CLEVELAND – Francisco Liriano was described by Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins as a weapon Friday evening, and for the first time since the left-hander’s acquisition he certainly pitched like one.
On a pleasant summer’s night, in a tight contest that hinted at October’s looming tension, Liriano allowed only one unearned run over six strong innings, positioning his team for a victory despite the absences of both Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki. Instead, the Blue Jays lost when leading after eight innings for just the second time this season, watching the Cleveland Indians rip a pair of home runs off Roberto Osuna in the bottom of the ninth for a 3-2 victory.
The turnaround in a possible playoff preview was a stunner.
“That’s tough,” manager John Gibbons lamented in a sombre clubhouse. “That went from feeling pretty good to feeling rotten, that’s for sure.”
Jose Ramirez clobbered a hanging changeup over the wall in right to tie things up, before Tyler Naquin’s drive off the top of the wall in right just beyond a leaping Michael Saunders’ reach ricocheted toward the infield as the rookie circled the bases.
Melvin Upton Jr., chased the ball but fell as he tried to throw the ball back in. The half of a crowd of 30,665 at Progressive Field that wasn’t cheering for the Blue Jays erupted, delivering a U-S-A chant as a chaser.
“It’s really tough for me and for the whole team. Liriano did an unbelievable job,” said Osuna, who surrendered multiple homers in an outing for the first time in his career. “It really hurts.”
The outcome wasted Liriano’s best outing since his July 31 acquisition from the Pittsburgh Pirates, as he allowed only four hits with two walks and seven strikeouts in overpowering the American League Central leaders. It’s the first start in which he didn’t allow an earned run since his season debut April 3.
“I located the ball well,” Liriano, who had a rough season with the Pirates and allowed five runs in 5.2 innings last week against Houston, said through interpreter Josue Peley. “The most important thing was to locate. Mixing pitches and locating the ball, that’s what worked for me.”
What didn’t work for the Blue Jays (69-53), whose lead atop the American League East fell to a half-game over Boston, was their offence. Russell Martin’s two-run homer off Trevor Bauer in the first inning was it, as they generated only one at-bat with a runner in scoring position, a Justin Smoak strikeout with two aboard that ended the fourth.
The strikeout was one of 15 by the Blue Jays, an ongoing issue. Smoak struck out three times, Ezequiel Carrera twice, and Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins once each. Gibbons said the swing and miss was becoming a concern from “certain guys.”
“Your thumpers, it’s one thing, that’s what they do,” he explained, “the other guys have got to make some adjustments.”
The lack of offence left it up to Liriano, who was acquired to cover for Aaron Sanchez’s anticipated transition to the bullpen, a plan that quickly gave way to a six-man rotation the Blue Jays are still adjusting to.
“This is a creative solution to a challenge we were presented with. We can’t just stay the course. We will stay fluid, we will adjust,” said Atkins. “It’s effectively helping us win ballgames and manage workload, which was our goal at the start. We need to try to do both and as long as we’re doing both, which is win and manage workload, we’ll continue to do it. But there’s no magic formula of how that will continue to occur.”
In the sixth, Jason Kipnis ripped a one-out single, advanced to second when a pitch just squirted past Martin, and took third when Devon Travis failed to corral a throw from Martin that would have had the runner. A two-out single by Mike Napoli cashed the run and made it a 2-1 game, but Liriano recovered to strike out Ramirez to end the inning.
“I worked a bit on my mechanics,” Liriano said of his improvement. “Having confidence in my pitches and be able to locate all my pitches was a really good thing.”
“I tried to go with my best and my changeup has been so good lately, same with my slider,” said Osuna. “I just made a couple of mistakes, I left the ball right in the middle and they hit me pretty good today.”
The blown save was his third of the season, and left Liriano, who looked like he can be a force, still searching for a first win with his new team.