TORONTO – The next three weeks leading into the all-star break, featuring 15 of 21 games against sub-.500 opponents, are a window of opportunity for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Their schedule so far, as has often been discussed, has been a meatgrinder. The American League East is, as always, the big boy division in the big boy loop and they’ve taken some knocks due to their ongoing bullpen issues. Factor in that they’ve called two minor-league parks home and their fans have often rooted for opponents, including earlier this week when New York Yankees supporters took over Sahlen Field, it’s a good time for a soft spot.
Everything must be earned, however, as a fifth straight loss, 7-1 Friday night to the bottom-feeding Baltimore Orioles, underlined.
Robbie Ray never seemed to find a rhythm in an outing he described as “a grind,” and didn’t make it through five, surrendering only two runs, including one in the fifth right after Lourdes Gurriel Jr., homered to tie the game in the top half. The offence, meanwhile, wasn’t its usual fearsome self, as Thomas Eshelman didn’t allow a hit through four and the bullpen locked things down from there.
It was a low-energy night that extended a deflating week, dropping the Blue Jays to 33-35. Manager Charlie Montoyo was concerned enough afterwards that he held a meeting with a small group of players to gauge the team’s vibe, asking how they’re doing after another tough loss and to reinforce that, “I know you guys are doing your best and all that stuff,” he said.
“It was a great conversation,” he continued. “And I’m telling you, I'm very lucky as a manager to have a team like that and a group of guys like that. That's why I know we're going to weather the storm. Remember that. I'm going make a T-shirt.”
Montoyo’s check-in comes amid a stretch of 10 losses in the past 14 games, a run threatening to upend the club’s season. Even amid the ongoing struggle, he’s tried to maintain his sunny disposition, drawing the ire of social media’s excitable torches and pitchfork set, but lost in translation is his underlying steadfastness in the face of struggle.
Ray echoed that sentiment, saying “everything in the clubhouse, everybody’s fine” and later added, “it's really easy to panic and start changing the process.”
“I feel like in (Friday’s) game especially, you're not hitting well, what am I doing wrong? I'm not pitching well, I'm not executing my pitches, what did I do wrong?” he continued. “Sometimes you just need to take a step back and trust the process. I feel like the guys are doing a pretty good job of doing that. And I feel like we're going to turn a corner and we're going to hit the ground running.”
A key impediment to that is the bullpen, which wasn’t the prime culprit this time, although a messy five-run eighth after Patrick Murphy was extended for a second frame and Jeremy Beasley couldn’t limit the damage pushed a 2-1 game out of reach.
Up to that point, the bullpen was having a decent night, as Trent Thornton came on with one out and runners on the corners in the fifth and put out the fire, and for good measure delivered a clean sixth. That role has been a black hole and filling that is an urgent need.
Murphy followed with a clean seventh but surrendered a pair in the eighth before Beasley served up a three-run shot to Cedric Mullins, his second homer of the night.
The Orioles, meanwhile, followed Eshelman with 3.1 innings of flawless relief from Tyler Wells, Tanner Scott, Hunter Harvey while the game was in doubt – the kind of lockdown work the Blue Jays have too often been lacking. Paul Fry cleaned up in the ninth.
“We didn't swing the bats like we usually do, but again, we were in the game until the eighth inning,” said Montoyo. “Sometimes the pitching has got to help you win when your hitters are having that kind of night.”
As the demoralizing losses have piled up, the discussion around the team has increasingly focused on why the front office isn’t moving heaven and earth to pull off a trade.
The prime stumbling block on that front is that sellers aren’t motivated to trade so far from the deadline and the Blue Jays aren’t willing to overpay to entice them. Sacrificing too much future currency for volatile relief help isn’t a good formula for building a sustainable winner, but clearly they need some help to bridge the gap between their immediate need and the trading window which is still about a month away.
To that end, they’re looking at both Canadian John Axford and American David Robertson, who both pitched in the recent Olympic qualifier. One official who was there suggested both still had enough in the tank to help a big-league team, but whether that turns into anything is unclear.
Whether there’s value in signing them just to show players the front office is trying is up for debate, but as the Blue Jays wait for the levelling off of performance they’re expecting in the bullpen, they could do worse than rolling the dice on arms with leverage pedigree.
In the interim, they’re going to have to fix things from within, all without the respite offered from the proper home they lack.
Their chances of a return to Toronto remain dependent on how the border reopens and given that neither the Blue Jays nor the other 29 teams are 100 per cent vaccinated, the Blue Jays will likely need some sort of national interest exemption to make it work.
The handling of non-vaccinated players is an issue for all professional sports in Canada if entry to the country will be dependent on whether someone has taken the shot or not, and an interesting question is whether a league would compel teams to play without a full roster.
Whether that’s solvable in time for the Blue Jays to play at Rogers Centre this summer is uncertain, and the approval of both their own players and the union would be needed if any sort of restriction of movement would be needed.
All that makes more games in Buffalo, rather than less, seem like the likeliest outcome and that isn’t ideal after their series against the Yankees this week felt like a series in the Bronx.
“You kind of saw it coming because we're in New York, there's going to be a lot of Yankees fans so it wasn't really a surprise to us. We knew that it was going to happen," said Ray. "We had a great turnout before the Yankees series with a lot of Blue Jays fans. But we understood we're in we're in Buffalo, New York. It's not Buffalo in Canada. So we understood that the series was going to be a little more lopsided in the stands for sure.”
That it’s been a little more lopsided in terms of results is only complicating matters. Given how things have gone lately, and where the Blue Jays are at in the schedule, this isn’t only a time for them to weather storm, but to emerge from it thriving.