TORONTO – It was quiet and empty the way a clubhouse is whenever something like this happens. Quiet while Joe Biagini went through his usual 15-minute post-game stream of consciousness. Empty except for Jason Grilli, who sat in his chair staring into his locker, oblivious to Kendrys Morales who had almost solemnly taken some post-game food over to his own locker.
Grilli had just suffered through the worst relief inning in Toronto Blue Jays history, at least in terms of the four – count ‘em – home runs he’d allowed in a 7-0 loss to the New York Yankees. No other Blue Jays reliever had ever done that. Not ever, let alone in front of a sellout crowd of 47,226 on a glorious afternoon with the Yankees in town.
The last major league reliever to give up four homers in an inning was Yusmeiro Petit of the San Francisco Giants on June 21, 2015. Brett Gardner, Matt Holliday, Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius (the final three of them went back-to-back-to-back on Saturday) each took Grilli over the fence. Four homers allowed on 26 pitches and that’s the fourth time in franchise history the Yankees have done that, accomplishing the feat for the first time in a game in 1977 at Exhibition Stadium, with Cliff Johnson clubbing a pair of homers and Lou Piniella and Thurman Munson going deep once each.
“It’s pretty difficult – a tough thing to watch,” Blue Jays catcher Luke Maile had said a few minutes earlier. “It’s a tough game, man. There are some things that get ugly sometimes but we all bounce back from them. [Grilli] is a tough guy. He’s been through the ringer, to say the least, through his career and this won’t distract him from where he wants to be or where he wants to go.”
It wasn’t all ugly on the mound for the Blue Jays as Saturday marked another step forward for Biagini in his conversion from reliever to starter, but it was clear from his post-game comments that he’s all but counting down the days until he’s back in the bullpen. Aaron Sanchez is scheduled to play catch today and as soon as his troublesome blister and fingernail issues are resolved he will go back into the rotation. One of the dominoes that could fall in that case is Biagini going back to the bullpen until he likely joins the rotation full-time next season.
It’s a tough business right now for Biagini, whose fate involves the ability of others to resolve their own issues. Joe Smith and Ryan Tepera’s emergence as set-up candidates for closer Roberto Osuna has helped the Blue Jays move Biagini into the rotation but as long as this team stays in contention the chance remains that Biagini will best help them as a starter in 2017.
Right now manager John Gibbons has no faith in lefty specialist J.P. Howell. He is essentially managing around him. Grilli’s velocity and his slider had shown improvement in recent outings to the point where Gibbons felt more comfortable using him once again in a responsible role. Now he’ll have to think twice as the Blue Jays continue to try to climb out of the early-season hole they’ve dug for themselves.
Saturday’s loss carried some personal hurt for Gibbons. Hell, you’d have to have a heart of stone to not feel for Grilli.
“It’s never easy for a manager or coach,” Gibbons said. “Because you know what’s inside the guy. You know what he’s made of. He’s ‘team’ all the way and then some.
“It’s hard, simply because I like the guy so much. Everybody does. He’s had a tremendous career and in other circumstances with more guys who could pitch he wouldn’t have stayed out there that long. But it happened quick, too.
“Everybody feels for that. Grilli has had some great moments here, some big innings for us, and I think he’s been pitching pretty good for us lately leading up to that. It’s just one of those days; the ball was flying and they got some pretty good swings off him.”
Grilli’s stock in trade is a slider and a fastball that needs to sit 92 or 93 mph to be effective. He’s had a renaissance of sorts on this homestand, until Saturday. In his previous six games, opponents had been hitting .190 off him with six strikeouts.
All that good work has been undone but let’s be clear about something else: the fact that Blue Jays starters have been unable to be more efficient – not to mention stay healthy – has taxed a bullpen that lacks overpowering arms with impressive track records. The chickens will come home to roost eventually.
“Our guys in the pen are running on fumes right now,” said Gibbons. “They can’t keep this up. [Grilli] actually pitched pretty good recently but today was one of those days. Going into the game, there were guys we needed to stay away from unless we were tied or had the lead late, so … that’s how that works.”
Or, how it doesn’t work.