TORONTO – Under ideal circumstances, Clayton Richard would have had more time. Maybe it would have been two rehab starts or three. Definitely not one.
But the Blue Jays are not operating under ideal circumstances, especially when it comes to their injury-depleted starting rotation, so Richard got all of 48 pitches in one rehab start before making his season debut against the defending World Series winners and their talented lineup.
All things considered, it went well: four innings and just one run allowed. But Toronto’s relievers combined to allow seven runs over the next five innings and the Blue Jays lost 8-2 to the Red Sox to reach the 50-game mark with a 20-30 record.
Even so, the Blue Jays will take Richard’s outing from a pitcher coming back from a right knee stress reaction and off-season knee surgery. Already, they’ve used 11 starting pitchers. They need outs anywhere they can get them.
"I really feel good about this game just because of (Richard)," manager Charlie Montoyo said. "He threw strikes. His ball had movement. He was really good, so that’s a good sign for us. I’m really happy about his outing."
The appreciation cuts both ways. Walking in from the bullpen for his first start since last Aug. 24, Richard spotted his wife and two sons among the crowd of 36,526 and made sure to enjoy the moment.
"I’ve worked my whole life to do this one thing and to get this opportunity, I’m not going to take that for granted," he said. "Those are the memories that will last forever. Clearly it’s not what I’m focused on right now, but I also don’t take it for granted. Our opportunity to play this game is fleeting and I’m going to take advantage of every moment I can get."
Richard, 35, relied on two pitches: a fastball that averaged 90.4 m.p.h. and a slider he used on 20 of his 54 pitches. Afterwards, the left-hander said he felt great physically during his first big-league start in nine months.
"I feel as if I’m ready," he said. "It’s the right step in the process and I’ll keep on building."
Mere hours after Wednesday’s 13-inning loss Montoyo’s bullpen was more tired than usual and with Richard limited to 50 or 60 pitches, they were in for a long day.
The typically effective Sam Gaviglio allowed two runs over two innings and Elvis Luciano’s struggles continued with five hits and a wild pitch allowed over the course of 1.1 innings. Lefty knuckleballer Ryan Feierabend didn’t do much better, allowing four runs, three of which were earned.
The Blue Jays would have lost even if Luciano had held the Red Sox scoreless, but lately he’s looked the part of a Rule 5 pick and not in a good way. He has allowed 11 earned runs on 15 hits over his last five innings, allowing runs in each of his last five outings. For the season, he’s averaging nearly one walk per inning and has a 7.32 ERA.
On merit, then, he doesn’t belong here but he gets a roster spot because the Blue Jays are intrigued by his upside long-term (if he lasts all season, they can option him to the minors and let him develop). With a hard fastball and a plus change-up, he has talent at age 19, but he’s by no means a finished product now, which limits Montoyo.
"He needs to get ahead and throw strikes," the manager said. "If he throws strikes, he’s going to get people out because he’s got good stuff, but he pitches behind in the count a lot. That’s what he’s been doing lately."
Love the Rule 5 gamble or hate it, Luciano takes up just one roster spot. The offence is a far bigger problem after a day on which the Blue Jays managed just five hits.
Rowdy Tellez continued his impressive hitting with a leadoff double in the second then scored two batters later on a Freddy Galvis double for the Blue Jays’ first run. Justin Smoak homered in the ninth, going deep for the second consecutive game.
One day after hitting his first Rogers Centre home run, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. went hitless with a strikeout in four at-bats.
More moves are coming for the Blue Jays, who will now host the San Diego Padres for three games. Recently-claimed left-hander Zac Rosscup’s likely to join the roster Friday, at which point someone will have to go, potentially Feierabend.
If it seems like a lot of churn, get used to it. As Richard said, even the best teams go through plenty of arms in the course of a long year.
"That’s major-league baseball," Richard said. "If you look around the landscape of the game, that’s what happens to rotations in this day and age in our game. It’s the teams that deal with it and are able to handle the adversity that they’re given throughout the year that succeed."
Fifty games in, the Blue Jays aren’t meeting that adversity with as many wins as they’d hoped.