After losing Martinez, Blue Jays’ hapless season reaches new low in sweep by Guardians

Josh Naylor bashed his 20th home run of the season and Steven Kwan added a solo shot as the Cleveland Guardians handed the Toronto Blue Jays their sixth straight loss with a 6-5 victory.

CLEVELAND — The presumed leadoff hitter and highest-paid player on the team has the league’s lowest OPS among qualified hitters. The starting shortstop with more hits than anyone in the AL over the prior three seasons is on the IL after hitting .237 through his first two-and-a-half months. The slugging first baseman has single-digit home runs 77 games into the season.

The all-star closer had to halt his throwing progression while recovering from his second elbow issue of the year. One of his set-up men is out with an elbow issue of his own; another was demoted to triple-A due to performance; yet another, a once-reliable lefty, is no longer trusted in leverage and has been searching for his velocity since spring.

The fifth starter who challenged for a Cy Young award two years ago and embodied a rare developmental pitching success story just had elbow surgery. The top prospect who leads all minor-leaguers in home runs since 2021 popped for a performance-enhancer and was suspended 80 games. The most impactful off-season addition is a utility player with an 83 career OPS+. 

Oh, and the Toronto Blue Jays just suffered their second consecutive series sweep, have lost six in a row for the first time in three years, and are now seven games under .500 following a 6-5 defeat to the Cleveland Guardians. If Sunday isn’t the nadir of this hapless season, what will it be? 

It began with Orelvis Martinez, the recently promoted top prospect who represented a glimmer of hope for the ballclub’s near future, being suspended after testing positive for a banned substance. It ended with a frustrated and battered Blue Jays club, which has been outscored 37-18 during this six-game skid, limping off to Boston for a return engagement with the Red Sox club that came into Rogers Centre last week and beat them in three straight.

“We signed up for this. And it’s going to be hard. These guys get it. They understand that it’s another tough series in Boston. You’ve got to keep going,” Blue Jays manager John Schneider said. “And these guys are doing it. My tone would be different if it was for a lack of effort or lack of prep. It’s a tough stretch. … You keep on moving. You’ve got to try to attack tomorrow for tomorrow. And put the last three here behind you. It sounds easy to say. It’s tough to do. But these guys, they’re working at it. And I’m proud of the way they’re fighting through this tough time.”

Sunday’s game itself was certainly an eventful one. The Guardians hit two homers; the Blue Jays hit three, including a pair of solo shots from Spencer Horwitz. A 40-minute rain delay knocked both starters from the game in the third inning, at which point each team’s bullpen took turns putting itself in, and working itself out of, problematic situations. 

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The two teams combined for 22 hits, 10 walks and 19 runners left on base. Everyone involved went 3-for-24 with runners in scoring position. A dozen different pitchers took the mound.

Ultimately, Cleveland’s best-in-baseball bullpen did what it does, holding the Blue Jays scoreless and facing only two over the minimum from the sixth inning on while protecting a one-run lead. Toronto scored more than three runs for the first time in a week, and only the eighth time in 21 games this month. But it wasn’t enough.

“We talk about it all the time. You never know when the go-ahead or winning run is going to be at stake. It could be the first. Could be the third. You love the way that we came out of the gates today in the first with the homer and then [Horwitz] with the homer. We had our chances,” Schneider said. “It was kind of the story of the season — not hitting as many as we can and giving up more than we should.”

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A familiar refrain in a season gone sideways. Now, the reality of the matter is the Blue Jays must soldier on in spite of all their misfortune and string some wins together any way they can. Quickly. The club began the day six games back of the third wild card spot, with six teams it would need to jump to get there, and 6.7 per cent playoff odds as measured by FanGraphs. And Sunday’s result won’t improve those figures.

With 85 games remaining to play, it’s not a death sentence. But it’s close to life support. The Blue Jays will need to go 51-34 — a .600 winning percentage, or 97-win full-season pace — from here through the end of the season merely to give themselves an opportunity to sneak into the third wild-card spot with 86 wins. And they’ll need many of the teams in the race alongside them to drop off significantly in the process.

