TORONTO -- It wasn't all that long ago that the Blue Jays were putting together nine-run innings. Just a few weeks back, on Aug. 6, they scored nine in the fifth inning against the visiting Boston Red Sox -- and while no one would have described that outburst as usual, it hardly seemed out of character for a team with so much offensive ability.
Now, those days seem distant. Gone is the high-flying offence that would score in bunches. Instead, the offence has all but disappeared thanks to injuries, underperformance and some truly awful numbers with runners in scoring position. These days, they’re more likely to score six over the course of an entire series as they did against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park this weekend.
It hasn’t been good. At the same time, the Blue Jays have pitched so well that they were still able to emerge with their first series win since they beat up on those Red Sox earlier in the month. Jose Berrios pitched seven dominant innings Sunday, rebounding from some recent struggles to deliver a 2-1 win over Detroit and nudge the Blue Jays’ fading playoff hopes ahead.
“We’re winning because of pitching and defence and that’s great,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “Nail biters every day. It’s good that we’re winning when we’re not hitting because you know we’re better than what we’re doing right now at the plate. That’s coming. I know I keep saying that and it hasn’t come, but it will come and when it comes it’s going to be a lot of fun for this team.”
On a hot and humid day in Detroit, Berrios was exceptional. He overcame a 26-minute rain delay on his way to 11 strikeouts while allowing just one unearned run on six hits. This is exactly the kind of outing the Blue Jays had in mind when they acquired him ahead of the July 30 deadline, and it was a welcome contrast to the 12 earned runs the 27-year-old had allowed over his previous three starts and 12.1 innings.
Afterwards, Berrios said a mechanical adjustment helped him rebound. Instead of bringing his arms all the way over his head while winding up, he simply raised them from his belt to his chest before delivering.
"Because coming upstairs and then going forward I sometimes don't feel like myself and sometimes I miss my release point," Berrios explained. "Being simple, from my belt and coming a little bit up I feel more myself and tried to stay in line to home plate."
“He was really good. He was on the whole time,” Montoyo added. “It’s not that easy to make an adjustment like that. You’ve got to give all the credit to the pitcher for making the adjustment and of course the pitching coach, Pete Walker, for doing it.”
Yet even with the win, the Blue Jays remain 6.0 games out of the second wild card spot with a 68-61 record. Their playoff odds -- 5.3 per cent entering play Sunday, according to FanGraphs -- will go up, but not by enough to scare the teams ahead of them all that much.
Offensively, the Blue Jays continued to underperform, squandering a bases-loaded, none-out opportunity in the seventh to create another stressful finish for Walker and Montoyo. Thankfully, Adam Cimber pitched well and Tim Mayza recorded his first career save on a day Jordan Romano was unavailable.
All the offence the Blue Jays got came from two solo home runs: a Bo Bichette opposite-field shot in the first inning followed by Kevin Smith’s first career home run three innings later. Smith, who was robbed of a near-home run, had 19 home runs in the minor leagues before earning his first ever call-up to the majors earlier this month.
While he was hitting those home runs at triple-A, he and his teammates would sometimes wonder whether the Blue Jays’ celebratory home run jacket would be their size. As it turns out, the fit wasn’t bad.
“Once I put it on I realized it was a little bit too big for me,” Smith joked afterwards. “Everyone was telling me I had to wear it until the inning was over.”
Before the game the Blue Jays activated Jarrod Dyson, who debuted as a pinch-runner before taking over defensively in centre field -- a position he's expected to play with some frequency as George Springer will likely be limited to designated hitter duty when he first returns from the injured list. Meanwhile, Santiago Espinal was placed on the injured list with a right hip flexor strain, meaning Smith and Breyvic Valera are the third base options for the time being.
From here, the Blue Jays head back home to Toronto where they’ll host the lowly Orioles and then the struggling Athletics. But regardless of who they’re facing, the Blue Jays have a lot of ground to make up, and overcoming this deficit won’t be possible unless their slumping offence can finally give an impressive pitching staff some support.