Blue Jays' war of attrition continues as Springer lifted in sweep of Braves

Marcus Semien homered and drove in four runs as the Toronto Blue Jays beat the Atlanta Braves 7-2 to sweep the three-game series.

There was a lot going on for the Toronto Blue Jays Sunday morning. Multiple players hitting the injured list; a pitcher coming off of it to join a beleaguered rotation; others being summoned from the club’s alternate site to help fill out a stretched roster. Also, the minor matter of a game to be played — one the Blue Jays had yet to publicly name a starting pitcher or lineup for with less than 35 minutes until first pitch.

And it was not long after that George Springer was being lifted from the lineup ahead of a seventh inning plate appearance after going 0-for-3 with a couple strikeouts. The 31-year-old was already playing through a quad issue that’s limited him to designated hitter duty and appeared to tweak the injury running hard up the first base line the night prior. That made his removal Sunday from a still-competitive game foreboding to say the least.

Turns out, Springer had informed the Blue Jays training staff that he was experiencing leg fatigue on a 30-plus degree day in Dunedin. And for as little certainty as MLB teams have around the highly individualized and extremely unpredictable nature of athlete health, one thing they know for certain is that injuries are much more likely to occur when players are fatigued. That’s why the club prioritized caution and chose not to let Springer continue pushing himself through it.

“It was hot today, and then [playing] three days in a row and swinging the bat and stuff, he felt fatigue,” Montoyo said. “And, of course, we're going to be careful with him. And that's why we decided to take him out. It was the best thing for him today.

“He felt it a little bit and we said, 'OK, there's no sense with this hot weather and stuff to force you to hit another at-bat or run or something. So, let's just stop right there.'"

Considering the centre fielder has just returned from multiple soft tissue injuries, not to mention the club’s $150-million, six-season investment in his ability to be healthy and perform, you should expect the Blue Jays to continue carefully managing Springer’s workload like this going forward. What’s important is that he’s feeling as strong as possible come August, September, and, the Blue Jays hope, October. If that comes at the expense of an early-May plate appearance, so be it.

Still, for obvious reasons, Springer’s situation is one worth monitoring. He’s clearly not quite right. Well enough to hit a pair of moonshots on Saturday, mind you. But likely not well enough to play centre field any time soon.

Of course, it’s been a war of attrition all season. The Blue Jays have had 16 different players on the injured list at one point or another. There are eight on there currently, including three — Alejandro Kirk, Tommy Milone, and Anthony Castro — who were added Sunday. The club’s rotation has been a day-to-day proposition since the season’s second week. It was one thing last month when Toronto had a stretch of only seven games in 11 days; it’s another now as it plays 29 in 31.

Toronto’s used 23 different lineups through 26 games — 15 batters have made a plate appearance; 20 pitchers have thrown an inning. We knew coming into 2021 that the depth of every club’s 40-man roster would be tested unlike in any year prior. But who had the Blue Jays running 35 players deep before playing their 27th game?

With the triple-A season getting underway this week, all that roster shuffling is about to get a lot more complicated, as the displaced Buffalo Bisons begin their schedule in Trenton, N.J., while the Blue Jays head out on a West Coast swing through Oakland and Houston. Montoyo said Toronto will carry only a two-player taxi squad to begin that series — reliever A.J. Cole and outfielder Jonathan Davis. At the rate the club’s been churning the edges of its 26-man roster, two warm bodies might not get them to Tuesday.

The latest maneuvering, ahead of a 7-2 triumph over the Atlanta Braves, was headlined by a trip to the injured list for Kirk, who underwent an MRI Sunday morning that revealed a left flexor strain. He was replaced on the active roster by Riley Adams, a 24-year-old catcher the Blue Jays selected in the third round of the 2017 draft. It’s not immediately clear how severe Kirk’s injury is — only that it’s bad enough to hold him out for at least 10 days.

“I just saw him walking. He doesn't look that bad,” Montoyo said. “But I haven't talked to the trainer about how bad it is. For sure, it wasn't good enough — we had to put him on the IL.”

The timing is particularly brutal for Kirk — not that there’s ever a good moment for an injury — who was emerging from a slow start and earning more playing time after spending the season’s first month in a time-share with Danny Jansen. After going 4-for-27 over his first dozen games, Kirk was 5-for-13 over his last five with a pair of walks, adding nearly 200 points to his OPS. Friday against the Braves, he blasted no-doubt homers of 428 and 435-feet. Back in the lineup the following day, he drew a free pass in his first trip to the plate after falling behind, 0-2.

But it was earlier in that plate appearance that Kirk suffered his injury, racing around first base as a towering fly ball into the right-field corner fell foul. Blue Jays trainer Jose Ministral conferenced with Kirk at first base for a few minutes shortly thereafter, determining the 22-year-old was able to do enough to remain in the game. But Kirk’s condition evidently worsened with time, as he was pulled prior to his third plate appearance in the seventh inning.

