OAKLAND, Calif. -- Between Kevin Gausman’s sore ankle, Yusei Kikuchi’s start-to-start volatility, a weary bullpen and dangerously thin organizational depth, the Toronto Blue Jays’ pitching plans are, to be kind, a moving target right now.
Uncertainty all around the staff made a strong outing from Jose Berrios in Wednesday’s series finale against the Oakland Athletics essential, not just to prevent a three-game sweep and end a five-game losing skid, but because there was no clear option for Thursday if things went awry.
The ace right-hander put a lid on those concerns with six innings of one-run ball that kept Casey Lawrence, activated earlier in the day as a just-in-case cushion, in line to start or pitch behind an opener Thursday in Seattle against the Mariners. Solo shots by Matt Chapman in the seventh and Bo Bichette in the eighth took care of the rest in a 2-1 victory that kept a frustrating week in the Bay Area from becoming a total write-off.
“That was good. I mean, we needed it,” said Bichette, whose home run extended his hit streak to 11 games. “When you're trying to stop a skid, sometimes that's how it goes. I thought we fought well today and definitely excited to get the win.”
To frame how dire the situation was, consider that during the five-game losing streak, Blue Jays relievers logged 23.2 of the club’s 43 innings, triggered by Gausman taking a line drive off his right ankle in the opener of Saturday’s doubleheader against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Gausman, saved from a fracture by high-top cleats with thick padding around the ankles, had hoped to start Thursday but after limping around Oakland Coliseum the past couple of days, unable to throw a side off the mound, that got nixed. The hope is he throws a side Thursday and the perhaps starts Sunday, which happens to be Kikuchi’s next turn.
Kikuchi’s troubles Tuesday, when he walked five batters and hit two more in 2.1 messy innings, further exacerbated the staff’s troubles, with manager Charlie Montoyo saying Wednesday the club is “talking through” whether he makes his next start.
“All options are on the table and that's one of them,” he said.
Kikcuhi’s egg left the bullpen so exposed that Lawrence had to be recalled a day early, at Trent Thornton’s expense, even if his use Wednesday would have left a giant hole Thursday.
Maximo Castillo is the next option but since he was optioned July 3, the Blue Jays need someone to go on the injured list to bring him back before he’s been down in triple-A Buffalo for 10 days. Thomas Hatch didn’t inspire much confidence during an unimpressive outing as the call-up starter in the Rays doubleheader, so the Blue Jays don’t really want to go there while Anthony Kay, just back from minor-league injured list, needs more time.
So, big yikes.
“We're just trying to piece it together right now and obviously not overwork a bullpen that's overworked,” pitching coach Pete Walker said of the club’s pitching situation.
Hence, the waiver claim from the Royals for righty Matt Peacock, who has options, the ability to pitch multiple innings and a career groundball rate of 59.8 per cent. It’s not inspiring, but he can be an up-and-down patch to sop innings in case of emergency and throwing stuff on the wall is where the Blue Jays are at as they wait for the trade market to develop.
The recent adds of Sergio Romo and Anthony Banda were made in a similar vein, which is a really bad place for an aspiring contender to be. It’s clear to the Blue Jays that they need to add at least one but really two legitimate relievers plus a starter to fully leverage their roster, and temporary measures are needed until that happens.
All of which made a second straight good start from Berrios so essential.
Consecutive clunkers June 20 at the White Sox and June 26 at Milwaukee, in which he allowed 14 earned runs in 6.2 innings, triggered alarms with so much unsteadiness elsewhere on the staff. But he rebounded with five innings of two-run ball against the Rays on Canada Day and was far more authoritative against the A’s, with six strikeouts in his six innings.
For years a model of consistency, Berrios’s ups and downs this year – he has four outings of four innings or less along with four outings of seven innings or more – are a first for him.
“It’s different, obviously,” he said of working through the roller-coaster results. “But something good is (going to come from this by forcing) me to learn. I want to keep doing it. I want to keep trusting in the process. And I know I'm going to keep doing my thing, keep working hard and at the end of the year, I'm going to be in a good position.”
The only run against him Wednesday came on a sloppy changeup left middle-middle that Ramon Laureano pounded over the wall in left in the sixth inning. But his curveball, by design moving less horizontally to accentuate the vertical drop, was nasty, generating five whiffs in 16 swings.
“I felt better with my breaking stuff,” said Berrios. “But at the same time I was also throwing a good fastball trying to get ahead of the hitters.”
He mentioned attacking hitters, which Walker had said was a priority before the game. Another focus has been consistency, and feeling good with his pitches certainly feeds into pitching with more conviction and aggression.
“He feels good physically and it's just a matter of locating his fastball and then getting his spin to the right spots,” said Walker. “Definitely been burned on some pitches that weren't executed in the middle part of the plate. He knows he can't be there and he knows he's best when he's locating his fastball and spinning the ball real well.”
Adam Cimber followed Berrios with two clean innings before Jordan Romano locked things down in the ninth for his 18th save, sending the Blue Jays off to Seattle for the Canadian Invasion after a major exhale, for a number of reasons.
“I've heard that it should be a little bit more crazy than when I was there last time,” said Bichette. “It'll be exciting. I mean, it's amazing to have that kind of support on the road and it makes going in the stadium exciting and we're looking forward to it. It'll be cool to experience it again.”