TORONTO – Moments after unleashing a fourth straight ball to DJ LeMahieu — each a sinker low, away and not even close — Rafael Dolis slinked off the mound, looked up to the sky, flipped the ball from his glove to his hand and bowed his head as he skulked around.
Immediately manager Charlie Montoyo popped up from the dugout, signalled for time to home plate umpire C.B. Bucknor with an exasperated exhale and checked on the big righty. After a very short chat, Dolis headed toward the dugout alongside head trainer Jose Ministral due to numbness in his hand, the latest setback for a beleaguered bullpen that can’t take any more hits.
That his injury came two batters after another terrific Ross Stripling outing was marred by Gary Sanchez’s pinch-hit, two-run homer in the seventh inning of Wednesday night’s 3-2 loss to the New York Yankees, was the latest cruel twist for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Then, because these all-roads-lead-to-torment days know no bounds, there came another in the ninth, when they squandered men on second and third with none out against Aroldis Chapman, helped in part by a foul tip that wasn’t, negating a passed ball that would have scored the tying run.
Montoyo cajoled the umpires into reviewing the play – Lourdes Gurriel Jr., swung through a 99.9 m.p.h. heater, it ticked off Sanchez’s glove and hit Bucknor square in the mask – they talked it over and “they said, yeah, we saw it as a foul ball,” relayed Montoyo. “I don't think it was.”
As if all that wasn’t enough, Stripling had to mend fences with Joe Panik after slamming his hands into the ground and yelling at the third baseman when his errant throw allowed Giancarlo Stanton to reach with two outs in the sixth.
“It's the most disrespectful thing I've ever done, maybe ever, certainly on a baseball field. I'm completely embarrassed about it. I simply let the moment get too big for me," Stripling said afterwards. "I saw when it jammed Stanton and it was rolling, he didn't run out of the box. And if you've been watching him all year, he doesn't really run down the line. And I'm just screaming at Joe, 'He's not running. He's not running.' And Joe, Gold Glover, tries to make an awesome play and the play unravels and I just completely show him up. I literally can't explain it. Honestly, I'm mortified by it. I can't stand that's the way it went. I apologize to Joe individually. I even addressed the team because I feel so bad about it. That can't happen. That should never happened. It'll never happen again from me, I promise you that. Joe, the awesome veteran and person that he is, took it in stride and said no hard feelings. But you can't do anything worse than that to a teammate. I feel terrible.”
Same as the Blue Jays, who lost for the seventh time when leading after six innings, fell to 5-9 in one-run contests and will be counting on T.J. Zeuch, who’ll be called up Thursday to cover for Steven Matz, to help them avoid a three-game sweep and falling below .500.
Fighting off the cumulative toll of so many tough losses and keeping perspective isn’t easy.
"This game beats you down and then it builds back up and it'll beat you down again," Stripling said. "We've got an awesome group of veterans, we're going to get George (Springer) back soon, which will obviously be a huge bump. You just preach to stay the course and realize how much time we have left. We play every team in our division so tough. We're in every game, so it's not like we're out there getting our butts kicked, our tails whipped. We're in every single game, so stay the course. We trust the guys in our bullpen. We trust our lineup to put up runs every game and our starters are pitching well. We're doing fine. Stay the course. We've got the talent. We're going to be all right.”
The Blue Jays certainly looked like they would be all right Wednesday.
Solo homers by Marcus Semien in the first and Cavan Biggio in the fifth carved out a 2-1 lead against Gerrit Cole. Stripling, shoving after allowing an unearned run in the first on Stanton’s sacrifice fly, was only at 85 pitches through six, setting him up to leave only six outs for the bullpen. The game, once again, was tight but in their control.
Then in a flash it wasn’t, and hours after Carl Edwards Jr., made it seven relievers on the injured list – even as Patrick Murphy was activated off the 60-day IL to take his place on the roster, and Travis Bergen was activated and optioned to triple-A Buffalo – Dolis looks set to make it eight.
Even with his inconsistencies, any sort of Dolis absence will only further complicate Montoyo’s life in leverage, with his reliable options limited as it is. Trent Thornton delivered four solid outs after taking over from Dolis while Murphy looked sharp with his high-90s heat in the ninth, but the Blue Jays still need to establish a group of arms who can put out fires consistently.
Stripling, meanwhile, paid for a fat fastball he left in the happy zone to Sanchez, and he deserved a better outcome, just as he did last week in Boston when the bullpen imploded behind him.
Still, what he’s done since being shaken by a Red Sox beatdown on May 19 isn’t easy. Realizing he was tipping pitches, he made a mechanical fix that also helped the timing in his delivery and it has been very effective in the five outings since, including 6.2 strong innings on Wednesday.
The way in which he’s rescued his season should be instructive for a Blue Jays team trying to get relievers like Tyler Chatwood and Dolis, before his injury, back on track.
“When you look back at those outings where I was struggling with results, the pitches were still good. I felt like I would throw 90 pitches and I'd execute 84 of them and the six that I didn't would just get punished,” Stripling said. “You could point to that and be like, hey, it's not like you're not throwing strikes, you're not competing, you're not mixing speeds. We have a lot of good things to work and the results should come. Having those blocks already in place helps so that when my mechanics got synched up, probably stopped tipping pitches as much as I was, everything could just get going.”
Stripling’s gem unravelled when Miguel Andujar caught a good slider off the end of the bat, and it rolled just fair past first base for a leadoff single. After Rougned Odor struck out, a borderline 1-0 fastball was called a ball and three pitches later, it was 3-2 Yankees on a mistake to Sanchez.
Even with the homer, Stripling stayed right there with Cole, allowing only three runs, two earned, on three hits and two walks with nine strikeouts.
"We're playing good," Montoyo said. "When you're playing bad, that's when you get frustrated and you go, 'OK, yeah, we're just not playing good,' and it comes to team meetings and stuff. But we're playing good baseball and playing teams over .500 for a month now. So we don't need to be frustrated. We play good games, losing games like this. They're tough, yes. But, we're playing good.”
Right now, though, there’s no reward for that, just the need for more faith that these roads to torment also eventually lead to rapture, too.