“To be at this point has been a disappointment for everyone in the clubhouse. We are frustrated. We know the fans’ disappointment. We share that. And it has been a very difficult time when you have the expectations and you’re not fulfilling them,” Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said before Sunday’s game. “We’ve, over the last five days, had a big setback. And playing roughly .500 baseball until five days ago, now we’ve dug ourselves into a little bit of a deeper hole. There’s still time for us to get things turned around. It’s dependent upon a win streak, obviously. But we’re still capable of that.“

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To do it, the Blue Jays will need to fulfill the so-far failed premise of this season and get improvements from its core players within. Martinez was the final realistic impact addition the club could have promoted from the minor leagues in the near term. Joey Votto was starting to work his way back up to speed but now mysteriously hasn’t played since Wednesday. Ricky Tiedemann is still building his way back to triple-A where he has more developmental seasoning to complete.

That glove-and-speed specialist Steward Berroa, whose name you won’t find on any Blue Jays top prospects lists, was the one recalled Sunday when Martinez’s suspension came down says something about the lack of viable alternatives the Blue Jays currently have, not to mention the sheer calamity of this season.

During spring training, Berroa was well outside of the big-league picture. Less than three months later, he’s on a big-league bench. The 25-year-old admits that even he doubted this day would arrive. 

“I think a lot of players in the minor leagues have that thought sometimes, where you don’t think that the dream is going to come,” Berroa said. “But, in the end, I’m just a warrior. I like to be in tough moments. I think that’s where I was born to be — in tough moments. I just keep going.”

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Still, credit Berroa — a gregarious, high-energy competitor who’s been a favourite of Blue Jays developers for years — for positioning himself for this promotion with a relentless first half for the Buffalo Bisons. He’s hit .295/.380/.451 through 62 games, tying his career-high with seven homers. 

His 29 stolen bases in 37 attempts lead the International League, and his 9.5 per cent swinging-strike rate is well below average. Saturday, he went 3-for-5 with two doubles and three driven in before being pinch-run for in the sixth inning when the Blue Jays made the decision to recall him.

“It’s unbelievable. I still don’t believe it,” Berroa said. “The process has been really tough. I’ve been a grinder. What comes to my mind is all the hard work that I’ve been through, all the tough moments that I’ve been through in my entire career in the minor leagues. And, finally, thank God for the opportunity. I made it.”

Now, the 25-year-old’s speed and outfield defence ought to transfer to the majors just fine. But there’s a reason why projections systems — ZiPS saw him as a 70 wRC+ big-leaguer pre-season, while Steamer has adjusted its projection up to 79 wRC+ following Berroa’s strong start — aren’t expecting big things. 

Berroa doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard, his strikeout rate is a point-and-a-half above the International League average, and he’s hitting .167 against four-seam fastballs thrown 94-m.p.h. or harder. The average MLB four-seamer this year travels 94.2.

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Still, he’ll give Schneider a capable defensive replacement and pinch-run option off the bench for a few days while Daulton Varsho recovers from lower left back tightness that isn’t expected to hold him out long. And with Bo Bichette likely to be activated from IL on Tuesday — the shortstop will test his readiness with a full pre-game of batting practice, defence and base running on Monday at Fenway Park — Berroa’s first MLB stint could be a brief one.

If it’s a longer one and Berroa’s starting regularly? Well, then matters have really deteriorated. What the Blue Jays need now is to stop losing games, stop losing key players to injury and suspension, and stop the slow bleed this season has been. Those are the first steps back to .500 and towards creating the unlikely scenario in which the club figures this all out.

A world in which Bichette returns and plays up to his potential; Springer discovers the results that have eluded him all season; Guerrero starts hitting for more power; Justin Turner taps back into his clutch gene; Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk, and Kevin Kiermaier pull themselves out of deep funks; Horwitz, Davis Schneider, Ernie Clement, and Addison Barger continue providing sparks; Toronto’s best players are its best players, and it’s supporting pieces keep finding little ways to contribute.

That may seem like it’s asking a bit much. But that’s what it is — and always was — going to take.

“The biggest message is, ‘You’ve got to tune out the outside stuff.’ You can’t focus on where we are in the standings, what our record is, what individual performances are. That just bleeds into the next day and the next day and the next day. And then you look up and you’re in trouble,” Schneider said. “We’re still at the point where we feel like we can turn this around and get on a good roll and see what happens. But, yeah, it’s tough. Because we have a good team. When you’re not performing as you want to perform, it’s tough. And it takes a lot of mental toughness to keep going about it every day when there’s outside things thrown into it.

“If individually things aren’t going well, you have to focus on how you’re helping the team win. If you’re not liking a strike call, you’ve got to move on to the next pitch. It just takes extreme focus from everybody on every single pitch — whether you’re throwing it, hitting it, or catching it. That’s where we’re at.”

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