MINNEAPOLIS – Let’s start with the obvious: Thursday’s game was a complete write-off for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Their starting pitcher, Steven Matz, needed 80 pitches to make his way through three innings. His replacement, Thomas Hatch, threw more balls than strikes before leaving with right hamstring discomfort. And his replacement, Julian Merryweather, promptly allowed a three-run home run to the first batter he faced.
It wasn’t just the pitching that provided cause for concern, either. Lourdes Gurriel Jr., the Blue Jays’ hottest hitter in recent weeks, also left the game with an injury after Randal Grichuk stepped on his right hand while making a throw home.
And most importantly, the Blue Jays lost, 7-2, missing a chance to gain ground on the Yankees and Red Sox, both of whom were idle ahead of their weekend series at Fenway Park. With ten – make that nine – games remaining, each one offers a precious chance at a win. On Thursday, the Blue Jays fell well short of that goal.
But as frustrating as every loss is this time of year, there’s little to be gained by dissecting the particulars of this one. More important are the questions this loss raises and the potential solutions available over the season’s final stretch.
"Tough loss," catcher Danny Jansen said. "It's about flushing it and going to the next game. You can't dwell on tonight. You've got to come back ready to compete."
Because as bad as Thursday was, the Blue Jays do have their three best pitchers lined up for the remaining games against the Twins, a last-place team. Behind the scenes, George Springer and Hyun-Jin Ryu continue making progress. And ugly loss or not, the Blue Jays are still just 1.0 game out of a playoff spot.
Clearly, they still have a chance to get where they want to go. Now it’s on the Blue Jays’ decision-makers to proceed with an increasing sense of urgency and for the team’s players to respond between the lines.
"The game will tell you what to do a little bit,” said major-league coach John Schneider, who stepped in as acting manager while Charlie Montoyo served a one-game suspension. “You do your prep work and you try to react. You try to put your best scenario out there, whether it's in the box or on the mound or on the field. Right now whatever gives us the best chance to win at that time is what we're going to roll with."
The most pressing questions raised by Thursday’s game relate to health. While Hatch has spent most of the season at triple-A, there’s no easy way to replace Gurriel Jr., who entered play Thursday with a share of the American League lead in RBI, slugging percentage and total bases during the month of September.
X-rays on his hand were negative and there doesn’t appear to be any structural damage, but he did get two stitches on his middle finger. Whether Gurriel Jr. can comfortably swing a bat will be a significant question for this weekend and beyond.
"Everything we've heard is I think the best news we could get," Schneider said. "We'll see how he is tomorrow, but hopefully it's not too long."
It was Corey Dickerson who replaced Gurriel Jr. in left field Thursday, but it’s possible the Blue Jays will get another outfielder back before long. Springer did some defensive drills in centre field Thursday afternoon and emerged feeling encouraged, creating the possibility that he could return to the field for the first time since August 14.
Before the game, Montoyo indicated a return to the outfield is a real possibility. “Hopefully soon,” he said from the visitors’ dugout before serving his suspension. After what transpired in left field Thursday, Springer’s glove might be even more useful than expected. And in the meantime, the Blue Jays are expecting a breakout at the plate.
“The entire league knows he’s about one swing away from being where he needs to be,” Schneider said. “You trust that he’s going to break through.”
As for Ryu, if he only needs the minimum 10 days on the injured list, he could theoretically return against the Yankees next Tuesday. While Ryu struggled before hitting the IL, Matz’s latest outing doesn’t inspire full confidence ahead of a matchup with New York either.
Regardless, the Blue Jays have lots of work ahead. Depending on what happens in Boston this weekend, it could take something like 91 or 92 wins to secure the AL’s second wild-card spot now held by the Yankees (Boston’s now 3.0 games ahead of Toronto). That remains within reach for the Blue Jays if they play to their potential.
"Everyone knows that every game is huge," Schneider said. "You come prepared, hopefully get back on track and get on a nice little roll here."
Opportunity still exists here – a big one. Even if letting winnable games slip away is a luxury the Blue Jays can no longer afford.