PHILADELPHIA – Before the game, the biggest question facing the Blue Jays was how they’d fare defensively with 37-year-old Curtis Granderson in centre field and 35-year-old Russell Martin starting at shortstop for the first time in his career.
As it turns out, the Blue Jays’ veteran defenders weren’t a problem at all. Not only did they made every routine play, Granderson made an impressive running catch and Martin hit a game-tying single that broke up Aaron Nola’s no-hit bid in the top of the seventh inning.
On Saturday, the Blue Jays’ bats and bullpen were far more problematic in a game they lost to the Phillies 2-1. Now 24-28, the Blue Jays remain below .500 with a struggling offence and a bullpen that’s provided more scares than escapes of late.
When Joe Biagini entered to face Phillies pinch hitter Nick Williams in the bottom of the eighth inning, it seemed imaginable that this was the beginning of a new role for Biagini. Consecutive strong starts from Sam Gaviglio and Jaime Garcia have eased concerns about the back of the rotation, setting up a potential return to leverage relief for Biagini. Instead, Williams homered to deep centre, giving the Phillies the lead.
For a while, the game appeared to be headed in a different direction altogether. This nearly marked the second time in a month that the Blue Jays were no-hit by one of their former draft picks. But Nola, a 22nd round pick of Toronto’s in 2011, did not join 2009 first round pick James Paxton in the history books. Martin hit a ground ball through the left side with two out in the seventh, scoring Justin Smoak to get the Blue Jays on the board.
“I really wasn’t thinking about the no-hitter, more than just ‘let’s tie this game up,’” Martin said. “I’ll definitely take it. We definitely didn’t want to get no-hit for the second time this year, that’s for sure.”
No-hit bids aside, Nola continued establishing himself as one of the best starters in the National League while also sparing Philadelphia manager Gabe Kapler from having to decide how long to stick with his 24-year-old ace. He entered play Saturday with a 2.37 ERA over 10 starts, and lowered that mark to 2.27 with 6.2 innings against the Blue Jays.
As Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said, “He’s sneaky but he’ll throw anything at any time too. He’s got a hell of a change up and a good breaking ball.”
On the other side, Garcia completed his best outing of the season in his return from the disabled list. He allowed just one run over seven innings while striking out five without any walks.
“He looked totally different than he’s looked all year,” Gibbons said. “He had really good command. That’s what was hurting him all year. He was throwing all his pitches over the plate.”
As for the shoulder injury that forced him to the disabled list, Garcia said it felt “good enough” and wasn’t a concern as he pitched. His outing helped the Blue Jays put together consecutive quality starts the first time since April 24-25.
“As a starting staff, we take a lot of pride in getting the job done,” Garcia said. “Unfortunately it hasn’t really been going our way, but everybody’s working extremely hard.”
As for the Blue Jays’ unusual defensive alignment, it worked out as well as Gibbons could have hoped when he made the call Friday night. Martin was frustrated in the aftermath of a close game that the Blue Jays nearly lost when Gibbons approached.
“Gibby told me ‘hey, you’re at short tomorrow’” Martin recalled. “It kind of shocked me a little bit. It was like, ‘is he being serious right now?’ He’s like ‘from the beginning, you’ll be there.’ And I’m like ‘cool, this is awesome.’”
Martin made plays on a routine grounder and a pop-up behind third base and nearly made a diving catch on a Maikel Franco grounder in the seventh.
“He’s good,” Gibbons said. “He’s a good athlete. I was really impressed but I wasn’t worried one bit about him. I thought it was pretty cool.”
“Obviously we have some guys that are hurt,” Martin added. “If we were healthy, I wouldn’t sniff that position, but right now I just feel like we’ve got a lot of guys hurt, so Gibby’s trying to work things.”
Granderson, meanwhile, has now played in centre 1,254 times at the MLB level, and his experience showed when he tracked down a deep Aaron Altherr fly ball in the fourth inning.
He was in centre because Kevin Pillar began the day on the bench for the first time this season. After 51 consecutive starts in centre, the Blue Jays decided to give Pillar a breather, though he did enter the game as a pinch-hitter and single before taking over for Granderson in centre.
Between the Blue Jays’ defensive experiment and Garcia’s strong start, there were some positives on Saturday, just not enough of them to make up for the bullpen and the quiet bats.