Struggling Blue Jays have decisions to make as they enter stretch run

Bryce Harper had a home run as the Philadelphia Phillies shutout the Toronto Blue Jays 7-0 in the first game of their doubleheader.

Late Thursday, after the Toronto Blue Jays were boat-raced for a third consecutive night by the back-from-the-brink New York Yankees, Charlie Montoyo walked around his team’s clubhouse with a message for each and every one of his players.

“Man, it’s fine. We won nine straight series — or tied. So, all right — we lost one. Here we go. Let’s move on,” the Blue Jays manager said. “I made sure that they know that I know that we’ve played well. That just because we lost some tough games against the Yankees — that’s fine, that happens. That happens to every team in this league. So, let’s move on and get ready for the Phillies.”

It’s all about perspective, isn’t it? A week ago, the Blue Jays were beating those same Yankees so decidedly — at one point scoring 10 runs within a single inning — that New York pitchers were left complaining about the conditions at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field and speculating that the Blue Jays were stealing their signs. (Pretty rich from a club with a .925 OPS at home this season vs. .667 on the road — but that’s a topic for another day.)

Two weeks before that, the Blue Jays were winners in 14 of 19 games, surging above .500 and building the standings buffer that’s allowed them to weather this week’s adversity without much concern over post-season position. A further two weeks before that, the Blue Jays were coughing up late leads on a near-nightly basis, getting walked off in three of the season’s first 13 as winnable game after winnable game slipped from their grasp.

Isolate any small slice of this short season in a vacuum and the Blue Jays could look like a plucky upstart full of resilience or a fundamentally flawed circus act. A low-key deep lineup of pesky hitters with big power or a punchless batting order that falls off a cliff after its first-third. An unexpectedly effective bullpen thriving in leverage or a gassed collection of over-worked arms that can’t consistently find the zone and give up hard contact when they do.

All those things have been true at one point or another. No matter how short you make it, it’s still a baseball season. A lot happens. Comebacks and collapses and blown leads and walk-offs. Debuts and injuries and surprises and let-downs. Outbursts and shutouts and deep drives and miscues. This year, it’s just concentrated into two months rather than six.

So, is it worth getting too into the weeds of how cold the Blue Jays are this week, losing five straight including both ends of Friday’s doubleheader — 7-0 and 8-7 — with the Philadelphia Phillies? Probably not. Just as it wasn’t worthwhile to get too high on the club when it was rolling a week ago.

“Honestly, maybe guys are just pressing a little too hard,” said Robbie Ray, who started the first game of the day. “I think guys just need to relax. I mean, we’re a really good team. We can hit, we’ve got guys that can pitch, our bullpen’s great, they’ve been great all year. I think everybody just needs to relax and go out and do what they know how to do. It’s been magnified a little bit because we’ve lost a few in a row here. But I think if we just calm down and take it pitch to pitch on both sides of the ball, we’ll be fine.”

“I’ve noticed the same amount of energy the last four or five days as I did when I got here when we were rolling,” added Ross Stripling, who started the back-half of the doubleheader. “It doesn’t seem like anyone’s crying in a corner, woe is me.

“As far as energy or a lack of confidence, I don’t see it. I only have 10 days or two weeks with these guys. But, as far as I can tell, it feels like we’re just right there from really clicking like we were when I first got over here.”

Friday started on the wrong end of a shutout, as Phillies starter Zach Eflin, who entered the day with a 5.01 ERA, held the Blue Jays to four singles and two walks over seven strong. And it ended on the wrong end of a comeback, as a four-out save attempt by Rafael Dolis went awry thanks to Bryce Harper’s two-run double and a defensive miscue at first base by Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who strayed too far to his right on a groundball that wasn’t his to field as the eventual winning run crossed the plate.

And it didn’t change much. For the Blue Jays to miss the post-season, it would take a stunning run of play over the next nine days — from not only the 26-25 Blue Jays but also their closest pursuers: the 22-29 Seattle Mariners and 22-30 Baltimore Orioles — that would make the collapse of 1987 look meek in comparison.

Toronto’s playoff odds remain above 95 per cent, per FanGraphs.

Come Sept. 29, when the American League wild-card series begin, the Blue Jays ought to have a game. And it won’t matter how they’ve been playing — it’ll matter how they are playing.

Because anything can happen in MLB’s post-season, which this year resembles more of a March Madness tournament than it usually does. The Blue Jays are headed to a best-of-three wild-card series they’ll have close to coin-flip odds of winning or losing. Bad teams beat good teams in three-game series all year long. A good start one day and an offensive explosion the next could be all it takes.

To that end, the next week should be spent preparing for it. There is no reason for Hyun-jin Ryu to pitch on any sequence but one that lines him up with the ideal amount of rest for game 1 of the playoffs. There is no reason for any reliever of consequence to pitch on the final days of the season unless they need the work and would be worse off without it. Or if the tailspin continues and the Blue Jays somehow find themselves still needing regular season wins next weekend.

Give Matt Shoemaker and Nate Pearson an outing or two this week to regain their sea legs and assess their effectiveness. Then decide what you want to do come Game 2, whether it’s handing the ball to Taijuan Walker or Robbie Ray or Shoemaker, or throwing a bullpen day behind Julian Merryweather or Pearson. Get everyone prepared. That includes your defence, and deciding whether you can trust Guerrero Jr. at first base in a playoff game or not.

Towards the end of next week, let Tanner Roark and Chase Anderson — unlikely to factor into a wild-card series rotation — pitch extended outings. Lean on T.J. Zeuch, Wilmer Font and Patrick Murphy out of the bullpen, preserving high-leverage arms for the perma-leverage of post-season baseball. Don’t let players carrying nagging injuries gut through anything unnecessarily. If someone needs a day, they should get the day.

Get to the tournament in the best position possible. Because once you’re in the tournament, anything can happen. The Blue Jays will have to keep that in mind this weekend, as they try to pull out of the mini-tailspin they’ve found themselves in while keeping an eye towards being as prepared as possible for the post-season. After a long, two-loss day, Montoyo didn’t have another message for his group. Maybe tomorrow.

“We’ve gone through a lot this year, so it’s going to be a positive message,” Montoyo said. “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. But we’ve got to regroup. And our pitching’s better than that. So, you know it’s going to get better.

“One of the things that I always told our guys was that we always had a chance because our pitching was so good. But now our pitching is struggling a little bit and that’s why we’re losing all these games. Because we’re giving up a lot of runs. So, whenever our pitching settles down again, we’re going to be OK.”

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