TORONTO -- Last week, a back strain landed Yimi Garcia on the injured list and because the Toronto Blue Jays didn’t play much close-and-late leverage in the games that followed, his loss didn’t have an immediate impact.
Then came Tuesday night, when Ross Stripling handed over a 4-2 lead for preservation after keeping the Boston Red Sox in check for five innings, and manager Charlie Montoyo found himself in need of nine outs before he could give closer Jordan Romano the ball.
Minus Garcia, bridging that gap is suddenly a lot more complicated for the Blue Jays, as they discovered in blowing their lead before rallying in the ninth on RBI singles by Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for a 6-5 walk-off win.
The stirring rally, sending a crowd of 27,140 into a frenzy, was started by a pinch-hit single by Alejandro Kirk off Tyler Danish. George Springer followed with a walk and after Hansel Robles took over, Bichette sent a chopper through the right side to tie the game. Guerrero then walked it off with a base hit, a comeback that erased the frustration that preceded it.
“Once I saw Kirky pinch-hitting and he got the base hit, I knew right then that we're going to win this game,” Guerrero said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “I mean, top of the lineup, one, two and three next, I thought we're going to win this game for sure.”
Guerrero told Montoyo he’d be the one to do it before stepping up the plate, displaying the same confidence he had two weeks ago, when he told himself the game was over when the Baltimore Orioles decided to pitch to him in the 10th inning.
Both he and Bichette demonstrated a maturity of approach in their at-bats, each working with what the pitcher offered rather than trying to force a big blow in a big spot. Bichette ambushed a first-pitch fastball in and rather than trying to pull it, punched it into a hole. Guerrero let two chase sliders go by before getting around a third tossed at the top of the zone, which is why Montoyo smiled when his slugger vowed to end things.
“Charlie sometimes gets kind of nervous,” Guerrero quipped, “but he told me, ‘Well, I trust you guys. If you say so, then OK, that's fine.’”
Less fine is that the Blue Jays needed to rally at all after having the game well under control when Stripling left.
Adam Cimber, the steadiest of the club’s current set-up men, was used against the heart of the Red Sox lineup in the sixth and put up a zero. But the lead unravelled from there as Trent Thornton surrendered a two-run homer to Rob Refsnyder in the seventh before Christian Vazquez ripped a go-ahead RBI single off Tim Mayza in the eighth.
The damage could easily have been worse, too, if not for a leaping grab by Santiago Espinal on a Christian Arroyo line drive off Matt Gage with the bases loaded that led to a double play.
That proved pivotal.
Still, the end result is that a 4-2 lead never got to Romano, who pitched a scoreless ninth to keep the game within a run, and a game against a divisional rival in the Blue Jays’ grasp nearly slipped away.
As a one-off, blips like these are disappointing but they happen, no matter how dominant a bullpen is. But rather than an aberration, in the absence of dominant relief arms this is more a soft spot vulnerable each time a game is tight late.
“That's why you need your starters going deep, but now you've got people pitching in different spots and that's just what it is. Somebody's got to step up instead of Garcia. That's just how it's going to be,” said Montoyo. "The guys gave up hits but they only gave up one or two runs, it wasn't like we were down by five or six runs. We were still in the game when all the relievers left and that's what you can ask when you've got an offence like we do. If you can keep us in the game and close, we have a chance."
The Blue Jays had envisioned more stability in their bullpen built around Garcia, Cimber, Mayza and Trevor Richards, who struggled before hitting the injured list with a neck strain. Hoped-for velocity injections from Julian Merryweather, out with a left abdominal strain, and Nate Pearson, shut down the next 3-4 weeks with a lat strain, haven’t emerged and the hollowing out of the corps led to the pending add of Sergio Romo, the 39-year-old righty released by the Seattle Mariners and slated for a physical Tuesday night to finalize his signing.
Romo won’t crumble in leverage but whether he has enough stuff left to be effective again is another matter. Even if the odds of a turnaround aren’t particularly high, it’s a dice-roll worth taking with Thornton shifted by circumstance into leverage work from mop-up duty and Mayza taking damage in four of his past five outings.
David Phelps, who had pitched on back-to-back days and wasn’t available Tuesday, has also been steady, but it can’t just be him and Cimber. Gage, the rookie lefty, has big stuff but needs more runway to earn trust in leverage while Max Castillo and Shaun Anderson are on the roster to absorb innings when starts go sideways.
Romano aside, there are no defined roles, so Montoyo and pitching coach Pete Walker will try to navigate each late leverage spot based on what the game presents.
“Mix and match,” said Montoyo. "You're going to have people pitching in different spots than they have been, but that's just part of what it is. Mix and matching, for sure.”
That can be a tough way to close out games.
Stripling continued to pitch well in Hyun Jin Ryu’s place, touched only for a Trevor Story solo shot in the second and Refsnyder’s run-scoring groundout in the fifth. The Red Sox could have had more there after putting men on second and third to begin the frame, but Arroyo popped out and after Refsnyder grounded out, Devers popped out in a critical spot to end the frame.
“There were a couple of times where I feel like as a staff we really limited damage – my last inning, Mayza's inning, so that keeps us in the ball game and then we were able to walk it off there in the ninth,” said Stripling. "Personally, I feel good about where I'm at. Obviously, would like to get deeper, always, try and get into that sixth. I understand the lineup turned over there but they let me face (Rafael) Devers there to finish my out and get a big out. That's a confidence booster for me and hopefully for them in me. We only keep taking steps forward each start with me.”
That should have been enough for the Blue Jays to secure a win, but the offence had to outhit a bullpen speedbump to pull this one out. Such thrilling comebacks are extremely hard to pull off and if Tanner Houck isn’t on the restricted list, maybe this one doesn’t happen at all, which is why bolstering the bullpen is a top priority, lest Garcia’s absence be felt all the more intently.