TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays are quickly approaching the precipice now, facing the end of what they’ve been the past few years, looking across the gulf between them at the moment and where in a few years they might be.
Over the winter general manager Ross Atkins and the front office built what they hope is a bridge that gets them to the other side without a collapse. On Thursday they stepped onto it for the first time and, after a 6-1 loss to the New York Yankees, it was hard not to wonder when it might buckle.
Certainly one game is not indicative of anything, but the Blue Jays’ crossing attempt is in serious trouble if the shoulder of Josh Donaldson, the MVP-calibre third baseman who last weekend admitted that he “wouldn’t say I feel amazing right now, because I don’t,” is as troubled as his soft, careful throws in the field at Rogers Centre suggested.
Manager John Gibbons fluffed off concerns, saying Donaldson is still experiencing the same shoulder issues that bothered him in the spring and suggesting, “we may need to DH him a little more until it comes back.”
“We don’t think it’s a big deal,” he added, “it’s just dead.”
Donaldson, meanwhile, said he doesn’t “have any pain or anything like that,” which makes him optimistic the treatment programs he’s working through will eventually get him right.
Until then he insisted he can function with whatever he’s got, being smart about when he needs to really air things out.
“Some days [the shoulder] would feel really good and the next day, maybe I’m overworking it sometimes,” said Donaldson. “So it’s a thing I’m trying to be cautious with – knowing when to push it and when not to.”
There were reasons for concern well beyond that, too.
Troy Tulowitzki will miss at least the next two months after being placed on the 60-day disabled list to open the season, and the Blue Jays revealed for the first time that he has bone spurs not just in one heel, but in both heels. An update on next steps for him is expected in the next couple of days.
The American League’s least productive offence last year again looked light, with Curtis Granderson the only one of the new additions acquired to bridge the gap contributing at the plate with a hit and a walk. Right-fielder Randal Grichuk and Aldemys Diaz, the shortstop covering Tulowitzki’s absence, both went 0-for-3 with Luis Severino allowing just one hit over 5.2 innings.
“When you have Severino pitching like he was today it’s going to be difficult,” said Donaldson. “We’ve got to try to disrupt him somehow, get some guys on base. Opening day is very unique, to the extent that it’s hard to get into your routine, you have a lot of things going on before the game, so throw it to that.”
The lack of offence only highlighted how thin the Blue Jays’ margin for error is, as Granderson had Brett Gardner’s soft liner clank off his glove on the game’s first play and two batters later Giancarlo Stanton’s first swing with the Yankees resulted in a two-run homer.
The ball left his bat at 117.4 m.p.h – to the opposite field.
Extra outs will be a grave error when facing the Yankees, who ground through a very good J.A. Happ for 96 pitches over 4.2 innings. The veteran left-hander, making his first opening-day start, left after a two-out walk of Aaron Judge, New York’s other homer-bashing titan, with two outs in the fifth, having allowed four hits and that one base on balls with five strikeouts.
The high pitch count underlined how tough the Yankees lineup is to manage, with few opportunities for a breather, even at the bottom of the order.
“You can’t really do that because those guys later in the lineup are good players, too,” said Happ. “You’re doing whatever you can in that moment to get the guys out and if that takes eight pitches or that takes two, or whatever, you’re doing it. You can’t really go like that because then you’re going to get burned if you’re not in the moment.”
A bullpen expected to be a strength wasn’t on this day. John Axford watching Stanton turn around a 96 m.p.h. fastball to make it 3-0 before Gary Sanchez’s double on a 93.5 m.p.h. slider tacked on another run.
In the seventh, a solo shot by Gardner off Danny Barnes pushed the game further out of reach, although Kevin Pillar’s solo shot off Dellin Betances to open the eighth finally got the Blue Jays on the board.
For good measure, Stanton mashed another homer in the ninth, an epic drive to the second deck in right-centre field off Tyler Clippard.
“If you’re going to be in a new city,” said Gibbons, “that’s probably the way to open it up.”
Beyond the touching tribute to the late Roy Halladay before the game, which featured widow Brandy plus sons Braden and Ryan and also included former teammates Chris Carpenter, Scott Rolen, Pat Hentgen and Paul Quantrill and ended with the retirement of No. 32, there was precious little for the sellout crowd of 48,119 to cheer about.
In lieu of a splashy big-name addition, such as Lorenzo Cain, whom they engaged but never got close with, the Blue Jays opted to sprinkle upgrades across the roster in the aims of producing a better whole.
Beyond Granderson, Grichuk and Diaz, the Blue Jays also acquired Yangervis Solarte from San Diego and Gift Ngoepe from Pittsburgh and signed free-agent starter Jaime Garcia to help fortify a roster that finished 76-86 during an injury-riddled 2017.
In Grichuk and Diaz, they made a pair of upside plays on talented players coming off difficult seasons, Solarte is a useful Swiss-Army-knife player likely to see plenty of action at third if Donaldson needs to DH, while Garcia and Granderson are dependable stopgaps.
If they perform – Fangraphs projects them to finish with 86 wins – that will keep the Blue Jays from relying too early or too much upon on the cusp prospects like Teoscar Hernandez, Anthony Alford and Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
In turn, that will set a path for a smooth transition for that trio and, eventually, blue-chippers like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette on the other side of the gulf.
For the moment, though, the Blue Jays are just starting on their bridge, trying to ignore the long drop below, as rivals like the Yankees threaten to push them over the edge.