Now, Jansen is likely to see the majority of playing time behind the plate, while Adams provides an interesting, if unproven option behind him. Adams has yet to play a game above double-A, but Blue Jays director of player development Gil Kim says the right-handed hitter has “some of the best raw power in our organization,” which is saying something considering the exit velocities young players such as Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Rowdy Tellez and Kirk are able to produce.

“Riley has made a ton of progress over the last couple of years — especially since becoming more exposed to this level of pitching, this speed of the game,” Kim said. “Offensively, it really is a focus on balls in play right now and his contact rate. And he's making a lot of good improvements there.

“And then defensively, receiving is the most important part of the game right now. And that's where he's focusing his work, as well as learning game planning and trying to expose himself to the intricacies of big-league game planning that Alejandro had to learn last year. And obviously he has a good one in (Jansen) to learn from. So, he's made a ton of progress. And there's more left to come.”

Still, if Kirk misses extended time, it would make sense for the Blue Jays to check in on one of the many veteran free agent catchers available, such as Matt Wieters, Tyler Flowers, or Jonathan Lucroy, who was released by the Washington Nationals earlier this month.

Lucroy is no longer the all-star calibre player he was in his late 20s, having hit .249/.316/.351 since the beginning of 2017 while bouncing between eight organizations. But he does bring a dozen seasons of MLB experience and, for what it’s worth, was productive with the Chicago White Sox this spring, going 6-for-18 with five walks during Cactus League play.

All things considered, Sunday was a terrific time for Jansen to show signs of snapping his early season funk, coming up with a pair of singles to double his 2021 hit total. Jansen entered the game 0-for-his-last-35, before lining an 0-2 breaking ball back up the middle in his first trip, plating a run in the process. Then he stung a groundball single against the shift his next time up, finally earning a bit of welcome good karma from the BABIP gods.

“It feels great, man. Just a big, big sigh of relief,” Jansen said. “I've been putting the ball in play over the last however many games. But it's nice to see some drop — go the other way a little bit, too, which is nice. I’m just staying within myself. I know I believed in myself this whole time. It’s just nice and joyful to get that.”

That’s what buoyed the Blue Jays coaching staff throughout Jansen’s miserable April — he wasn’t getting any luck on balls in play and was demonstrating many of the same process indicators that led to his success in the past. He was one of Toronto’s most disciplined hitters, for instance, swinging at only 23.8 per cent of the pitches he’d seen outside the strike zone — the second-best rate on the team after Joe Panik. Meanwhile, his average exit velocity was in line with his career norms and a .220 xwOBA stood in stark contact to his actual .112 wOBA, suggesting he’d been experiencing unfortunate results for the quality of contact he was making.

And all the while, Jansen remained consistent and reliable behind the dish, ranking second among MLB catchers in defensive runs saved. The Blue Jays were a top-10 pitching staff through the first month of the season, a remarkable run of success considering how deep down the depth chart the club had to go in light of the injury rate its experienced. And Jansen’s contribution to that result ought not be underestimated.

“Yeah, I think along the way I've learned how to separate the two — offence and defence. I take a lot of pride in doing so,” he said. “I've struggled in the past. So, I know what it takes to get out of it and how to go about it mentally. It's definitely how I've learned to separate the two. And obviously, defense is so important. Handling the staff is bigger.”

Speaking of pitching depth, Ross Stripling’s return from the injured list was a welcome development Sunday, as the 31-year-old made his first appearance in more than three weeks after experiencing forearm tightness following his second outing of the season. Stripling wasn’t his sharpest. But he did well to limit hard contact and had enough in the tank to work into the fifth on only 70 pitches — the most important thing of all for a club perpetually scrambling to cover innings.

“The bullpen's been taxed. They've been so good and we're relying on them heavily,” Stripling said. “So, I was definitely aware of that — aware that we needed some length. Even though I probably only had 70, 75 pitches to work with, I was trying to get as many outs efficiently as I could. I kind of came to a screeching halt there in the fifth — but at least I was able to get that fifth up-down and not force the bullpen to throw seven innings there.”

Stripling’s volume allowed Montoyo to avoid using Anthony Kay, who was recalled from Toronto’s alternate site Sunday and is scheduled to start the second game of the club’s four-game set this week in Oakland. Steven Matz is in line to start Monday’s series opener on regular rest, while Robbie Ray lines up for Wednesday and Hyun Jin Ryu will be eligible to return from the disabled list on Thursday, provided he’s feeling well enough to. Stripling could then come back around on Friday when the Blue Jays open a weekend series in Houston.

Of course, with this team, and this season, there’s no telling what will have happened between now and then. There could be as many as five or as few as two pitchers in the rotation. Springer could be back on the IL or back in centre field for his return to Houston. Jansen could be riding a hot streak or riding the pine with Adams or Lucroy stealing starts from him. It’s all uncertain — the only safe bet being that baseball’s war of attrition will continue.

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