TORONTO – That Yusei Kikuchi is an unstable element in the Toronto Blue Jays starting rotation shouldn’t be a total surprise. Sure, more was expected from the left-hander when he was signed for $36 million over three years out of the lockout, but it was a high-risk, high-upside play and the type of season he’s slogging through was very much on the spectrum of possibility.
The Blue Jays, barring a surprise, will need him to make a start next week against the Baltimore Orioles and then, with Ross Stripling likely set for a return after throwing five shutout innings for triple-A Buffalo during a rehab start Friday at Syracuse, they’ll have a decision to make.
“Vintage Strip,” is how interim manager John Schneider described that outing. “We're hoping that today was all he needed and he gets back with us as soon as he can.”
That should help the Blue Jays stabilize the back-end of their rotation, which is needed.
Still, far more jarring is the head-scratching season of Jose Berrios, who for the second time in 2022 allowed eight earned runs, this time over four innings of a dispiriting 8-0 drubbing from the Cleveland Guardians on Friday night.
The latest rout of the ace right-hander signed to a $131-million, seven-year extension over the winter came exactly one week after a rough outing at Minnesota, where he allowed five runs in 3.2 innings. In six July starts preceding that one, Berrios had seemingly turned the corner, pitching to a 3.00 ERA with 42 strikeouts in 36 innings, but in this year of extremes for him, the only thing that’s been consistent is the inconsistency of his results.
“The theme for him is when he does miss, he's not really getting off the hook,” said Schneider, adding later: “He's frustrated. He's trying and he's working his ass off. Hopefully the next one is better. I think it gets a little bit frustrating when it's kind of been the same theme over and over.”
While the wide divergence between his home/road splits are often raised as a talking point, a more troubling split is that in 15 outings against teams better than .500, his ERA is 6.61 while in eight starts versus sub-.500 clubs it’s 3.77.
Worth noting is that mixed in there are strong performances against Houston, St. Louis, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia. Clearly, though, as Schneider mentioned, he isn’t getting away with much, especially against better lineups.
“I can say I've been throwing good fastballs, good changeups, good breaking balls and when they get me, it’s something I’m doing wrong,” said Berrios. “(Saturday) I'm going to come in, show a few videos and see where we’re at.”
Take Friday, for example.
Berrios cruised through the first two innings before hitting No. 8 hitter Austin Hedges with one out in the third. Will Benson followed with a single and then Steven Kwan laid down a perfect bunt that just stayed fair down the third base line to load the bases.
Amed Rosario then roped a curveball just under the zone up the middle for a two-run single and after a Jose Ramirez sacrifice fly to centre brought home a third run, Josh Naylor of Mississauga, Ont., sent this 94.3 m.p.h. fastball over the wall in left to make it 5-0.
Really, it wasn’t a bad pitch.
The next inning, a three-run shot by Ramirez that made it 8-0 was even more audacious, the star third baseman golfing this Berrios changeup just above his ankles over the wall in right-centre.
It’s obscene and while both homers count against his pitching line, it’s reason to believe that Berrios isn’t necessarily in crisis, even though he’s far from being at his best.
“The homer from Naylor, we called high fastball. I threw it high and he got me. Ramirez, we threw a good changeup down, almost in the dirt,” said Berrios, almost shaking his head. “This is baseball and they made an adjustment the way we do and they got me tonight.”
Regardless, the Blue Jays, at 60-51 in the rapidly clustering wild-card standings, are facing their first real period of challenge under Schneider having lost five times in their past six outings, each against a team above .500.
They’re now 29-39 against teams with winning records, worse than Seattle, Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Minnesota, the four teams closest around them.
“The way the guys are coming out every day is great. It's just not clicking right now,” said Schneider. “We'll be the first ones to tell you that. I'll be the first one to tell you that. We're playing kind of shitty. It is what it is. You come tomorrow, you look to win.”
Complicating matters is that their offence, in the ongoing absence of George Springer, hasn’t been able to overcome some of the pitching staff’s recent blips.
Cal Quantrill of Port Hope, Ont., primarily riding a sinker-cutter mix, matched a season-high with seven strikeouts and allowed just one hit, a one-out double to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., in the fourth that extended the all-star first baseman’s hit streak to 21 games.
“Probably the approach could have shifted a little bit in the middle innings but he kept us off-balance, working sinker/cutter, mixing in a curveball and a couple changeups,” Schneider said of Quantrill. “He was on his game and you've got to tip your hat to him.”
Digging out of early 5-0 holes isn’t easy and surely factored into that, too. But seizing a game early at the plate could help ease the burden on the staff, as well.
Schneider acknowledged that the Blue Jays over the past week haven’t played great “on any end of the ball” and suggested the toll of a 10-day, three-city road trip caught up with the team Friday. None of that should shake faith in the belief that, “we're a really good team with really good players and really wanting to play really competitive baseball.”
“Are we playing up our standards? Absolutely not,” he continued. “We know that they're going to turn it around because they're that talented.”
The same applies to Berrios.
“We still think he's a great pitcher,” said Schneider. “Obviously, we believe in him very, very much. Hopefully he just turns it around. But he's a guy we're going to bank on not only this year but going forward for a lot of years and we have confidence he's going to get it figured out.”
As the Blue Jays try to sort out other issues on the roster, the sooner he does the better.