Potential injury to Rafael Dolis adds to Blue Jays' bullpen woes

It’s one thing for the Toronto Blue Jays to lose five in a row. With zero upward pressure from beneath them in the standings, Toronto’s recent skid has done little to damage the club’s postseason positioning. But it’s another thing to keep playing the way they have, with defensive miscues and bullpen regression sabotaging potential wins. And to keep losing key pieces to injury.

Rafael Dolis, the club’s de facto closer, is potentially the latest player to go down, leaving his outing in the second game of Friday’s doubleheader with the Philadelphia Phillies due to right knee discomfort. Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo didn’t have any further information following the game, but an update is expected Saturday.

“Right now, it's right knee discomfort," Montoyo said. "That’s all I know from talking to the trainer. So, we'll see how he is tomorrow. Of course, if you lose Dolis, that's a tough one. But hopefully he's fine. We'll see how he is before we talk about that.”

It happened in the sixth inning, as Dolis was trying to salvage a tied game after blowing a save. He got the two-out ground ball he needed to get out of the inning, but Vladimir Guerrero Jr. strayed inexplicably far to his right in an attempt to make the play, abandoning first base. Dolis raced over to try to cover the bag, but as he got there he slipped on the base and tweaked his knee. Meanwhile, the winning run scored from second.

Dolis was late getting to the base because he never expected to have to cover it. That was Guerrero’s assignment. But as he has on a number of occasions this season, the 21-year-old went after a ball he shouldn’t have.

“He should’ve let it go," Montoyo said. "For some reason he's having trouble with that play. He's done it before. He's got to know where the second baseman is playing. And he went for the ball again. That was a mistake.”

It’s worth remembering Friday was Guerrero’s 26th career game at first base. He’s going to make mistakes. But the Blue Jays have addressed this particular issue with him before. And when his inexperience materializes this glaringly in circumstances that consequential, it’s impossible to disregard. The Blue Jays have to consider another option at first base come the postseason if he doesn’t make marked improvements.

But that’s an easy fix. Travis Shaw can play first, as can Cavan Biggio and Joe Panik. A trickier problem is the back end of Toronto’s bullpen, which may have just lost Dolis at a time when it's suffering its rockiest stretch of the season.

The Blue Jays are already without Ken Giles and Jordan Romano, the club's two best short-stint options. Giles is almost certainly out for the season. Romano, meanwhile, has been throwing from 90-feet on flat ground as he recovers from a right middle finger pulley strain and doesn’t appear close to a comeback. Adding Dolis to that list leaves Montoyo awfully short on options to protect slim leads in the late innings of close ballgames.

There’s Anthony Bass, who has pitched well in those spots this season. A.J. Cole has been dependable in a seventh-inning leverage role, and will now almost certainly be pushed into the eighth. Ryan Borucki started his season on a phenomenal run of strong leverage relief, but his command has been spotty of late — Borucki has walked four in his past 4 2/3 innings — which makes him a bit of a wild card.

Thomas Hatch can face leverage, but the Blue Jays have preferred to give him more extended outings earlier in games. Shun Yamaguchi has turned his season around but, like Hatch, has mostly been used in bulk outings. Wilmer Font’s exit velocity allowed and hard-hit rate are among MLB’s highest. Anthony Kay was optioned after a pair of rough outings that turned a promising season sideways.

One option could be to shift Julian Merryweather’s role. To this point in his debut season, Merryweather has opened games and pitched bulk outings in middle innings. But he might have the best pure stuff of any currently-healthy reliever, featuring a mid-to-high 90s fastball with a devastating changeup and two effective breaking balls. His services might now be required at the end of games rather than the beginning.

Patrick Murphy is another intriguing option. The hard-throwing right-hander threw 1 1/3 scoreless innings in his MLB debut Friday, striking out three of the six batters he faced. The Blue Jays would probably prefer not to push him into stressful spots so soon, but his stuff is evident and the league is obviously unfamiliar with him.

Then there’s Nate Pearson, who threw live batting practice earlier this week at the club’s alternate training site in Rochester. The Blue Jays are currently seeing how far they can stretch him out, with an eye on him pitching bulk relief outings in the final days of the season and into the postseason. If Dolis is out long term, perhaps that plan changes.

The last time Pearson threw a one-inning, max-effort outing was at the Arizona Fall League all-star game in 2018. All he did that day was touch 104 mph with his fastball. That would obviously play in late innings and, with Matt Shoemaker also nearing a return, the need for Pearson to pitch multiple innings earlier in games could be lessened.

Regardless, this is not a time at which the Blue Jays need to be losing dependable bullpen arms like Dolis. The club’s relievers entered play Friday having pitched to an MLB-worst 8.65 ERA over the past two weeks, with alarming peripherals of 5.9 BB/9 and 2.9 HR/9 in that 59 1/3-inning span.

Then, in Friday’s doubleheader, Blue Jays relievers walked five and allowed six earned runs over 5 1/3 innings pitched. For one of baseball’s five-best bullpens through Toronto’s first 45 games, regression has hit hard.

“One of the main reasons we're here is because our pitching has been great all year. Now, the last five games, we've given up seven, eight, however many runs a game. It's tough to win when that happens,” Montoyo said. “But we've got to regroup. Our pitching is better than that. So, you know it’s going to get better.”

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