TORONTO – In the aftermath of a doubleheader sweep that pushed the Toronto Blue Jays’ season-high losing streak to five games, manager Charlie Montoyo didn’t like the vibe around his young club. Between a three-game pummelling in the Bronx from the New York Yankees to the messy twin-bill against the Philadelphia Phillies, it hasn’t been a banner week. The struggles are especially ill-timed amid the pressures of trying to secure a post-season berth.
So, Montoyo decided it was time for the group hold its first meeting of the campaign. He ran the idea by the rest of the coaching staff, and they agreed that the time was right. Before batting practice, the Blue Jays gathered and talked.
“I told them how proud I am of our team after everything they’ve gone through and that we’re still in a good spot,” said Montoyo, pointing out how back in July the team would gladly have taken a four-game lead in the standings with nine games to play. “Guys forget, we’re a young team going through this right now. I just told them basically, embrace it. I saw the guys’ faces, it looks like they’re going to embrace it and go out and have fun.”
Trying to ease the current burden makes sense, although turning around the recent run of poor play isn’t nearly that simple. Even with Hyun-Jin Ryu continuing to serve as a stability post in an unsteady rotation, the Blue Jays’ inability to sync up good pitching with productive hitting cost them once again Saturday night in a 3-1 to the Phillies that made it six straight losses.
This time it was Vince Velasquez who kept them under wraps, allowing only two hits – an infield single to Teoscar Hernandez in the first and a Travis Shaw solo shot in the fifth – and three walks over six strong innings. That the Blue Jays swung at 14 pitches blatantly out of the strike zone, likely a byproduct of the urgency they’re feeling, certainly helped him out.
“Our approach was not really good,” said Montoyo.
Relievers Blake Parker, David Phelps and Tommy Hunter locked things down for the Phillies, who made a pair of runs scratched off Ryu in the fifth stand up. Taijuan Walker starts Sunday trying to keep the Blue Jays (26-26) from both suffering a second consecutive sweep, and from dropping beneath .500 for the first time since Aug. 19.
“It was a good time for (a meeting),” said Shaw. “(Montoyo) is spot on with the vibe, it’s been a little bit down the last couple of days, New York was a shell-shock in a way. We were playing really well and to get beat like that three games in a row, opens your eyes a bit, a little bit of humble pie. We were playing so well, we were on such a high. That can be a good thing, too.
“We still have a week to right the ship here, get a little bit better momentum heading into the playoffs,” Shaw continued. “It did show us that there are some good teams out there, we’re going to play some good teams going into the post-season. The few I’ve been a part of, pitching is always going to be really good in the post-season. Offensively, we need to pick it up a little bit. The last three games here haven’t been very good. Hopefully we can get it going (Sunday).”
A saving grace for the Blue Jays is that despite the bad week, they remain in firm possession of the final wild-card berth thanks to the struggles of the teams behind them in the standings. It will take an epic collapse on their end and a significant rally by one of the laggards to keep them from capitalizing on the shortened season and expanded playoffs.
Still, the last thing the Blue Jays want to do is stumble into the post-season to be someone else’s first-round fodder, which was another factor in Montoyo’s intervention.
“We’ve gone through so much and we’re in this spot, this late in the season – I’m so proud of this team. I wanted them to know that, coming from me,” he said. “I felt like today was good timing after everything we’ve gone through, the doubleheader (Friday) to talk to them.”
At one point, Montoyo called on veteran infielder Joe Panik, a member of the 2014 World Series champion San Francisco Giants, to address the group, and he reinforced the idea that things aren’t easy at this time of year, but the challenge is something to relish.
“He did a great job,” said Montoyo.
So, too, did Ryu, who cruised through the first four frames but was in trouble immediately in the fifth, after Shaw’s homer had opened up a 1-0 lead. Jay Bruce opened the inning with a double, Scott Kingery sacrificed him to third, and Andrew Knapp followed with a single that tied things up.
After an Adam Haseley single, Andrew McCutchen snuck a base hit up the middle to push across the go-ahead run. Ryu settled down after that and finished with eight strikeouts over six frames.
“This week has been tough mentally for the pitchers but also for the hitters,” Ryu said through interpreter Bryan Lee. “We’re definitely in a touch stretch, there’s no denying that. Especially in today’s game, when we did get the go-ahead run, I thought it was very crucial for me to make sure I keep the team in a better place than giving up runs right after. A lot of it was my part in the way we couldn’t finish the game today and going forward we definitely need a win because losing this many games will definitely hurt us in the long run.”
Velasquez did him one better, throwing a fastball that averaged 93.7 m.p.h., 63 times in 104 pitches. And instead of finding relief, they found more frustration.
“Right now, I think that that comes with losing six in a row, guys are just pressing a little bit,” said Shaw. “We get something good to happen and it can snowball from there. When it’s going negatively, it’s kind of the same thing. It’s all hitting us at once this road trip. Sucks to be going through it this late in the season, as we’re approaching the post-season, but we still have a week to get back on the right side of things.”
The sooner they do, the lower the stakes in their remaining eight games.