ARLINGTON, Texas – The front end of this season-defining stretch couldn’t have gone much better for the Toronto Blue Jays and now the challenge really ramps up with a crucial eight-game homestand against the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles.
A bullpen game in Sunday’s 4-1 loss to the Texas Rangers, capping an 8-2 road trip that solidified their hold on a wild-card spot, was all about optimizing for the looming clash with the Rays.
Jose Berrios would have been on turn for the Globe Life Field finale before a crowd of 20,984 but facing five games in four days against their arch-rivals, the Blue Jays opted to line up their top four arms for the occasion. Berrios gets the opener, followed by Alek Manoah and likely Mitch White in Tuesday’s day-night twin bill, with Ross Stripling and Kevin Gausman getting the final two games.
The Blue Jays have another hole to fill for Friday’s series opener against the Orioles, and without a viable option at triple-A another bullpen game is a possibility, with Berrios and Manoah to follow.
Time to let it ride.
“It was a great road trip,” said interim manager John Schneider. “Guys are really competing and playing well overall. I really like where we are as a group and looking forward to an exciting week at home.”
The standings remain tight going in, with the Seattle Mariners (79-61), Rays (78-60) and Blue Jays (78-61) all within a half game of one another for the three wild-card spots. The Orioles (73-67) are 5.5 games off the pace and at risk of falling out of the mix.
“Really our season is in this next two weeks with how many head-to-head games we have against the Rays and the Orioles. That's going to be telling right there,” said Stripling. “We've done well as of late of playing in the moment, understanding you've got to take care of the Pirates, you've got to take care of the Rangers, beatable teams. Don't look ahead to the Rays. Kind of did that maybe in the last game against the Cubs at Rogers Centre (a 7-5 loss Aug. 31), let that game get away, maybe looking ahead at a winnable series. But for the most part I feel like we've really stayed in the moment.”
A three-game sweep of the Pirates, three of four in Baltimore and two of three against the Rangers speaks to that. The Blue Jays had their chances against Martin Perez to secure one more W but couldn’t fight off both the lefty and home-plate umpire Rob Drake’s rather liberal interpretation of the strike zone deep in the heart of Texas.
Questionable calls against Matt Chapman, caught looking at 3-2 and Whit Merrifield, buried 1-2 by two sketch strikes, helped snuff out a two-on, none-out rally in the second, for instance, while Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Alejandro Kirk all ended up looking to the heavens at different points.
Any hitter to walk in this one really earned it.
“We were trying to get Perez out over the plate and he did a good job of pounding it in there. I’m sure Jonah Heim got high praise from (Rangers catching coach) Bobby Wilson on his receiving,” Schneider said in deftly diplomatic fashion. “I was impressed the guys stuck to their approach and their game plan and kept their cool and I think that’s the sign of a really good team that is kind of growing up, too.”
Just as he did a week ago against the Pirates, Trevor Richards started this one but couldn’t escape the first inning, giving up a Nathaniel Lowe RBI double and leaving the bases loaded for David Phelps, who cleverly limited the damage.
Phelps followed with two outs in the second before handing the reins over to Yusei Kikuchi, who got Corey Seager to end that frame before surrendering a two-run shot in the third to Adolis Garcia. The lefty got two more outs in the fourth but also left the bases loaded for Zach Pop, who struck out Garcia and then followed with a three-up, three-down fifth.
Julian Merryweather then threw two scoreless frames before Anthony Bass handled the eighth, giving up a solo shot to Leody Tavares.
All told, it was a solid collective effort.
“We gave our team a chance,” said Phelps. “The goal is to put up zeros, but we've seen what our offence can do. Even in that ninth inning there, we were a couple of swings away. I think it's speaks to the resiliency of our club that when we're having a bullpen day, it's one guy after another picking each other up. We've talked about that for I feel like the last three or four months now, that it's going to take 26, now 28 guys to fight for each other, lifting each other up to get where we want to go.”
Using six relievers ahead of five games in four days isn’t optimal, but part of the Blue Jays’ calculus is that Berrios, Manoah, Gausman and Stripling are reliable enough to expect six innings from, allowing them to spread the bullpen innings around. Tuesday’s doubleheader will challenge that, but that’s the situation forced upon them by their lack of rotation depth and it’s meant a heavier toll on their core four starters.
“We've tried to strategically get guys an extra day here or there and rotate that through the four main guys,” said Schneider. “You power through and all the games are big, especially when you get home and it's a doubleheader mixed in there against Tampa. Hopefully we get through that and we can line up who we want with the proper rest. That's kind of the plan right now.”
The Blue Jays are 4-6 thus far against the Rays and 6-7 against the Orioles and beyond keeping pace in the standings, tiebreaker advantages will be at stake, too. Beyond the coming week another four games in Tampa Bay loom while another three games against the division-leading New York Yankees remain and though unlikely, a run at the AL East isn’t out of the question.
“The next two series are going to be key for us,” said Teoscar Hernandez, who returned from paternity leave with two hits, including an RBI double, and a walk. “That's going to determine if we're going to be fighting for a playoff spot or if we're going to be in a spot that we say, OK, we just have to play hard and try to stay in the spot we’re in.”
Still, coming on the heels of a three-city, 10-game road trip, eight games in seven days against fellow contenders will be a grind. The Blue Jays, after a 6-1 road trip to New York and Boston in late August, returned home and played one of their worst series of the season, a three-game sweep by the Los Angeles Angels.
They’ll dive into the clash with the Rays after a cross-continent flight.
“Everybody in the major leagues is tired right now,” said Chapman. “What really separates guys is how mentally tough you can be. We have high expectations but you don't go out there and try to force yourself on the game. You let it come to you. Stay in the moment. Control what you can control and trick yourself into finding ways to get the job done.”
Added Phelps: “Every man in the clubhouse knows what this team can do. At the end of the day, we have spent the entire season in a playoff spot. We know what we're capable of. We know what we want to do. If we can keep winning series, we're in a really good spot.”