TORONTO – The baseball season is, in some ways, all about managing an ever-changing series of small fires. To start, maybe the offence isn’t clicking. Just when that comes around, the rotation erupts. Then, the bullpen goes, which only serves to reignite the starters. On and on it goes, teams moving from one crisis to another until only the deepest clubs remain standing.
Over the past couple of weeks, during which they split four games with the Baltimore Orioles before dropping three straight series to contending clubs, the Toronto Blue Jays have dealt with a number of flareups. Hyun Jin Ryu’s season-ending surgery. The struggles of Yusei Kikuchi and, more surprisingly, Jose Berrios. Danny Jansen’s ongoing absence. George Springer’s elbow. A series of bullpen injuries. Seemingly daily use of the Buffalo-to-Toronto relief shuffle.
It's been a lot, which made Kevin Gausman’s seven shutout innings plus home runs from Springer, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Matt Chapman in a series-opening 7-2 thumping of the Boston Red Sox on Monday an ideal way to douse the recent embers.
While by no means season-defining, the current eight-game homestand against the surging Red Sox, who had won seven straight coming in, and the Tampa Bay Rays will either keep the flames down or turn up the heat.
A taxed and undermanned bullpen needed Gausman to get deep after consecutive clunkers from Kikuchi and Berrios and the ace right-hander delivered quality as well as quantity. He retired the first eight batters he faced, grabbing the game by the throat, and didn’t let it out of his grasp while the offence beat up on call-up Connor Seabold.
“Huge,” manager Charlie Montoyo said of how Gausman’s outing sets the team up for the rest of the homestand. “Who knows what's going to happen the next couple of days, so it’s huge and even more what happened the series before, how the bullpen had to pitch that many innings. So huge start by Gausman to give us seven innings knowing what’s coming ahead.”
Bo Bichette’s RBI double got things going in the first, Springer’s solo shot followed by Guerrero’s two-run drive in the third opened up the advantage while a Lourdes Gurriel Jr. run-scoring fielder’s choice ahead of the Chapman homer put the game out of the reach.
Collectively, those efforts made this one of the lowest-stress games the Blue Jays have enjoyed this season, all while easing any concerns about Gausman, who seems to have emerged from a brief blip back in form.
"We came off a tough road trip and then we run into a hot Boston team, so to jump out here in Game 1, put some runs up, pitch well, play good defence, that kind of sets the tone for sure for the homestand," said Chapman. "Obviously, we still have a lot of work to do. It's going to be a tough stretch but we're excited about the way we started off, for sure.”
Gausman allowed just four hits and two walks while striking out 10 in beating the Red Sox for a third time this year, having surrendered only one earned run in 21 innings against them.
This outing may have been the most impressive one given how the Red Sox have recovered at the plate after a slow start. They’re 32-13 since May 10 and dropped to 19-5 in June.
“That first month we didn't do much offensively,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said before the game. “We were chasing pitches. We faced some good pitching. And (Gausman) was a big part of us struggling. He was really good in back-to-back starts, one at Fenway, one here. But we're doing damage now in the strike zone. We didn't do that in April. We're still swinging, but we're not chasing too many pitches. … We've been able to control the at-bats and we're doing a better job.”
Gausman was, too, and for all the talk about whether he’s tipping and if the Blue Jays are shifting too much behind him (they did it regularly Monday), it’s a moot conversation when he can move his fastball around and then knock batters out with the split. He got 10 whiffs with his heater, which sat 95, seven on the split and another on his slider.
He got 10 whiffs with his heater, which sat 95, seven on the split and another on his slider which earned him five called strikes, as well.
“My slider has been a huge pitch for me, especially when guys are laying off the split,” said Gausman. “A lot of righties in the last two lineups I've faced so, a little bit more sliders than normal and got some big outs on them. That's a pitch that has gotten better as the season has gone on. Honestly, right now, I feel confident throwing it to anybody in any situation. Certain guys I know I need to be a little bit more fine when I throw it. But I'm super confident in that pitch right now.”
Beyond that, he gave the bullpen a breather ahead of Ross Stripling’s outing Tuesday, with Alek Manoah set for the series finale Wednesday. After that, it’s Kikuchi scheduled to begin the series against the Rays, which includes a doubleheader Saturday that limits the club’s options.
Montoyo indicated that for now Kikuchi will make that start but added that nothing is carved in stone. The left-hander, who has struggled to command his fastball in recent outings, “did some flat ground (work on Sunday) and Pete (Walker, the pitching coach) said he felt good about it,” Montoyo said. “We'll see.”
There is less concern about Berrios, who has a longer track record and is at least consistently in the zone, but he hasn’t been the stability post expected thus far.
Between the additional work and thinning out from injury, the bullpen has been under duress through the past couple of weeks, which is why they’re nearing a deal to sign recently released veteran Sergio Romo.
The Blue Jays are betting on his track record and competitiveness in the absence of set-up men Yimi Garcia and Trevor Richards, along with depth relievers Julian Merryweather, Tayler Saucedo and Andrew Vasquez. Nate Pearson (shoulder), expected to factor in some form, remains off the table as a possibility.
At 39, Romo’s best days are long gone but the team is making a low-risk bet that his primarily 85.4-m.p.h.-sinker and 77.6-m.p.h.-slider mix are enough for him to compete and that he’ll be a positive as a teammate.
If he can help paper over the gap and record a few fifth or sixth-inning outs in the coming days, that’s a bonus. And if not, well it won’t have really cost them much.
Jansen, meanwhile, continued to progress in his recovery from a fifth metacarpal fracture in his left hand, standing in for Richards’ live bullpen, hitting batting practice, catching a few pitchers on flat ground and then receiving off the velocity machine.
His return is on the horizon.
“Obviously, I want to make sure that when I do come back that it's not like I'm battling, so I want to make sure I give myself some time. But on that note, it's been trending up and today has been by far the best day,” he said. “I don't think I’m far off. I don't know the time frame and definitely have to do a rehab thing and make sure that I'm right, timing and everything. I'm definitely itching to get back and excited for it. But I think it’s fairly close.”
As well as Alejandro Kirk, especially, and Gabriel Moreno have performed in his absence, Jansen’s game-calling and presence have been sorely missed. He’s tried to find ways to keep sharp, attending pre-game pitcher’s meetings and making himself available to his fellow backstops, although “it’s tough to be sidelined because I'm not in the battle with them.”
Soon enough Jansen and others will be, and once they are, other small fires somewhere else will emerge, because that’s how baseball goes. The key is to keep finding ways to extinguish them, while preparing for the inevitable flareups to follow.