Blue Jays facing ill-timed pitching questions as home stretch looms

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Tanner Roark lasts four innings and Kyle Higashioka hit three home runs for the Yankees as the Blue Jays fell to New York 13-2.

TORONTO — At a time when the Toronto Blue Jays need to start solidifying their plans for the home stretch and set themselves up for the post-season, they’re suddenly facing fresh questions about the pitching staff.

A second straight thumping from the New York Yankees — this one a 13-2 beatdown Wednesday, which featured four homers in four innings off Tanner Roark — isn’t cause for alarm, although it does raise some questions about their ability to contain a truly elite offence.

The Yankees hit six home runs in Tuesday’s 20-6 shellacking and added a season-high seven more in the follow-up, making them only the fifth team in baseball history with consecutive games of at least six homers (the Blue Jays did it Aug. 12 and 14 this year, too). The 13 homers over two games matched a franchise record, as well, while the Blue Jays allowed at least six homers in back-to-back games for the first time in club history.

“We haven’t pitched well, we’ve pitched behind in the count, and their lineup is pretty good,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “That’s what happens, scoring that many runs.”

Roark was far blunter: “They’ve kicked our ass.”

Bigger picture, though, given what we know to this point, who should start a potential playoff series decider for the Blue Jays behind ace Hyun-Jin Ryu and Taijuan Walker, lined up to pitch Games 1 and 2 of a post-season series as things stand?

If everyone stays on turn, Roark would get the ball, and he’s still trying to find a rhythm and regain some velocity, saying that the shortened season has the physical feel of mid-May amid September stakes.

“I don’t mean that as an excuse by any means, but over the course of 162 games, guys figure things out,” he explained. “For myself personally, I start to feel certain things clicking, staying over the rubber longer, driving certain pitches down and away, getting that feel for all my pitches. It’s crunch time now, so there’s no excuses.”

Beyond him there’s Chase Anderson, who starts Thursday’s series finale in the Bronx against Masahiro Tanaka and has been chasing his season since opening on the injured list with an oblique strain. He’s allowed 10 runs in his last 6.2 innings.

Lefty Robbie Ray, due to start one of the two games in Friday’s doubleheader against the Philadelphia Phillies, has front-of-the-rotation stuff and pedigree, but is still trying to get untracked after a miserable opening to the season. Ross Stripling, also tentatively slated to pitch in part of the twin-bill, seems to be settling into a swingman role.

So, no clear answer, which makes the live batting practice sessions thrown by Matt Shoemaker and Nate Pearson on Wednesday all the more intriguing. The next steps for them will be determined based on how they feel Thursday, but Montoyo said the Blue Jays had Shoemaker throw some extra pitches after he completed his two innings to position him for a quick return.

There isn’t enough runway to properly build him up for the rotation at this point, but he could potentially return as a starter capable of logging 3-4 innings, and the Blue Jays could then piggyback Pearson, who’d be in a similar boat, or Stripling behind him.

Given that there will be no off-days between games in each post-season series, the Blue Jays won’t necessarily be able to bullpen through a round in quite the same way they’ve gamed the regular season. None of their relievers have pitched on three consecutive days yet, and the loss of Ken Giles back to a recurrence of his elbow troubles, combined with Jordan Romano’s ongoing absence, significantly thins out their late-game leverage options.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Shoemaker and Pearson could help in that regard, too, as some regression for Ryan Borucki and Anthony Kay, optioned Wednesday for rookie righty Hector Perez, means Montoyo doesn’t have the stable left-on-left weapons he did earlier this season. Thomas Hatch and Julian Merryweather have been terrific but are still relatively untested.

Hence, as the Blue Jays work to lock down a post-season berth — four losses in six games have allowed the Seattle Mariners and Baltimore Orioles to sneak back onto the radar — they also have to rethink how to most effectively distribute their innings.

“We’ve got to get to that point sometime,” said Montoyo, “but we’ve got to cover (Thursday), and go from there to the doubleheader.”

A correction by Roark would go a long way, as the right-hander has now allowed six home runs over his last seven innings, all against the Yankees, who have won seven straight since avoiding a sweep in Buffalo last week. He’s also slated to face them again next week at Sahlen Field.

Roark gave up two homers on four-seam fastballs and two more on sinkers, with DJ LeMahieu going deep on one of each. Clint Frazier also got into a four-seamer while Kyle Higashioka turned on a middle-up sinker for the first of his three homers.

Courtesy Baseball Savant.

That’s now 14 homers in 39.1 innings for Roark, who last year gave up 28 in 165.1 frames. His velocity had been down about two m.p.h. on his fastballs so far this season, but he was closer to normal Wednesday, at 91.7 on his four-seamer and 91.3 on the sinker — up about one m.p.h. on both pitches, but still down a tick at from the 92.1 and 91.9 he averaged last year.

“That definitely makes me take a positive out of a negative. Now it’s needing to establish that fastball down and away at the knees and go from there,” said Roark. “My next bullpen, I might just throw all fastballs down and away and get that right.”

A bit more offence, especially with the Yankees back at full strength after activating Aaron Judge on Wednesday, would help too, allowing the Blue Jays to use their better relievers rather than the mop-up crew. Their activation of Teoscar Hernandez earlier than expected should also lengthen the batting order in the days to come.

They hadn’t planned to bring Hernandez on Wednesday but when Derek Fisher got hit in the knee by Shoemaker during the afternoon’s live batting practice session, the outfielders swapped spots on the injured list.

“Hopefully he feels good (Thursday) morning and he has a chance to be in the lineup,” said Montoyo.

The Blue Jays need all the help they can get, as they have 12 games remaining, with Anderson set to start three of them. Still, even after a pair of lopsided losses, they remain in control of their own destiny, although they increasingly have things to figure out along the way.

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