Toronto Blue Jays limp out of Cleveland after series sweep


Toronto Blue Jays' Darwin Barney, right, reaches for the ball but not in time to get Cleveland Indians' Edwin Encarnacion (10) out at second base in the third inning of a baseball game, Sunday, July 23, 2017, in Cleveland. Encarnacion was safe at second on a throwing error by third baseman Josh Donaldson. (Tony Dejak/AP)

CLEVELAND — On Sunday afternoon, Cleveland put up three hits and a run on J.A. Happ’s first four pitches. Happ’s location was fine, and nothing was hit particularly hard, but that’s the way baseball goes sometimes. Balls are going to fall in.

But then Happ walked the bases loaded, before leaving a 2-2 fastball on the plate to Brandon Guyer, who drove it into the left-centre field gap, cashing all those runners and putting Cleveland up by four before many fans had even taken their seats. That’s the pitch Happ would like to have back. Baseball goes like that sometimes, too.

Considering Happ’s adversary on the day, Cleveland ace Corey Kluber, entered the game second in the American League with a 2.86 ERA and 2.51 FIP, and the fact Cleveland was 49-1 when Kluber gets four or more runs of support, the game took on an air of grim eventuality from that moment forward. The rest of the day was essentially a formality. It’s a lot like what the Toronto Blue Jays season will most likely resemble from this point on.

Swept out of Ohio after three games in which they scored only five runs and allowed 23, tumbling down the American League standings after a 3-7 road trip out of the all-star break, and slumping significantly in all facets of the game, there is little doubt now as to what will almost certainly come next for this club.

A trade deadline sell-off of any expiring contracts another team will pay a price for. A season shutdown for any player who suffers a serious injury from here on out. Playing time for young pieces in order to see what they can do against big-league competition. And a long two months spent playing out the string.

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That’s the reality facing the Blue Jays after Sunday’s 8-1 battering in Cleveland, which dropped them to 10 games below .500. A post-season appearance, which will likely remain a statistical possibility into September, is essentially inconceivable. The club’s remaining 64 games will likely be used to assess assets and regroup ahead of a 2018 season the team can only hope goes much better than this one has.

“It’s been a frustrating trip. There’s been some games where we had a chance to win and couldn’t win them,” said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. “Today was just a horse—- game all the way around. I can’t describe it any better than that.”

Kevin Pillar did give the Blue Jays faint hope Sunday, jumping all over a first-pitch Kluber fastball in the third and crushing it 451 feet to left for his 11th homer of the year. But no other Blue Jay managed an extra-base hit on the afternoon, as Kluber cruised through seven innings, striking out 14 in the process.

Swinging and missing has been a theme lately, as the Blue Jays have now put up double-digit strikeout totals in six of their last 10 games. Sloppy defence has also been a feature of the team’s recent play, and continued Sunday as several ground balls were misplayed, misjudged, misthrown, or merely missed.

Really, the Blue Jays have been a mediocre outfit all month, as they now sit 7-12 in July with a -65 run differential. The record for the club’s worst-ever run differential in a single month, set four decades ago when Toronto posted a -69 in July of 1977, is well within reach.

“I didn’t know that number but, obviously, it doesn’t sound or look good, I’m sure, on paper,” said outfielder Jose Bautista. “But a loss is a loss. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how many runs we lose by — you’re still losing. All we can control is the games that we have left. And try to play better. That’s all we can do.

“We’ve lost some games that we wish we would’ve won. But we can’t dwell on it too much. All we can control is coming out in the following games and put in a better effort and hopefully get some better results.”

Happ at least got through six innings, saving a Blue Jays bullpen that is coming apart at the seams. Blue Jays relievers have thrown 80 innings this month, by far the most across MLB, and 359.2 over the course of the season, the fourth-most in baseball.

Happ settled in over the middle innings, but allowed a fifth run in the fourth, and a two-run bomb off the bat of Michael Brantley in the sixth. The seven runs he allowed set a season high and are the most he’s given up in an outing since May 16, 2016, a span of 36 starts.

“I think for this one, the line’s the line. I’m responsible for that. I need to get better results,” Happ said. “Before that home run in the sixth, overall I was feeling pretty good about how I was throwing the ball — getting softer contact and pitching all right. But what matters is the line. I didn’t keep us close enough today.”

With the Blue Jays now 44-54, and the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline only a week away, the club should now spend the next week searching for opportunities to unload its expiring contracts in exchange for controllable assets.

That includes starters Francisco Liriano and Marco Estrada (who each hold ERAs north of 5.50), relievers Joe Smith (who pitched Sunday for the first time in five weeks) and J.P. Howell (who’s been on the DL for nearly two months), and Bautista (who has a 95 wRC+ — suggesting he’s a below-league-average hitter — and can block any potential trade due to his 10-and-5 rights).

As you can see, there isn’t a ton to work with there. But the Blue Jays would still be wise to try and get something — anything — for those players before they are able to depart for nothing this winter.

Asked if he would accept a trade at the deadline, Bautista said he wasn’t yet ready to have that conversation.

“I’m not willing to entertain that type of question right now. I don’t want to speculate on speculation. I’ll deal with it when the time comes, if it does come,” Bautista said. “I feel confident about the group that we have. I think we can make some special things happen form now to the end of the season.

“I think every single guy in here is prepared to go ahead with the group that we’ve got together right now. We believe in each other just like we did in spring training. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

Toronto could also listen to offers for controllable veteran assets like Happ, Kendrys Morales, Steve Pearce and Justin Smoak. With the club’s front office insisting it intends to field a competitive team in 2018, those players are far less likely to be moved. But any player can be pried away for the right price.

Asked if the trade deadline is on the minds of players within the Blue Jays clubhouse, Happ struck a similar refrain to Bautista.

“Not that I’ve seen or heard. I think we’ve all kind of been there, done that, and been a part of some of them. Whatever happens, happens, and we’ll keep playing,” Happ said. “No matter what [the media] think or what anybody thinks, we still have two months of games to play. So, whether [the media] thinks they count for something or whatever, we’re still going to play those games and we’re still going to compete and be professional.”

The Blue Jays did make a minor move Sunday, sending double-A first baseman Ryan McBroom to the New York Yankees for utility player Rob Refsnyder, who will join the triple-A Buffalo Bisons. The 26-year-old Refsnyder can play all over the diamond, and has hit well at triple-A but struggled offensively over 94 games in the majors.

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