Blue Jays’ deadline plans front and centre after latest bullpen blip

Alex Verdugo hit a two-run home run in the 8th inning to help propel a comeback win for the Boston Red Sox over the Toronto Blue Jays 5-4.

TORONTO – These are plenty busy times for the Toronto Blue Jays, who are in the midst of 18 games in 17 days and preparing for an unprecedented third move this season, an emotional return to Rogers Centre later this week. Layer in the looming July 30 trade deadline with all the calculations tied into the decision-making right now and this could become a really wild week.

Front and centre in that regard is how much prospect capital GM Ross Atkins should invest to bolster a team with a playoff probability of 26.1 per cent, as calculated by FanGraphs, but one that’s also seven victories short of its win expectancy based on a run differential of plus-85.

What to make of that disparity and how much faith to put in the numbers normalizing over the next two months are key questions facing the Blue Jays, who reinforced the dichotomy of their situation by blowing another late lead in Monday’s 5-4 loss to the Boston Red Sox.

They are now 4-8 against the AL East leaders, 27-38 against teams over .500 and 6-12 in one-run games, with four of those losses coming against the Red Sox. The Blue Jays blew saves in three of those contests and simply closing each of those out would have dramatically altered the current standings.

That they haven’t helps explain why the Red Sox are five wins better than their win expectancy based on a run differential of plus-69, and highlights the gap between the clubs. Tight games too often slip through the Blue Jays’ fingers.

“It's all about pitching,” manager Charlie Montoyo said before his team added to their lengthy list of missed opportunities. “We haven't pitched as well against them. Granted they have a really good lineup and if you make mistakes they make you pay. But we just haven't pitched good enough against them to beat them. The games that we've beaten them, we scored a lot of runs, you know what I'm saying? So at the end of the day, we haven't pitched that well against them.”

Those words proved hauntingly prophetic hours later, after Bo Bichette’s two-run homer in the fifth inning gave the Blue Jays a 4-3 lead but Trevor Richards, extended into a second inning by necessity, issued a one-out walk to Hunter Renfroe in the eighth before Alex Verdugo crushed a middle-away changeup.

Just like that, a heartening win became yet another a disquieting loss, the day after the bullpen frittered away a 3-1 lead in the sixth inning of a 5-4 loss to the New York Mets. Time and again the Blue Jays’ resilience has been tested by these type of setbacks, and a 1-5 rut in their past six just as the front office is considering the trade market is an ill-timed turn of events.

“One thing this team does pretty well is rebounding from anything that we're going through and give a lot of credit to these players,” said Montoyo. “They believe they can win. ... We've got two months left and, of course, these games are big, but every game is big. Those games that we lost in Dunedin, they all count. So every game from now on, they all count. Of course when you play in your division, it's big. But every game counts from now on. We've got two months left and that's how it feels.”

That belief, one that’s carried them through a season-and-a-half of displacement, is part of the Blue Jays’ thinking at the moment, and remains one of the reasons why they are more bullish on their chances this year than many of the available public projections.

To that end, the focus remains solely on upgrading the current club, perhaps even moving up market from last year’s deadline approach, when they used fringy prospects to land Robbie Ray, Taijuan Walker, Ross Stripling and Jonathan Villar.

That doesn’t mean they’re going to use elite prospects to go after a premium rental like Max Scherzer this summer, but there’s a willingness to dip into their system in pursuit of impact, especially if there’s contractual control beyond this year.

What that turns into is unclear, but the Blue Jays aren’t planning on a reactionary retreat and sell off pending free agents like Robbie Ray and Marcus Semien based on what happens against the Red Sox this week. The thinking there could change if they get swept at Fenway and another team makes them an offer they simply can’t refuse Friday morning, but that’s not the current posture and they’re acting like buyers, not sellers, in the current market.

So there are several moving parts, which is why Bichette is trying to shut out all the noise.

“This game is hard enough as it is. We've got enough on our plate as it is,” he said. “I'm just focused on how we can do our best tonight and then obviously the same thing tomorrow and the next day. But this team, as it is right now, has the ability to produce and win at a really high level. Whatever happens, happens. But whatever happens, we'll continue to fight and I believe that we can do something special.”

Crunch time, of course, is nigh and each missed opportunity is becoming more costly.

Thomas Hatch, covering for Alek Manoah, only made it through 3.2 innings in his season debut, allowing three runs, but kept the game from unravelling in the second when he induced Michael Chavis into a bases-loaded groundout, struck out Kike Hernandez and popped up Jarren Duran.

That kept the game at 2-0 Red Sox, the Blue Jays tied it in the third on RBI singles from Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Marcus Semien, and after a Rafael Devers homer in the bottom half made it 3-2 Boston, Bichette responded in the fifth.

The approach “was just continue to stay aggressive,” Hatch said of escaping the second-inning jam. “I got up in some counts and I feel like they made some good swings. So it was just kind of stay where you are, fill up the zone and then once we did, we made some good pitches to get some outs. Not much changed. Just the result was better.”

The Blue Jays need better results from their bullpen, and how Hatch is best used moving forward is up for debate. The Blue Jays have doubleheaders upcoming Aug. 7 at home against the Red Sox and Aug. 10 in Anaheim versus the Angels and he’ll be needed to start during that stretch. Afterwards, put Hatch along with the building up Nate Pearson in the bullpen and suddenly protecting leads might be easier.

“That's a great question, because, of course, we know what (Hatch) can do out of the bullpen. He did it last year he was one of the reasons made it to the playoffs, because he was that good,” said Montoyo. “We’ve got doubleheaders coming up, he could give us a start in those games and then we could see where we go from there. Right now, that's what we're thinking. But could easily come out of the bullpen, too, because he's done it before and he's got good stuff.”

So too do the Blue Jays, who for obvious reasons continue to be less than the sum of their parts. They have until 4 p.m. Friday to try and alter the equation, but first they must decide how much they want to borrow from the future to address the present.

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