ST. PETERSBERG, Fla. – The morning after the latest playoff frustration for his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs, Jordan Romano struggled to make sense of his feelings.
“It was a tough draw getting Tampa, back-to-back champs,” the Blue Jays closer from Markham, Ont., said in the visitors' clubhouse at Tropicana Field. “But it was a pretty good series, honestly. The boys play hard. Just didn’t go their way.”
That’s an all-too-familiar refrain for the Maple Leafs, whose season came to an end in a winner-moves-on series finale for an astonishing fifth straight season. Romano, a defenceman and right-winger who played double-A hockey until he was 17 as a complement to his primary focus of baseball, knows all the tired narratives around the city well.
Too soft for the playoffs. Core players aren’t winners. Cursed franchise.
He has a different vantage point now.
“Playing at this level for a couple of years has taught me how hard it is to win, you know what I mean?” said Romano. “I haven't pitched in the playoffs yet, so I don't understand those kind of pressures and those kind of games. So, when you're up here you have a little bit of empathy because you know how hard it is. They're a great team. I can see some similarities with us in terms of talent level.”
The latter part there matters, as opportunities to win can slip away quickly inside a competitive window, as the Maple Leafs are finding out. Six years ago, they were a plucky young group on the rise, pushing the Washington Capitals to six games in the opening round, and now they’re lugging around several new pieces of organizational baggage.
The latter part there matters, as opportunities to win can slip away quickly inside a competitive window, as the Maple Leafs are finding out. Six years ago they were a plucky young group on the rise, pushing the Washington Capitals to six games in the opening round, and now they’re lugging around new suitcases of organizational baggage.
There’s some bigger-picture cautionary tale in that for the Blue Jays, who failed to build on the previous night’s offensive breakout Sunday, squandering a strong start from Alek Manoah by getting silenced at the plate in a 3-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.
Not even the return of George Springer, who sat out Saturday’s 5-1 win after spraining his left ankle Friday night, as the DH made a difference, as they were held to three runs or less for the eighth time during a current stretch in which they’ve lost nine of 12.
Time and again that’s meant the pitchers have had little to no margin for error, a burden Manoah shrugged off.
“I know exactly who’s in that locker-room – they just need to kind of regroup,” he said. “There's a lot of outside noises right now. Stay within themselves. These guys can bang. We're just going through a little phase right now. This clubhouse is going to stay together. It doesn't matter how good we pitch, if we don't win a ballgame, it doesn't matter. But we're going to stay together and that offence is going to show up.”
Right now, though, the wait continues and that caught up to Manoah, who allowed only three hits through the first five innings, in a sloppy and fateful sixth.
Brandon Lowe’s bloop single to centre started the Rays rally and Wander Franco followed with an opposite-field single that put two on with one out. But the pivotal moment came on a Harold Ramirez chopper that Matt Chapman stepped in front of Bo Bichette to field but relayed wildly to second base, with the throw bounding into centre.
That brought home Lowe with the game’s first run, a Manoah wild pitch plated another and Ji-Man Choi punched a ball against the Blue Jays’ defensive shift to make it a 3-0 game despite not hitting a single ball harder than the mid-80s in the inning.
The death-by-paper-cuts stuff has only been magnified by the ongoing lack of offence, which was built to carry the load for the Blue Jays, but so far hasn’t. Another by-product of that may have been Chapman, whose play at third base has been remarkable all season, forcing a tougher play to second to get the lead runner in the sixth rather than taking a sure out at first.
“I don't think he was trying for a double play, it was trying to get the guy at second base, he just threw it to the wrong side,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “You always want the third baseman to get in front of the shortstop to make that play. It just kind of sucks that we've got to play clean games because we're not hitting right now and that was probably close to being the game there.”
Chapman also had a throwing error in the eighth – his first two-error game since April 14, 2019 with Oakland at Texas. Statcast rates his glovework as producing two outs above average, underlining how unusual a day it was for him.
"Chapman's head should be very high,” said Manoah. “That guy makes every play, he's got every award that you can think of, so he's allowed to have a bad day. It's all right. We lost a ballgame. We're going to see them plenty more times. We're going to be better the next time we do.”
Manoah, like Kevin Gausman on Friday, deserved better, allowing three runs one earned, with four strikeouts in six innings. He used his four-seamer, sinker and slider almost interchangeable, while sprinkling in a few changeups in the type of outing that should have resulted in a win.'
Springer went 0-for-4 in his first game back, and a drive to centre in the third inning he felt had a chance to go but died at the track. The way he rolled his left ankle Friday made it look like he might miss some time, but he was ready to hit Sunday and could be in centre Monday.
“It felt good to be back out there after only a day,” said Springer, who added the fall that led to the sprain “was just weird. I didn't really feel it happen. I felt it once I sat there for a second. Honestly, I felt like I got my foot stuck in the turf, it wasn't from the fall or anything like that. But I knew I was going to be OK.”
After a 2-7 road trip, the Blue Jays return home to begin a stretch of eight straight series outside the American League East, beginning with the Seattle Mariners on Monday.
There are no panaceas for them at the moment other than the faith that their hitters will progress to the mean and deliver to career norms. At 18-17, they have both lots of gap to close and about four-fifths of season to do it in, so perspective matters.
“We expect to win every day. That's why we're going to be good. It sucks when you don't get the results that you want,” said Springer. “At the same time, understand that things are going to get better. We were almost at the exact same record last year at this point (19-16 in 2021). Everybody needs to stay within, we've all got to be better, but stay within, slow the game down and we'll see what happens.”
Still, the lesson of 2021, when they finished one game short of the post-season, is never far off, and the Blue Jays can’t let another season of opportunity in their competitive window.
Just as the Maple Leafs must find ways to leverage Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and rest of their talented core, the Blue Jays must do the same thing with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and their gang.
At least they don’t have the burden of 1967 to contend with.
“If you haven't won for a long time or you haven't been in the playoffs for a long time, you try not to think about it too much, but it does come in there, like, 'Hey, this is our time. We need to be the group that to get it done because we haven't won in so long. That definitely is a real thing,” said Romano. “I don't think you can just push it off to the side. Embrace it for what it is and after you embrace it, it shouldn't have an effect on your play. You can think about it a little bit, but just go and do your job, and if you get it done you do. If not? It's tough, right? Because you do think about that. It's not fair, but it is what it is.”
That’s a familiar Maple Leafs lament, one the Blue Jays must avoid making applicable, too.