TORONTO – Kevin Gausman desperately wanted to pitch against the Seattle Mariners, so he threw a bullpen at T-Mobile Park last Friday with a Sunday start in mind.
The next morning he awoke to renewed swelling in the right ankle struck by a Wander Franco liner back on July 2 and the those initial plans were quickly shelved. Once the area calmed down, another side was scheduled for Tuesday back in Toronto, there were no side-effects Wednesday and so it was back to the mound Thursday after nearly two weeks down.
“There's still some swelling in there, some bruising in there, I wouldn't say I'm 100 per cent,” he said ahead of the outing. “But it's definitely manageable enough in that to go out there and pitch.”
For six innings Thursday night, the Toronto Blue Jays ace did just that, holding a Kansas City Royals team depleted by 10 players placed on the restricted list – Whit Merrifield, Andrew Benintendi and Hunter Dozier among them – to a pair of runs over six traffic-filled innings.
That should have been more than good enough to drive his team to a third straight victory, but instead another night of frustration at the plate meant a gimme on paper turned into a deflating 3-1 loss.
In this sport, take nothing for granted.
"You don't want to say this was a letdown game. I think it was a little bit of an unlucky game,” said interim manager John Schneider. “And that's going to happen over the course of the year. And it sucks that it happened tonight. But our goal is to come out tomorrow, win, the next day, win, the next day, win.”
Pulling that off would send the Blue Jays into the all-star break with a 5-1 homestand under their belts, a decent chaser after a 1-6 road trip through Oakland and Seattle that helped finalize the firing of Charlie Montoyo on Wednesday. The test, of course, is in making it happen.
Schneider, in his second game at the helm, met with his players before the game to discuss his intentions and belief in the group, including a message that holding everyone accountable begins with him and the coaching staff, and continued to make subtle adjustments.
The most noticeable one was pushing Vladimir Guerrero Jr., up to the two-spot behind George Springer, with Alejandro Kirk moving to three and Bo Bichette sliding down to fourth. Schneider has been speaking to both Guerrero and Bichette about the idea for a while and got them to sign off on an alignment that should see some run.
“I've always kind of liked it,” he said. “You get George and Vlad and Kirk in a row, on-base and damage potential. It's a good setup for Bo, hopefully with guys on base. The more we can get Bo up with guys on base, the better off we are. So kind of just seeing how it rolls, but comfortable and happy that everyone's happy with it.”
Another tweak came in the ninth, when Schneider sent Cavan Biggio up to pinch-hit for Santiago Espinal with a runner on and one out against closer Scott Barlow. It didn’t work this time, as Biggio rolled over the fourth curveball he saw in the at-bat for a game-ending double play.
But nothing else really produced results, either, as Angel Zerpa, one of eight reinforcements brought up to cover K.C.’s roster gaps, held the Blue Jays to one run on four hits, a Matt Chapman solo shot in the fifth among them, over five innings. Jackson Kowar, Taylor Clarke and Barlow, locking down the ninth, allowed only three hits the rest of the way.
The Blue Jays did hit 11 balls at 99.1 m.p.h. or harder, but only four went for hits, adding to the head-scratching about why a team that lit ground out Zack Wheeler a night earlier got stymied in this one.
“You can't really just bank on numbers and saying we should do this, or we should do that,” said Schneider. “With the way we were swinging it, we were kind of expecting a little bit more. It just unfortunately didn't happen.”
The Blue Jays will, at least, take some solace in it happening for Gausman, a return that should provide some long-term comfort. He worked around a leadoff single in the first, two straight singles to open the second and then “about the third inning, things got a little harder for me,” he said. “Definitely started beating up that ankle a little bit, trying to push off. But I was able to make some pitches. It wasn't as sharp as I would have liked but we were able to get through six.”
The damage against him came in the fifth, when Nicky Lopez opened with a double, was sacrificed to third and scored on an Edward Oilveras single. After the left-fielder was thrown out at second trying to extend the base hit, a Bobby Witt Jr., solo shot made it a 2-0 lead and the Blue Jays didn’t recover.
Gausman allowed seven hits and two walks over his six innings while striking out six. He estimated that he pitched at 85 per cent and had to fight through the reluctance to push off, an unusual feeling for him because his lower-half movement tends to be a strength.
“It was kind of just me knowing like this is going to be maybe painful, but, we need to get through it,” he explained. “It's been 12 days and I needed to get back out there.”
Assuming he starts the opener out of the all-star break in Boston, he’ll now have seven full days of rest to try and get himself back to 100 per cent. Usually, he takes a couple of days off before resuming his work but this time, “I'll be seeing my physical therapist down in Louisiana and make sure this thing is right for the second half.”
George Springer has a similar goal in mind which is why he withdrew from the all-star game Thursday. For several weeks, if not longer, he’s been fighting through right elbow soreness and felt the potential recovery time next week was too precious to pass up.
“Our team comes first,” said Springer, “and I think this would be a great time to get some treatment, let it rest up a little bit to get it ready for the second half.”
The way things are shaping up, the Blue Jays are going to need every ounce of margin they can get.