TORONTO – To contend over the course of a six-month season, MLB teams have to turn losses into wins from time to time and on Saturday night the Toronto Blue Jays did just that.
On paper, the Blue Jays probably shouldn't have won on a night they started Travis Bergen against one of the game's better offensive teams. Especially since Charlie Morton was on the mound for Atlanta, and especially once they fell behind 4-0.
But George Springer’s first two home runs as a Blue Jay allowed Toronto to tie it, the bullpen recovered to keep the game close and Randal Grichuk hit a walk-off single to win it 6-5 in 10 innings.
"I feel like with this offence that we have, (even) if only half the guys are clicking, I feel like it can be up there towards the top in the league," Grichuk said. "It's good to be able to go down early and come back and snatch a win."
After a brief scare running down the first base line in his first at-bat, Springer tapped into his considerable power and hit his first home runs as a Blue Jay. In the third, he hit an opposite-field, two-run shot to make the score 4-2. Four innings later, he would deliver again, this time a game-tying solo shot that left the bat at 116.4 mph and travelled 470 feet.
"It's awesome," Springer said. "It's exciting. It feels good to help out. That's a big spot and it's just exciting to help the team for the first time in a long time, it feels like. Now it's on to tomorrow."
It was with moments like this in mind that the Blue Jays made Springer their top off-season target and offered him $150 million. For the first time, they got to enjoy him at his best.
“It’s fun. There’s no secret he makes our lineup a lot better,” manager Charlie Montoyo said afterwards. “It’s a good feeling as a manager.”
Early on, the Blue Jays’ pitching staff looked vulnerable Saturday. The scoring began for Atlanta when Christian Pache hit a grand slam off Tommy Milone in the second inning of a planned bullpen game. With due respect to Milone, an 11-year veteran who has been quite useful early on this year, the margins for error are extremely thin for the pitcher with the slowest fastball in the American League.
More broadly, it’s evident the Blue Jays are short on pitching they can fully trust. And even though Ross Stripling (flexor strain) is slated to return from the injured list Sunday with Nate Pearson (groin) making progress on his rehab assignment, it’s entirely imaginable that the Blue Jays will be seeking pitching help all the way up to the July 31 trade deadline.
Bullpen games like this are useful on occasion, but are far from sustainable considering the way they can also impact the games that come before and after.
To be fair, a bullpen game makes more sense than a traditional starter if there’s little reason to believe the traditional starter can get results. By designating Tanner Roark for assignment at a time that their next two probable starters were TBA and TBA, the Blue Jays made it extremely clear how they evaluate him. And for one day, it worked.
But since bullpen games are a precarious way for a contending team to live, the biggest medium-term question for this team remains simple: where do they find enough starting pitching to contend? Stripling, Pearson, Anthony Kay and Trent Thornton could all be part of that solution. In time, maybe Alek Manoah will be, too.
But if they aren't doing so already, it's also worth scouting every start made by the likes of German Marquez, Kyle Gibson and Danny Duffy. Last summer, the additions of Robbie Ray and Taijuan Walker made a huge difference at a very reasonable cost.
Presumably that was part of the team’s decision-making when they passed on free-agent pitchers over the winter and chose instead to rely on what they had in-house. Eventually, there will be chances for the Blue Jays to add to their rotation in a meaningful way, and history suggests the front office will attempt to do so.
For now, a more pressing question exists behind the plate, as Alejandro Kirk exited midway through Saturday’s game after feeling something in his hip flexor. Kirk, who homered twice Friday, nearly did so again in the bottom of the third, pulling a Morton pitch just foul down the right field line. Eventually he’d walk, but upon arriving at first base he tested his legs under the supervision of team trainer Jose Ministral.
One at-bat later, he was out of the game. Afterwards, the Blue Jays were still gathering information but if Kirk needs time on the injured list, Riley Adams, who’s already on the 40-man roster, would be a leading candidate for playing time. On Sunday, Danny Jansen will catch while the Blue Jays assess Kirk further.
“We’ve got a couple options if something happens,” Montoyo said.
That wasn’t the only injury question to surface, as Springer caught a cleat in the dirt while running down the line in his first at-bat, a groundout. He reached for his right quad before crossing first base and later spoke with team trainers as a precaution, but ultimately stayed in the game and delivered the first of what the Blue Jays hope will be many signature performances with his new team.
“There’s no substitute for game speed,” Springer said. “The only way I’ll truly know (the injury is fully healed) is by continuing to play, but being smart at the same time.”