Blue Jays attentive to detail in series win over Rays despite crushing finale loss

Yandy Diaz crushed a three-run homer while Shane McClanahan tossed five scoreless innings in his return from the injured list as the Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Toronto Blue Jays 11-0.

TORONTO – Before closing out a gruelling stretch of five games in roughly 72 hours, members of the Toronto Blue Jays bullpen gathered on the infield for a competitive round of pitcher fielding practice, better known as PFP.

With pitching coach Pete Walker at the helm, they pounced on comebackers and threw to second or first base, jumped on bunts up both foul lines while looking for the lead out at third or second, or to simply make a play at first.

Given the current fatigue levels, they could easily have punched the clock and moved on. They didn’t, getting after it and jumping back on the mound if their relays weren’t money. Closer Jordan Romano needed three rollers to the mound before hitting bullpen coach Matt Buschmann in the chest at second base. David Phelps fired to second after a pretty bare-handed grab and half-jokingly stared down Buschmann when he dropped the throw.

“We've all been in a situation throughout our career where we've had an easy play back to us and made a bad play,” Phelps said afterwards in explaining the intensity. “We know what that feels like, what that can spiral into. We're trying to make sure that we're taking care of all the little things right now so that we can focus on the big things.”

That mindset served the Blue Jays well through an 8-2 road trip and a 3-2 win of their five-game set with the Tampa Bay Rays, who thumped them 11-0 in Thursday’s finale. Kevin Gausman made one pivotal mistake, a 1-1 splitter left a little too up on the inner third that Yandy Diaz pummelled for a three-run shot, during his seven innings while Shane McClanahan, fresh off the injured list, and four relievers did the rest. A six-run ninth made it a laugher.

The loss, under blue skies on a very fall-like September afternoon before a Rogers Centre crowd of 23,820, dropped the Blue Jays (81-63) percentage points back of the idle Seattle Mariners (80-62) for the top wild-card spot, with the Rays (80-63) a half-game off the pace.

Next up is a three-game series against the Baltimore Orioles (75-67), who’ll check in five games back. Gausman’s seven innings set the Blue Jays up well for a bullpen day Friday against Jordan Lyles, although he called the four-run second he surrendered “unacceptable.”

“I thought we played unbelievable (in the series versus the Rays), besides my effort today, all of our pitchers really threw the ball really great and attacked the strike zone,” said Gausman. “It's unfortunate I couldn't shut the door but we're playing a really good brand of baseball right now and obviously got a good team coming in Baltimore. Every game means a lot right now. I just wish I could have shown up and pitched the way I know how.”

Attention to detail was a focal point for the Blue Jays throughout the series against the nemesis Rays, beginning with bunting work by first base coach Mark Budzinski ahead of Monday’s opener. While interim manager John Schneider said that he generally doesn’t like bunting, he pointed out that at certain times, for certain parts of the lineup under certain circumstances it could make sense and that it made sense to be ready for just such an occasion.

Though it didn’t come up this week, it made sense to be ready in the event it did.

Tuesday’s doubleheader and the recovery from it Wednesday limited the pre-game work but the first game of the twin-bill underlined the need for constant readiness, as Randy Arozarena caught Teoscar Hernandez off-guard with a stunning dash home to steal a run.

The Blue Jays executed a strong game-plan at the plate against Drew Rasmussen to secure the series win Wednesday but there wasn’t much they could have done against McClanahan, who got 14 swinging strikes with a fastball that sat at 97.7 m.p.h., a changeup at 88.8 and an unfair slider at 91.4.

Their best opportunity against came in the first when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette delivered consecutive one-out singles, but he caught Matt Chapman looking at an impossible 99.6 m.p.h. fastball right on the outer edge before Teoscar Hernandez lined a changeup to the track for the third out.

“I thought in the first inning there we had a chance. Made him throw some pitches and just didn't quite get it done,” said Schneider. “He’s tough. It's an uphill battle when you're facing guys like that. Overall, I thought (the approach) was OK, despite the outcome.”

The Blue Jays were without Alejandro Kirk, who sat with what Schneider called “left hip tightness.” His discomfort had been lingering and while scoring from first on a Hernandez double Tuesday night may have exacerbated the issue, “it wasn't one specific thing” that caused the flareup.

Kirk’s workload has increased of late – catching three consecutive days for the first time this season Sept. 5-7 at Baltimore – which may be a factor as well but for now he's day-to-day, as “at this point, no use in pushing himself, just being a little careful,” said Schneider.

The same went with the pre-game PFP.

Phelps, working toward the second post-season appearance of his career, praised Walker for being judicious about when he works out his pitchers but appreciated the timing of Thursday’s reps. He called watching the way Matt Chapman gets his work in every day “one of the cooler things I’ve gotten a chance to watch,” and saw that as an example to emulate.

“We've got big games ahead of us, games that are going to come down to one or two outs and the thought is let's not give one away on a play back to the pitcher,” he said. “One of our messages through this year is be ready to work, day-in and day-out, especially in September. It's not time to rest right now. It's time to just keep grinding through it. Nobody in baseball feels good right now. It's just trying to find that next level, that extra gear that the harder we work out here, the easier it's going to seem in the game. That's one of the biggest messages.”

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