Late-inning circus vs. Red Sox a metaphor for Blue Jays’ lost season

Boston Red Sox' Xander Bogaerts safely steals second base in front of Toronto Blue Jays' Ryan Goins. (Fred Thornhill/CP)

TORONTO — So, how’s this for a metaphor for the 2017 Toronto Blue Jays season?

It was the top of the eighth inning Wednesday night and the Boston Red Sox were up by four after roughing up Blue Jays reliever Tim Mayza, who faced four batters and didn’t retire any of them. Aaron Loup came on to try and work out of a first-and-second, nobody-out jam. Just get some outs, please. Don’t let things get out of hand.

Loup delivered a pitch and both Red Sox runners — Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers — broke off their bases. But something went awry, as Bogaerts pulled up halfway to third and turned back, while Devers kept on running, charging head down towards second base.

Both runners were in no man’s land. At least one out was sitting right there, begging the Blue Jays to take it. But catcher Raffy Lopez’s throw to second came in too late to get Devers, who reached safely standing up.

And then second baseman Rob Refsnyder threw well wide of third base, forcing Darwin Barney to dive to his right just to keep the ball from skipping away. That let Bogaerts cruise into third as the Red Sox completed the most uncompetitive, little-league double steal you’re going to see at the MLB level.

There’s the Blue Jays’ season right there. Through all the ups and downs, this team has not been able to get out of its own way. Easy outs have been atrociously misplayed. Baserunners have had their way with Toronto catchers, swiping 100 bases on the year, the second-highest tally in the American League. The team’s offence has gone MIA for days at a time, scoring the fewest runs in the AL.

That’s why the Blue Jays are where they are: last place in the AL East after a demoralizing 7-1 loss — and series sweep — at the hands of the Red Sox. Toronto has now lost 10 of its last 12 and is 11 games under .500 for the second time this season after starting the year 6-17.

“Obviously, it’s been real tough. We haven’t played good enough baseball, really,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “You just deal with it. What else are you going to do, right?”

Not long before the circus music played in the eighth, Wednesday night’s game was a close one, as J.A. Happ chipped in a strong outing, holding his opponents to only a run for the fourth time in his last six starts. He walked four, which wasn’t ideal, but also induced 12 ground balls, which helped erase baserunners.

“I felt like I got a lot more ground balls last year, trying to get some big double plays. And I’ve been trying to figure out how to make that happen again,” Happ said. “And tonight I got a few on a couple two-seamers and cutters that ended up being big. That helped me get out of a few innings.”

Interestingly, Happ threw more sliders than he normally does, using it for 22 per cent of his pitches on the night. Happ came into the start throwing a slider only 10 per cent of the time this season, but the pitch was particularly effective Wednesday, as the left-hander used it to induce a quarter of his grounders.

Of course, Happ always leans on his fastballs and Wednesday was no different, as the 34-year-old threw either a four- or two-seamer more than 60 per cent of the time. Six of his 10 swinging strikes came on fastballs, which is impressive considering he throws them between 90-92 mph.

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Meanwhile, Rick Porcello came into the night having allowed 11 runs (10 earned) five days earlier against the Baltimore Orioles. The defending Cy Young winner has been unable to get his ERA beneath 4.50 since early June and has allowed more hits than any pitcher in the AL.

But with their two best hitters — Josh Donaldson and Justin Smoak — on the bench, Toronto’s lineup lacked anything remotely approaching a punch, and allowed Porcello the throw his best outing in weeks. With a fairly even five-pitch mix, Porcello was able to work up in the zone to great effect, limiting the Blue Jays to six hits and two walks over his 6.2 innings while striking out seven.

Lopez was one of only two Blue Jays with an extra-base hit on the night, putting his team on the board in the third by taking a hanging Porcello curveball for a ride over the right field wall.

The Blue Jays had a great opportunity to add on an inning later when consecutive one-out singles by Kendrys Morales, Kevin Pillar and Ryan Goins loaded the bases. But Barney hit a 97-mph liner directly into Porcello’s glove before Lopez struck out on four pitches to strand all three runners.

“That definitely changes things,” Barney said of his inopportunely placed liner. “Unfortunately, I hit it a couple inches above his glove and he got it up there. When you flush a ball like that, you’re hoping for some results. And, unfortunately, I didn’t get that right there.”

And wouldn’t you know it, the very next batter, Hanley Ramirez, clobbered a full-count fastball on the inner half, driving a solo shot over the left-field wall to even the score. Ramirez’s bomb ended Happ’s streak of 39.2 innings without surrendering a home run.

Things remained deadlocked until the seventh, when Tom Koehler took over for Happ. He immediately surrendered a double to Ramirez before pinch-hitter Mitch Moreland got a hold of an elevated fastball and deposited it into the right-field bullpen to put the Red Sox up by two.

The Blue Jays put up a brief fight in the bottom half of the seventh, as Lopez worked a two-out walk and Refsnyder shot a Porcello fastball into right field for a single. But lefty-killer Robby Scott relieved Porcello and killed his lefty, getting Ezequiel Carrera to fly out to centre and end the threat.

And then, the eighth. The Red Sox put up four runs in the inning, and completely extinguished any energy in the building, thanks to a shaky Mayza and some embarrassing Toronto defence. The two runners Mayza left on both came in to score when Moreland served a Loup fastball up and over a drawn-in infield. Loup eventually got out of it, but the damage was done. And, in 29 games, Toronto’s season will be, too.

“We just didn’t execute, that’s all,” Barney said of the botched play in the eighth. “They gave us an out right there and unfortunately we didn’t get the job done. That’s baseball. That’s how it works. We need to do a better job of executing. It’s kind of been the thing all year.”

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