
Hutchison has an ERA of 7.47 through six starts, Mark Buehrle’s is 6.75 through five and Dickey, also through five starts, has posted an ERA of 5.23. Each of those numbers can be expected to improve dramatically. Both Buehrle and Dickey threw more than 200 innings last season and Hutchison threw 184.2. These are not pitchers who aren’t able to get deep in games. It may not seem like it at the moment, but realistically this starting rotation has nowhere to go but up.
The good news is that almost an entire month of abysmal starting pitching and, as a result, unreliable bullpen work hasn’t buried this team. The Blue Jays are the same 12-14 as they were through 26 games last season, when they were in first place by the end of May.
DO YOU SMELL SALAMI?
The Blue Jays had yet another huge inning with the bats, scoring six runs in the fourth, but there was a different twist to this one. Devon Travis capped the rally with a one-out grand slam, the first of his career and his team-leading seventh home run of the season.
Not only was it the first grand slam hit by a Blue Jay since Colby Rasmus last June, it was also the first home run the Blue Jays have hit this season with more than one runner on base.
NOT REALLY ALL THAT SMOOTH
Indians’ first baseman Carlos Santana had a heck of a day in the batters’ box, singling twice (once with a bunt) to beat the Jays’ defensive shift and walking in his other three plate appearances. But when he was outside of the box, he had some serious issues. Santana was on second, with David Murphy on first, in the second inning when Lonnie Chisenhall hit a pop fly towards the mound. An infield fly was called, but it appeared as though Santana either didn’t see or hear that or didn’t understand the rule, because he went about a third of the way towards third base thinking that the ball might drop. It didn’t, Hutchison caught it, and Santana was easily doubled up at second.
There was another Baseball 101 fail in the Blue Jays’ big fourth inning, as with runners on the corners and one out, Ryan Goins hit a ground ball to first. Santana caught it and looked at second but saw there was no play there, so he looked at third and spotted Kevin Pillar a bit too far off the base, but not committed towards home plate. Santana did the right thing, running straight at the runner, catching Pillar in no man’s land. But he never gave up the ball. Santana ran all the way across the diamond, ball in hand, which allowed Pillar to scamper back and slide safely into third ahead of his tag.
BACK TO THE GRIND
The Blue Jays played 19 of their first 22 games of the season within the division, going 9-10 against their fellow AL Easters. Following the four games in Cleveland, they’re right back into the meat grinder. The Jays open up a six-game home stand Monday evening with three games each against the Yankees and Boston Red Sox, then they head to Baltimore for a three-spot before leaving the AL East for a month.
After the finale with the Orioles on May 13, the Jays’ next in-division game will be June 12, when they go to Boston. After May 13, the Blue Jays play just 19 of their next 99 games within the division after opening the season with 28 of 35.