ANAHEIM, Calif. – Over the weekend, as the Toronto Blue Jays spaced out rest days for several of their key players, manager Charlie Montoyo outlined both the club’s approach and rationale in portioning out down time.
“There are days off like, OK, the guy needs it physically, there are days off (where the guy needs it) mentally and there are days off that are both,” he explained, speaking in general terms. “A lot of times it can be just physically, somebody needs a day off or has a tight hamstring, it's not a pull or anything, but if he keeps playing, he might pull something, whoever that is.”
A spring training shortened by the lockout and a relative lack of days off – remember how the Blue Jays opened the season with 30 games in 31 days? – are also factored into that.
“You've got to be careful this year because the schedule is more condensed, there are just too many games in a row,” Montoyo continued. “Of course, anybody can get hurt any time. But we’re going to try to do that as much as we can, give guys days off.”
That’s context worth remembering before going ballistic the next time a starting lineup resembles the one the Blue Jays employed Sunday, when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Teoscar Hernandez both sat against lefty starter Patrick Sandoval in favour of lefty bats Raimel Tapia and Bradley Zimmer, while the streaking Danny Jansen idled the day after catching a night game.
Often, there’s more than meets the eye when a batting order seems to make little sense, be it strategic maintenance days or more aggressive interventions to keep little problems from becoming big ones.
Sunday was more of the latter, as the initial plan had been for Guerrero to DH against Sandoval, but the superstar slugger is dealing with some left wrist soreness so the club opted to twin a game off with Monday’s off-day to maximize the recovery time.
Similarly, both Hernandez and Jansen are working through hip soreness, so the opportunity to leverage the off-day for extended rest took priority.
Now, game needs can still alter workload management if the situation demands it, the way that it did in the seventh when Teoscar Hernandez hit for Zimmer with the bases loaded, working a walk that tied the game 9-9. Guerrero also hit for Cavan Biggio after Alejandro Kirk’s ground-rule double in the eighth, and he was immediately walked intentionally by the Angels, something the Blue Jays had anticipated and didn’t mind.
“Thank God he didn't have to swing the bat there,” said Montoyo. “Two days off (to heal the wrist), that should help.”
Guerrero’s walk helped set up Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s go-ahead double in the next at-bat, scoring Kirk easily with the winning run in an 11-10 victory. Under normal circumstances, though, the Blue Jays would have lifted Kirk for a faster runner but Jansen “couldn’t play,” said Montoyo.
“In an emergency, he was going to have to,” he added, “but that’s why we didn’t run for Kirk.”
Those types of scenarios are why roster depth matters and that holds even truer for the bullpen, which carried a heavy load during the Angels series.
Closer Jordan Romano pitched on three consecutive days for the first time this season, Yimi Garcia, Adam Cimber and David Phelps each pitched in three of the four games while Trevor Richards and Ross Stripling each worked on back-to-back days, pressing Andrew Vasquez, Ryan Borucki and Julian Merryweather into higher leverage than they’re accustomed to.
While they definitely miss the injured Tim Mayza, who is building up again right now, the load on the bullpen has been a season-long issue.
Blue Jays relievers have entered the game in high leverage 76 times this season, the most in the majors per Baseball Reference’s leverage index. They’ve also entered games on zero days of rest 31 times, seventh-most in the majors and well above the average of 24, forcing the group to find ways to stay fresh.
“We all know it's a long season,” Garcia said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “In my case when I pitch, the next day I'll do my work but try to take it easy, especially mentally. Just relax and be ready for the next outing because it's a long season.”
That was one of the takeaways for Romano after his third outing, when he threw 24 pitches and recorded two outs but left the bases loaded in Saturday’s 6-5 win. His velocity was down about 2½ m.p.h. on his fastball despite feeling fine physically, noticing that “I just didn't have the extra gear that I'm kind of used to.”
The next day he wondered if he had played too much catch before the game, but also felt that he needed the work to ensure he felt strong enough to pitch if needed. Once on the mound, he felt he may have gotten a little too fine and casting forward, when “I don't have my good heater, don't change my approach, know what I mean?”
“Still pitch the way I would if I was throwing 96, 97,” Romano continued, “because I feel like if I'm changing my approach it takes me out of my game. Next time, I'm still going to be aggressive. I felt I was trying to just make perfect pitch because I didn't have the stuff.”
Much like Tapia delivering two hits and three RBIs and Biggio scoring twice on a hit and a walk Sunday helped cover the absence of regulars in the lineup, the Blue Jays bullpen must get out-of-role contributions at times.
Stripling did that Saturday night when he came on for Romano with the bases loaded and got the final out for his first save since 2020. On Sunday, Montoyo planned to save him for more late-game leverage but when Jose Berrios couldn’t escape the third inning, Stripling was called on for 1.2 innings of long relief instead.
“That's kind of been my whole career, just kind of staying ready for anything,” said Stripling. “I’d never quite come into anything like that (Saturday), but I've pitched in a lot of extra innings and high-leverage, game-on-the line kind of stuff. The way to stay ready is to pitch well to get those opportunities and then when you do well, more of those opportunities will come. I've been saying I'm ready for those situations when guys need a blow, trust me, I haven't done it a lot, but I've done it, and that was as high of leverage as it gets. That was a good first step for me.”
And for the Blue Jays as a whole, who are trying to balance playing to win on any given day and playing to win over the 162-game grind, too.