Blue Jays pummel Orioles as Richards arrives to reinforce bullpen floor

Watch as Joe Siddall and Jamie Campbell discuss how the Blue Jays’ broke out offensively against the Orioles and took advantage of Matt Harvey.

In adding Adam Cimber and Trevor Richards to a relief corps that has allowed a 4.63 ERA since the beginning of May, the Toronto Blue Jays have not fixed their bullpen. The club still needs to add higher-impact arms that pair premium velocity with swing-and-miss secondary offerings to keep runners off base and balls out of play. Guys who can protect slim, eighth-inning leads and get the ball to Jordan Romano in the ninth. In other words: some big ol’ dudes that can chuck it.

No, Toronto’s relief remodelling is not finished. But that bullpen ceiling can be addressed closer to the July 30 trade deadline when any lousy team currently rostering an elite, nearing-free-agency reliever will be looking to offload them for futures.

For now, Cimber and Richards address this bullpen’s floor — in dire need of repair itself. They might not be getting the ball directly to Romano in the ninth. But they’ll be getting it closer to him, which is just as important.

Think about the nights when a starter exits in the sixth inning with two runners on and one out. Or the times when a particularly pesky lineup runs someone’s pitch count close to 100 through five. Picture the two- or three-run leads in the sixth and seventh that need protecting with the heart of the opposition order due up. That’s where Cimber and Richards help.

And that’s where manager Charlie Montoyo’s options have been lacking all season. The Blue Jays have been somewhat able to mitigate that by rostering starters like Robbie Ray and Hyun-Jin Ryu — who allowed a run on five hits and two walks while striking out seven in Wednesday’s 10-2 pummelling of the Baltimore Orioles — that regularly throw six or seven innings. But Ross Stripling’s typically been trusted for just five; Steven Matz last went six in May; and while Alek Manoah’s been brilliant at times, he’s only seven outings into his MLB career. You can’t count on a deep start every night.

Often, you’ll need reliable relievers to take over during middle-innings and face anywhere from three to 9 hitters. Think of how effectively the Blue Jays used Thomas Hatch and Julian Merryweather in those spots last season. It’s a role the club envisioned Trent Thornton filling this year in his return from elbow surgery. But, if you’ve been paying even fleeting attention, you know how that’s gone.

Thornton’s been giving up laser beams all over the place and, after his latest rocky outing Tuesday against the Orioles in which he allowed three of the five batters he faced to score, owns MLB’s third-highest hard hit rate (51.9 per cent) and 15th-highest average exit velocity allowed (91.4-m.p.h.). That rough go also earned him a minor-league demotion Wednesday, as he seeks to rediscover the command that allows his high-spin stuff to be effective.

“It'll be good for him to go down to triple-A and get that going, throw more strikes. Because the stuff's still there,” Montoyo said. “He’s throwing 95, his breaking pitches are sharp. He was just pitching behind in the count a lot. And when you do that in the big leagues, usually it’s not going to go well.”

You can add that to the news Merryweather suffered a setback in his rehabilitation from an oblique injury and won’t be available for some time; plus the recent unreliability of Rafael Dolis, who Montoyo found a low leverage spot to work out the kinks in Wednesday; not to mention the extreme inconsistency of the now-injured Tyler Chatwood, the rough rides Anthony Castro’s taken in leverage, or the injuries to just about every other Blue Jays reliever of consequence. Seems it’s a pretty opportune time to be adding a pitcher like Richards to the fray.

And right on cue, there he was jogging in from the bullpen Wednesday to take the ball following Ryu, who exited after five innings on a humid Maryland night. Now, Richards was working with an eight-run lead thanks to Toronto’s offence doing what it’s capable of against MLB’s worst pitching staff. And we know the club envisions him working in higher leverage than that. But the point in the game was about right for a converted starter who Montoyo said he could count on to get four or five outs in an appearance. And one who should continue to help bridge that gap between starter and late relief going forward.

And so far, so good. Richards went three-up, three-down on 14 pitches, leaning heavily on a fastball he ran up to 94-m.p.h. It was a smooth, low-stakes, find-your-feet-with-a-new-club outing pitched with a massive lead. But it was encouraging work nonetheless.

"He threw strikes," Montoyo said. "It was kind of the perfect game to bring him in. And he did what he does — what he was doing in Milwaukee. He came in throwing strikes and got people out. It was good to see."

The Blue Jays built that huge lead by taking advantage of some spotty Baltimore fielding in the first, cashing a run on an outfield drop, another on a botched double play that Randal Grichuk beat out at first base, and a third on a Cavan Biggio ground-rule double that never would have happened if the Orioles were better defensively.

