NEW YORK – Moments after Bo Bichette drove a two-out double in the fifth inning, Jameson Taillon ripped off a first-pitch slider low and away to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The ball squirmed away from catcher Jose Trevino just far enough for the shortstop to take third base and the slugger at the plate immediately waved his hand, urging him to go.
The problem was Bichette, assuming the Trevino corralled the pitch, had his back turned to the play as he headed back to second base. By the time he heard Guerrero’s cries, Trevino had retrieved the ball and the chance to take 90 feet was gone. Three pitches later, Guerrero chased a cutter well outside the zone for strike three, snapping the bat on his leg in disgust.
If you want a moment symbolizing the themes of the past week and a half for the Toronto Blue Jays, well this was it. A lack of sync. Unrealized opportunity. Good things quickly negated. Frustration and lament in the aftermath.
In terms of on-field metaphors, this was chef’s kiss stuff.
Predictably, the gut-punches didn’t end there for the Blue Jays, who fell 5-3 to the New York Yankees on Wednesday. Their seventh loss in nine outings is reflective of a stretch where sometimes they’ve soured things for themselves, at other times life has served them lemons and the rigours of a gruelling early-season schedule may have caught up to them.
“What gets lost on a lot of people is we just had a long stretch and played some very, very tough teams, had some close games, had a lot of mentally draining games, a lot of physically draining games,” said George Springer, who walked and scored in the first and delivered a sacrifice fly in the ninth, his sixth RBI in the past five games. “It's not an excuse for why we're not doing what we expect to do as a team, but it happens. Playing 30 out of 31 days to start the year against really good teams is hard but it's on to the next one. We've still got 130 games to go and there's still time to right the ship. But there needs to be a little bit of urgency.”
The challenge is to do that without further burdening themselves.
Manager Charlie Montoyo noted that when teams struggle to cash in runners, as the Blue Jays have all season, “everybody presses more because everybody tries harder.”
“Sooner or later that catches up with you,” he added later. “That's what's going on right now. I know we've got the hitters to do it. We're just not doing it right now.”
The impact of those struggles were largely masked during a 15-8 start, but the strain from the lack of offence has surfaced in the recent cold streak.
Other wider trends were also reflected Wednesday:
• In the fourth inning, a Gleyber Torres fly ball of 361 feet that’s a homer in seven ballparks cleared the short-porch in right field wall for a three-run shot that put the Yankees up 3-1. Then, in the sixth, a Matt Chapman drive of 390 feet that’s a homer in 13 ballparks was caught on the left-centre field track for a sacrifice fly instead of a go-ahead three-run shot. Between the deadened ball and the bandbox dimensions in right field, the bottom line is the big blows lately have belonged to others, while the Blue Jays have had to search for silver linings. “I thought Matt hit his ball well,” said Springer. “It didn't go out but he got the job done, guy on third base and he got him in. Obviously, the three-run homer would have been preferred. But it's stuff like that that can get guys going, a big sac fly right there. It's all good."
• Later in that sixth, Santiago Espinal hit a grounder to short that Isiah Kiner-Falefa bobbled. But rather than bailing on the play, he alertly relayed the ball to second, where Alejandro Kirk had arrived safely only to trip over the bag as he tried to stop, allowing Torres to tag him for the third out and undo the Yankees’ error.
• The Blue Jays positioned themselves for a big start when their first three batters loaded the bases, but Taillon limited the damage to a Lourdes Gurriel Jr. fielder’s choice, the first of eight straight batters retired and 16 of 19 through the fifth inning.
• Jose Berrios, coming off a six-run, no-strikeout loss to Cleveland last week, faced one batter over the minimum through three innings, retired the first batter of the fourth then went Anthony Rizzo infield single-D.J. LeMahieu base hit-Torres home run. That looked like a blip after a three-up, three-down fifth but then a one-out walk to Rizzo and a LeMahieu double ended his afternoon, and Trevor Richards promptly served up a two-run flare single to Torres that put the Yankees up 5-2.
• Berrios allowed five runs in 5.1 innings on five hits and a walk with four strikeouts in a performance that was stronger than his line suggests. “I threw better breaking balls and changeups,” said Berrios. “I’m trying to keep moving forward.”
• In contrast, the Blue Jays’ woes hitting with runners in scoring position continued with an 0-for-7 day, dropping them to .181 (43-for-238) on the season. “You don't want to try to do too much right there,” said Springer. “There's a guy in scoring position, yeah, but you still have to have a good quality at-bat. At this point of the year, we've got to slow some things down, not try to do too much on that. Don't hit the five-run homer when there's nobody on base. Slow down. Stay within ourselves.”
• In the ninth, after Santiago Espinal hit a leadoff double off Aroldis Chapman, pinch-hitter Vinny Capra doubled and Springer made it a two-run game with a sacrifice fly, Bichette ripped a potentially game-tying drive just a few feet foul. Chapman rallied to strike him out before Guerrero popped out to end the game.
Add in the yet unresolved aftermath from Tuesday night’s Gong Show – Montoyo managed the game amid MLB’s ongoing review of Yimi Garcia’s hitting Josh Donaldson, even though usually skippers get an automatic suspension when their pitcher is ejected for intentional throwing – and pitchers’ issues with slick baseballs and lots of small problems are compounding.
“Last night was one of the worst nights of my playing career regarding the baseball. It’s embarrassing,” Garcia, speaking through interpreter Hector Lebron, said of his issues finding grip. “The balls that we’re using right now, for me, are really bad, they’re very slippery. I can’t believe it.”
Tim Mayza and Jordan Romano, who served up Aaron Judge’s walk-off homer in Tuesday’s 6-5 loss, also found the balls unusually slippery, although the Canadian closer refused to hide behind complaints on the issue.
“I had a hard time gripping the ball – obviously, that's not why I performed poorly,” said Romano, who attributed a drop in velocity to rust in his delivery rather than the ball or anything physical, “but yeah, it was a little bit of an issue for me.”
The issues for the Blue Jays are wider than that alone.
Earlier in the season they managed to eke out just enough offence to overcome their poor situational hitting, and find outs through timely pitching and tight defence. More recently, some regression to the mean, perhaps, has pushed them closer to their expected record based on a run-differential of minus-14 after outpacing it earlier in the year.
After another off-day Thursday, their second in four days after 20 consecutive games and 30 in 31 days, the Blue Jays meet with the Tampa Bay Rays for the first time this season, seeking to regain some equilibrium at their long-time house of horrors.