ST. LOUIS -- It didn’t work. The strategy backfired, and the execution wasn’t there either. That much was obvious as soon as Paul Goldschmidt made contact. Moments later, Goldschmidt’s grand slam had landed and the Cardinals had defeated the Blue Jays 7-3.
That’s over with now, but Monday's 10-inning loss still prompted some significant questions about the way the Blue Jays navigate the late innings of their games, especially after manager Charlie Montoyo said he wasn’t inclined to use closer Jordan Romano in a tie game on the road.
“No, no, we wouldn’t do it on the road,” Montoyo said after the game. “We did that in Houston (when the Astros walked the Blue Jays off) and it usually doesn’t work out.”
Afterwards, the remark sparked criticism on social media. Why would a team limit itself unnecessarily, holding Romano back for a save opportunity that might never occur?
That initial reaction is understandable, but in talking with Blue Jays personnel, including Montoyo, a more complete picture emerges. The Blue Jays are open to using Romano in a wide range of situations, including ones that resemble Monday night: tie games, extra-innings, on the road.
For instance: if a different part of the lineup had been due in the 10th — power right-handed hitters like Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and Juan Yepez, for instance — we would likely have seen Romano, tie game or not (remember: if the Blue Jays had used Romano in the 10th then scored, they still would have needed someone to close down the middle of the St. Louis lineup in the 11th). Or if fewer relievers had been available out of the bullpen, Romano would have pitched sooner out of necessity.
Instead, the Blue Jays attempted to finesse their way to a dream finish by holding the game in place with their middle relievers, taking the lead and then handing the ball to Romano. At first, the plan seemed to be working. They started the inning with David Phelps, a St. Louis native who grew up rooting for the Cardinals. After Phelps struck out Harrison Bader, a pinch-hitter was announced: Albert Pujols.
"When you hear the roar, you get goosebumps, but you hope to use it to elevate your game," Phelps said.
Six pitches later, he had struck out the future Hall of Famer.
"I'd faced him in the past, and I'd pitched at Busch before. But it's just different," Phelps said. "It was a pretty cool moment. What he's accomplished and what he's done for baseball speaks for itself. It's awesome to be out there competing against him."
After Pujols was retired, the Blue Jays pulled Phelps from the game, a decision that looks regrettable in hindsight. With the left-handed hitting Nolan Gorman coming up, the Blue Jays turned to left-hander Ryan Borucki in the hopes of gaining the platoon advantage. But St. Louis countered with pinch-hitter Edmundo Sosa, a right-handed hitter who drew a pinch-hit walk to load the bases for Goldschmidt, as potent a bat against left-handed pitching as you'll find. Within moments, the Cardinals were celebrating.
"I'm never going to be the one to sit here and doubt or second-guess what we're doing," Phelps said. "I was even talking with Borucki after the game. Like, 'dude, you never have to feel bad about that. The biggest thing is you went out and competed. We're going to get beat sometimes.'"
Indeed, and the more painful the loss, the more likely a manager is to face criticism. That's inevitable for teams that expect to contend.
Words aside, Romano's usage is telling. To this point in the season, all but one of his 18 appearances have come with the Blue Jays ahead while the other appearance came in a tie game on April 26.
That's justifiable given that the Blue Jays have rarely won by large margins. So far it's made sense to reserve Romano for saves. But moving forward, there's room to use him in a wider range of jobs, including non-save situations. Despite how Monday unfolded, there's open-mindedness on this front internally. Now it's a question of where that openness leads the next time an opportunity emerges.