“I feel like you could see it in [Matt] Harvey's body language — he thought he got an inning-ending double play," Biggio said. "Grichuk ran it out, beat it, and that was huge. Coming up, I was just looking to drive the ball. And he hung me a slider and I put a good swing on it.”

Biggio was back in the middle of things when Toronto struck next in the fourth, as he doubled to right before scoring on a Lourdes Gurriel Jr. single. And Gurriel himself eventually came around on a Bo Bichette single, as the Blue Jays piled on against what’s left of Matt Harvey.

Guerrero drove in another with a single later in that inning, and Biggio continued a strong night with a sacrifice fly in the fifth. Not to be outdone, Bichette launched a two-run shot to left-centre in the sixth, tying Guerrero with three hits apiece.

Meanwhile, Ryu was strong if unspectacular, flashing better changeup command than he has in recent outings while generating 14 swinging strikes with only 86 pitches. On a different night, with a narrower score and more reasonable environmental conditions, Montoyo likely would’ve pushed Ryu deeper into the game. But there was little need Wednesday with Ryu sweating through his uniform and Richards ready for some work having last pitched four days prior.

"My command was better compared to recent outings — even with my changeup, as well. It felt like it was going in the right direction," Ryu said. "The last couple of outings, obviously, I wasn't feeling mechanically well with it. So, I was more focused on the arm slot and trying to make sure that I get on top of the ball with the changeup."

Although he didn’t get the opportunity Wednesday, one thing Richards has done quite effectively this year is give his club some length. Leaning on the endurance he built up as a starter, Richards has thrown 28 pitches or more in 11 of his 21 appearances this season. He’s faced six hitters or more in a dozen of them and pitched his team through at least two innings in 9. He’s twice thrown three innings and on four occasions completed a full trip through the opposition’s batting order.

Montoyo’s also said he’d like to test Richards in leverage spots, which would be a slight departure from how he was used in Milwaukee over the last six weeks following a late-May trade from the Tampa Bay Rays. Of the 15 appearances Richards made for the Brewers, 12 came when the team was either trailing or ahead by at least four runs. According to Fangraphs, Richards has faced an average leverage index of 0.69 this season. By way of comparison, Castro — a relatively untested rookie claimed off waivers this past winter who sits well down Toronto’s bullpen depth chart — has faced nearly twice that, with an average leverage index of 1.16.

But you can see how it could work. Richards gets hitters out by tunneling his running, sinking changeup off of his 92-93 m.p.h. fastball and vice versa. He’ll occasionally mix in a fringe breaking ball, particularly to right-handed hitters. But the true barometer of whether he’s going to have a good outing or not is the effectiveness of that changeup. When he’s got it working, it’s a devastating weapon against left-handed batters:

And right-handers, too:

Richards says his primary focus when throwing his changeup is to match the arm speed of his heater, staying through the ball and letting the action he generates upon releasing it from his fingers work its magic. As a starter, he ran into trouble trying to be too fine with the pitch and aiming for specific locations in the zone. These days, he’s merely trying to put it on the plate and letting its natural movement carry the ball where it will.

“Tampa has their way of pitching and wanted me to do that. And I took to it,” Richards said. “It definitely helped me and kind of changed my career a little bit.”

Hitters having that changeup in the back of their minds has helped Richards produce decent whiff rates with his fastball, which has ticked up a couple miles per hour this season in shorter stints. In turn, that’s given him more confident with the pitch, as his fastball zone percentage has increased to a career-high 54.4 per cent.

Relief pitching has been an adjustment for Richards, no doubt. But it was one made easier by a brief triple-A assignment this May in which the Rays put the 28-year-old on an every-other-day schedule while throwing as many novel scenarios at him as possible, allowing Richards to acclimate to the new physical and mental demands of his role away from the pressure of big-league ball.

“They tested me,” he said. “All the different situations that you could face as a reliever, I got them out of the way early. And I feel like I'm pretty much comfortable with them all right now.

“It's been really good for me. I've really enjoyed it. It's allowed me to pitch a little differently. And I think it's benefitting me — just being able to go after hitters, knowing that I only have one, two innings max a night.”

And now the Blue Jays stand to be the benefactors of all that work, as Richards and Cimber ought to finally give Montoyo more capable hands to carry leads through the middle of games. Of course, the Blue Jays still need bigger arms for bigger spots in bigger innings. But there’s still time for those bigger acquisitions to come. The ceiling must be addressed. But it takes a stable floor to reach it.

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