TORONTO – The best laid pitching plans of the Toronto Blue Jays fell apart at roughly 2 a.m., when Alek Manoah reached out to head trainer Jose Ministral and said he was struggling with what interim manager John Schneider called “a stomach bug.”
Since the ace right-hander was due to start the opening game of a day-night doubleheader against the Tampa Bay Rays, that wasn’t ideal. The club’s strategy for the day hinged on Manoah going deep in the first game with a bullpen game built around Mitch White carrying some bulk in the second. A late night/early morning scramble followed.
“It's a tight group that communicates on the phone and then meets when we get here,” Schneider said of the sudden reset. “You have a lot of different options that are mapped out. It's nice that we have the depth that we have at the major-league level on a lot of sides of the ball, so it’s trying to put the best pieces together as best you can.”
Their construct, Julian Merryweather ideally going two innings as an opener for White, whom they hoped to extend, didn’t go to plan, with some sloppy play in the field also contributing to what finished as a 4-2 loss to the Rays on Tuesday afternoon.
Merryweather allowed consecutive singles to open the game and Yandy Diaz eventually crossed when Randy Arozarena beat out a potential inning-ending double play at first base, while White was burned by a three-spot in the third that was fuelled by some avoidable mistakes.
White did manage to throw six frames, matching a season-high, pivotal with uncertainty around whether Manoah would be well enough to start the back-end, which he will after recovering during the day. But two moments in the third inning were tough to stomach for the Blue Jays:
• Vladimir Guerrero Jr., not getting his foot set on the bag to receive a relay from Santiago Espinal after the second baseman made a great diving play on a Jonathan Aranda grounder, and then not getting a toe on the base in time, loading them up with none out;
• Arozarena slowing up as he went first-to-third on a Manuel Margot single that deflected off Matt Chapman’s glove, lulling Teoscar Hernandez to sleep as he walked the ball back to the infield, and then dashing for home, leading to an airmailed throw to the plate and a demoralizing fourth run.
Played better, the Blue Jays only allow one run that inning instead of three, a key reason Blue Jays (79-62) fell a half-game behind the Rays (79-61) in the wild-card race.
"That's how (the Rays) play and you have to try to stay ahead of it,” said Schneider. “Hopefully people learn from it and it doesn't happen again. But we're familiar enough with that team to where we know that when you give them extra outs, they usually make you pay. Hopefully, we just tighten it up starting tonight and the rest of the series.”
Opportunistic execution led to all four Tampa Bay runs as they went up 2-0 when Arozarena beat out another potential double-play ball after Aranda reached to make it 2-0 and David Peralta followed with a fly ball to left that plated Wander Franco.
Arozarena was a full chaos agent in that third inning, twice having steal attempts negated by batter interference calls before cleverly exploiting Hernandez on Margot’s base hit.
“Sometimes he’s his own third base coach, manager and he’s invisible,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said of the dynamic outfielder.
With Rays starter Jeffrey Springs picking the Blue Jays apart over six innings – an important contribution for a Tampa Bay bullpen that’s carried a heavy load the past three days – there wasn’t much for a crowd of 23,497 to get hyped about until a two-spot in the seventh.
Shawn Armstrong, having escaped a two-one, one-out jam in the seventh unscathed, wasn’t as fortunate in the eighth when Guerrero and Bo Bichette opened the inning with back-to-back singles and Alejandro Kirk’s comebacker brought a run in and Matt Chapman’s base hit another.
Cash turned to closer Pete Fairbanks at that point and he got Danny Jansen on a sharp grounder to short to end the inning before wrapping things up in the ninth for his seventh save. The laser-firing righty hasn’t allowed a run in his last 18 outings after working around a one-out Raimel Tapia single and catcher interference on George Springer by striking out Guerrero and winning a high-drama, 11-pitch duel with Bichette, inducing a game-ending grounder to first.
“He has been on a tear and it's been impressive to watch,” said Fairbanks. “And so there, I'm trying to attack in the strike zone for as long as I can. One of us is going to win it eventually. Today we get a groundout to get out of it.”
The effort from White, who hustled to the stadium after getting a 10 a.m. call about the pitching change, meant the Blue Jays needed to use only two relievers and marked an important turnaround from the 18 runs allowed in his three previous starts that led to his demotion. He was brought back as the 29th man for the doubleheader and will have to be sent down again after and, barring an injury, won’t be eligible for recall until Sept. 22.
The Blue Jays have a hole in the rotation Friday – another bullpen game is likely – but then won’t need a fifth starter again until Sept. 24 at Tampa Bay. Either way, White’s work with pitching coach Pete Walker and Kevin Gausman, whom he said “has been great,” should help him the next time he’s needed with a focus on “just kind of simplifying things.”
“What (Gausman) has been saying is 80 per cent. Nice and smooth and easy,” White continued. “I got myself in trouble trying to overthrow in that last outing and the few previous ones, too, trying to do too much. Today was all about tempo and rhythm, nice and easy 80 per cent. …
“Most of it is just mindset. That's what gets me out of whack mechanically,” he continued. “When I'm smooth and in rhythm and attacking the zone, then it's fine. Maybe a handful of two-strike pitches I'm going to expand, but every single pitch was like, all right, I'm throwing this in the zone.”
His longest outing since joining the Blue Jays at the trade deadline largely erased the possibility they might have to pitch some relievers in both ends of the doubleheader, though Schneider said beforehand that “those plans have kind of already started, if needed.”
Bullpen coach Matt Buschmann said using someone from the bullpen twice in a day was very feasible, especially since relievers do daily pre-game throwing. Given how that takes place roughly 4-5 hours ahead of their work in the game that follows, “it's not unusual for them to experience throwing, relaxing and then building back up to throw in the same day,” he explained.
Between games the Blue Jays planned to review everyone’s throwing load, “which we can track in various different ways,” said Buschmann, and if someone was green-lit, “you'd go through the outing, get some recovery and then basically go out to the second game as if the first game inning was like playing catch.”
Manoah wasn’t in the clubhouse before the first game, as the Blue Jays sought to “give him a little bit extra time to get hydrated up, rest, and hopefully get ready for Game 2,” Schneider said in the morning.
That’s what happened.
“He's feeling fine,” Schneider said after the loss. “I expect a normal outing for him. Feeling a lot better so just ride it out like we always do.”