TORONTO – Ross Stripling tried to get his arm loose about three hours before first pitch, couldn’t work through some tightness and immediately became the latest Toronto Blue Jays pitcher to be sidelined. The severity of the issue and how long he may miss wasn’t immediately known. But with Tanner Roark banished to the bullpen, T.J. Zeuch already pushed into regular duty and Nate Pearson and Thomas Hatch just beginning buildups as they recover from injuries, the organizational depth cited so often as a strength is being further stressed.
The coming schedule, however, with four off-days in the next two weeks, gives the Blue Jays an opportunity to maximize Steven Matz, Robbie Ray and Hyun-Jin Ryu. By simply pushing Matz up to Thursday’s series opener at the Kansas City Royals from Friday, the trio would start 10 of the next 13 games while being lined up for the April 23-25 series at the Tampa Bay Rays. Each would also make at least one of those starts on extra rest, an ideal way to concentrate outings among their best starters.
Charlie Montoyo ruled out that possibility after Bo Bichette’s second homer of the game — a walk-off drive off Chad Green — beat the New York Yankees 5-4 to secure a second straight series win against the American League East favourites. Possibilities for Thursday include a bullpen game, Anthony Kay and Roark, said the manager, who added that, “we have to see how Stripling is doing and we go from there.”
Even if Matz stays on turn and goes Friday, he, Ryu and Ray could still pitch in 10 of the next 14 games, leaving holes to fill April 20 at Boston, April 25 at Tampa Bay and May 1 against Atlanta. Either way, they won’t need a fifth starter until May 4 at Oakland, allowing them to use Zeuch, who allowed four runs in four innings after being told he was starting about two hours before first pitch, or Stripling, if his forearm issues aren’t significant.
Such an approach would be the best way for them to get through the latest attrition to strike, as reliever Julian Merryweather hit the injured list Wednesday with a left oblique strain and David Phelps remained day-to-day after being struck in the back by a line drive.
Factoring in George Springer’s continuing recovery from a quad injury and Teoscar Hernandez’s COVID-19 absence, a 6-6 start fuelled by a 4-2 record against the Yankees is a pretty reasonable opening gambit.
“Even when we're going through what we're going through, not having a full team and using different starters and stuff, to do that I think is impressive,” said Montoyo. “I'm proud of my team. If people are hurt, the guys that are playing are going to give you their best and they did today. It was an impressive win, knowing everything that we went through the last couple of days, losing players and so on.”
Told he was starting just as he was setting out for his daily throwing routine, Zeuch fought his way through four innings, using his sinker 43 times in 62 pitches because he didn’t feel good with his secondary offerings. Aaron Judge took him deep twice, on a cutter in the first and sinker in the third, while Gio Urshela hooked a loopy slider into left for a two-out, two-run single in the fourth that put the Yankees up 4-3.
“I didn't really feel like I had much of my other stuff going for me,” said Zeuch. “The slider was a little bit big and a little flat. Sometimes it would be big. Other times it was good. Changeup, just kind of pushing it a little bit. The cutter I felt I was getting on the side of it a little bit. The home run to Judge was just a flat cutter over the middle of the zone.
"So I just tried to go with what I know at that point, heavy sink, try to get the ball on the ground, try to get them to put it in play and let my defence work. There were obviously some instances today where that worked better than others. But I felt fine overall.”
The Blue Jays tied things up in the sixth on a Jonathan Loaisiga wild pitch that was their only return after loading the bases with one out, and they were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position when Bichette walked it off.
Bichette matched a career best by extending his hitting streak to 11 games, a stretch that includes a pair of multi-homer performances. His defence has also smoothed out after a shaky start – he made a tremendous diving stab and throw from his knees to end the game Tuesday and helped turn a pair of double plays in the finale.
As he’s warmed up and with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. continuing to maul opposing pitchers – the Yankees holding him to a pair of singles was a good day for them – an offence still working back to optimal can be an equalizer amid the injuries.
“The guys who are hurt are guys who can really help us,” said Bichette, who also singled and stole second in the first and homered in the third. “But at the same time, I think we all noticed in spring training that we have a lot of guys who can step in and not only play every day, but impact the game aside from the starting nine that should have been (there) on opening day.
"We're confident in everybody that comes up here. There are even more guys that haven't gotten a chance yet that we're confident can come up here and produce. I think we've handled it well and we'll just continue to battle.”
To that end, Alejandro Kirk ended his 0-for-13 drought to open the season with a two-run homer off Corey Kluber in the second. The rookie said breaking the slide “definitely felt great,” but the Blue Jays also needed the production from their backstops, who began the day with a cumulative OPS of .240 that was last in the majors.
There’s a psychological element to slumping like that out of the gate, too, as Rowdy Tellez can attest after opening up 0-for-21 before collecting his first hit Monday. He hit his first homer Tuesday and added two more hits and scored twice Wednesday.
“You go through a little funk like that 200 at-bats in and everybody is like, 'OK, you're bound to hit at some point,'” said Tellez. “But starting the season 0-for-21, the board is in your face and you see it. As much as you don't want to look at it, you're going to look at it. You're looking at the velos, the count, outs – you're just looking over there and to see zero-zero-zero in your batting average and all that is kind of draining.
"That's the biggest thing. At the beginning of the season, you want to start hot because you want those crooked numbers up there and to have nothing kind of is depleting. Jimmy VanOstrand (the Blue Jays’ major-league mental performance coach) helped me out a lot with just saying, 'Hey, the board shouldn't matter 'til you get 200 at-bats.' That's where the mindset was like, OK, don't worry about what's up there. Let's just focus on putting together good swings on every pitch I swing at.”
Sound advice, and amid mounting injuries, the Blue Jays are going to need all the production they can get.