TORONTO – John Schneider’s word choice to describe where the Toronto Blue Jays are at in their season right now – urgent. It’s a pretty apt pick as his players face their sternest challenge yet in this less-than-the-sum-of-their-parts summer, amid questions big and small and unsteady play all around the roster eating away at their place in the wild-card race.
To that end, the interim manager met with Bo Bichette a couple of times to discuss his decision to slide the shortstop down to seventh in the batting order, the lowest he’d ever started in a big-league game, with Matt Chapman bumping up to fifth on Tuesday. He gathered the players for what he said was a brief pre-game chat on what they needed to do against the Baltimore Orioles, although it wouldn’t be surprising if more than that came up. And he very much left the door open to Yusei Kikuchi not making his next start Saturday, the rotation TBD beyond Jose Berrios on Thursday and Kevin Gausman on Friday in New York against the Yankees.
The gist? There’s a lot of managing going on right now.
That the winning hasn’t yet followed is a growing concern, Tuesday night’s 4-2 setback to the Orioles making it nine losses in the club’s past 12 outings, all against the teams around them in the playoff race.
Ross Stripling returns from the injured list to start Wednesday’s finale and if the Blue Jays don’t avoid the sweep, Baltimore will leapfrog them into the third wild-card spot, one of many mettle-testing moments that loom in the weeks ahead.
“With what we've been through the last couple of years in terms of where we've been playing and the type of games we've been playing in, those experiences mean a lot going forward,” said Schneider. “A lot of guys have been in a lot of those spots. That's where the urgency comes in and you've got to get it rolling pretty quick.”
This one started with promise as Alek Manoah was his dominant self early and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., followed George Springer’s leadoff infield single with an impressive two-run homer, hammering a middle down fastball 398 feet despite an apex of only 43 feet.
The trajectory was remarkable.
“I was looking for that pitch and I got it and I made good contact,” Guerrero said through interpreter Hector Lebron.
Still, the auspicious start wasn’t enough to prevent an inauspicious end, the game beginning to turn once the Blue Jays came up empty after loading the bases with one out in the third. Chapman quickly fell behind 0-2 to Dean Kremer before rolling over an outside cutter for an inning-ending double play and the game unravelled from there before a crowd of 37,940.
Manoah, cruising through four, surrendered back-to-back solo shots to Cedric Mullins and Adley Rutschman in the fifth to tie the game and then allowed a two-out RBI single to Ramon Urias in the sixth that plated the go-ahead run. A rare Jackie Bradley Jr., error in centre allowed Urias to take second and after Manoah walked Jorge Mateo, Anthony Bass surrendered another RBI single to Ryan McKenna that made it 4-2.
Illustrative of how things are going for the Blue Jays, Teoscar Hernandez made a strong throw to the plate but it skipped high on Alejandro Kirk, preventing him from putting down a tag.
The Blue Jays burned their challenge questioning a safe call on a back-pick attempt at first base that inning, and that loomed large in the seventh, when Raimel Tapia appeared to beat out an infield hit but his team had lost its review.
That came a few pitches after Tapia swung through a Kremer offering on a hit-and-run attempt and Santiago Espinal, who had injected some life into the Blue Jays dugout with a bunt single, was thrown out trying to steal second.
Everything fell into the when it rains, it pours category.
“We have probably our best contact guy in that spot in a 1-0 count and it didn't work out,” said Schneider. “Watching the pace and the cadence of the game, what was happening, trying to force the issue a little bit to get back to the top with George, knowing Dillon Tate was coming in. The best case is first and third with one out, worst care first and second, one out and we'll take our chances there. Didn't work out.”
That’s been the case more often than not during the past two often-out-of-sync weeks for the Blue Jays. Guerrero pointed to the club’s hitting with runners in scoring position of late as an issue, believing that needs to change as Toronto has totalled just 24 runs over the past nine games.
At the same time, the Blue Jays allowed 49 runs over the same span and this is a time where faith must be maintained.
“You've just got to trust yourself,” said Guerrero. “And I told my teammates, just keep trusting yourself, keep working hard, somehow, at some point, things are going to turn around.”
Given that they’re now 2-6 against the Orioles, with four games against the New York Yankees, against whom they are 4-8, to follow, Schneider’s word of the day – urgent – applies all the more.
“We’re still in a playoff spot. We're a playoff team. We know we're a playoff team. Going through a tough stretch and we’ll continue to get better,” said Manoah, adding that Orioles right now “are doing a good job. We're going to see a whole lot more of them coming down the stretch. It's not how you start, it's how you finish.”
To that end, the Blue Jays are kicking around whether to start Mitch White in Kikuchi’s place this weekend against the Yankees and will keep looking to make things happen in their lineup.
Dropping Bichette felt jarring but his .727 OPS is currently ranked seventh on the Blue Jays roster, with his .427 slugging percentage sixth and his .300 on-base percentage eighth. While he’s clearly a more talented hitter than that, at the moment that’s where he’s at and with the Blue Jays needing to find ways to cluster hits, a lineup switch is understandable.
“Just shaking things up and giving guys different looks and seeing how it shakes out, really,” said Schneider. “Nothing in particular to it. Like Chappy's at-bats recently, offence hasn't really been killing it. So just trying to shake it up.”
Shake harder, shake different as the Blue Jays continue searching for a combination to break them out of a funk deepening by the day.