Depleted Jays need everything Richard can give them, on and off the mound

Avisail Garcia's inside-the-park home run sparks the Tampa Bay Rays to the victory over the Toronto Blue Jays.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — About a week before the Toronto Blue Jays broke camp and headed north for the regular season, the entire pitching staff went out for dinner. It was a seafood place, the food was good, and bonds were built. Trent Thornton, at that point still trying to make a big-league roster for the first time, spent much of the evening with Clayton Richard.

“I talked to him a lot because he’s one of the veteran leaders and a really personable guy,” says Thornton. “He almost put me under his wing.”

How so?

“Obviously this was all very new to me and everyone says the game gets faster, slow it down. You hear it and you’re like, ‘Yeah, whatever,’” explains the rookie right-hander. “He was like, ‘Focus on your breathing. Focus on each and every pitch. If you take off one pitch, that could be the game, that could be the one pitch a guy hits for a home run, that’s where your outings unwind.’ Going into my first start, I legitimately took a deep breath before every single pitch and locked in on every single pitch. That amount of focus, I’d never really gone to in my life.

“In the minor-leagues you can make a couple of mistakes and get away with it. In the big-leagues, you might get lucky now and then, but you normally can’t.”

The mentoring from Richard didn’t stop there, even as the left-hander ended up on the injured list days after the season started with a stress reaction in his right knee. Whenever Thornton had a rough outing, he’d get text messages from the 35-year-old that read, “Keep shoving man. Remember to breathe and focus. Stick with your routine.”

“Little things like that go a long way,” says Thornton.

In that fashion, Richard made contributions to the Blue Jays even when he wasn’t on the mound, although the four innings he provided Tuesday night in a 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays are what’s most urgently needed right now.

Manager Charlie Montoyo said before the game he’d limit Richard to 70 pitches in his second outing back following a quickie rehab from the knee injury, but ended up extending him to 81. A rocky first inning when he loaded the bases with one out but limited the damage to a Travis d’Arnaud sacrifice fly used up 32 of them, yet he still managed to eat three more frames.

“A little bit more consistent but still clearly more work to be done,” Richard said of the improvement over his previous outing. “It’s unfortunate, with our bullpen, the way they’ve been ridden the last week, not to be more efficient. A starting pitcher needs in these types of situations to get a little deeper into the game. I know we had a pitch count, but, still, to be out of there in four innings is disappointing given our circumstances.”

The only other run against him came in the third, when Avisail Garcia hit a lazy fly ball to right field that Randal Grichuk lost in the canvas roof. The ball dropped in behind him and rolled to the wall and while Grichuk lackadaisically chased it to the wall, Garcia raced around the bases for his first career inside the park home run.

Montoyo said he was “surprised” by the way Grichuk reacted after the ball dropped and asked him about it after the inning “because it looked like he wasn’t going all out for that ball.”

The right-fielder explained to him that he got “disoriented” and “I believe the guy because he plays all-out all the time.”

Said Grichuk: “I was so in my head about how I was that far off, I couldn’t see it, and shocked because it hadn’t happened to me before here. I was definitely in my head with it, and frustrating, obviously, with it being a low-scoring game. Giving them an easy run like that is never a good feeling.”

Compounding matters, the Blue Jays opened the fourth with a single from Justin Smoak and ground-rule double from Rowdy Tellez to bring up Grichuk, who chased a cutter off the plate and popped to third for the first out. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. chased a down-and-away changeup to ground out to third before Ryan Yarbrough struck out Brandon Drury on a chase changeup.

The Blue Jays didn’t threaten at the plate again until the ninth, when Grichuk singled, Gurriel hit a ground-rule double and Brandon Drury delivered a sacrifice fly in a too-little, too-late rally.

Richard, meanwhile, pitched his way through traffic, allowing three hits and four walks while avoiding the big blow. His continued progress is essential with the Blue Jays rotation barely holding together, although Aaron Sanchez avoided the injured list when the Blue Jays recalled Justin Shafer on Tuesday, Zac Rosscup getting designated for assignment instead.

Sanchez right now is expected to make his next start, said Montoyo, although they’ll know for certain after his side session later this week. If he can’t go, Jacob Waguespack, who is apparently fine after experiencing some shoulder tightness after his fourth inning of work Monday, would likely start.

The options are painfully thin beyond him, with Sean Reid-Foley leaving his outing at triple-A Buffalo on Tuesday with what Bisons manager Bobby Meacham described as “something like a strain in his side/back.” Ryan Borucki, meanwhile, checked in with his teammates at Tropicana Field and threw some long-toss at 120 feet plus 15 pitches on flat ground — “today was the first day I really let it eat,” he said — but is only slated to throw his first bullpen Friday.

He won’t be an option for another month, at least.

“I’m very interested to see how it responds,” Borucki said of his elbow. “I’m just making sure that once I’m off this injured list, I’m off for the rest of the year.”

So yeah, the Blue Jays need everything Richard can give them on the mound right now, even as he’s already given them so much off it.

“He was the first guy I talked to about getting the veterans together — let’s go over the rules, I really want to have the four other starters go to watch the bullpen before (the game) like the Rays used to do and the Yankees do now. He helped me out with that,” says Montoyo. “He’s that kind of leader. He’s a great teammate. He competes.

“That’s who he is.”

Added Grichuk: “It’s very important having him out there starting every fifth day from a field presence, but also a clubhouse presence. He’s a veteran guy, he’s been through this a lot, been on a lot of teams and brings a lot of wisdom, things these young guys need to hear and see. It’s good to have him back.”

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