Blue Jays are in a bad spot after blowing series finale vs. Tigers

Matt Vierling had a day with four RBIs and a pair of home runs, including a three-run walk-off shot to lift the Detroit Tigers to a 14-11 win over the Toronto Blue Jays.

DETROIT — Two months into their season, the Blue Jays are in trouble.

They’re 23-29 after losing a roller-coaster 14-11 game to the Tigers on Sunday, a season-low six games below .500. Some veteran bats are mired in deep slumps and their bullpen — which allowed nine runs Sunday — continues to rank among MLB’s worst. After losing three in a row against the Tigers, this team is in a bad spot.

Within the visiting clubhouse at Comerica Park, Blue Jays players pointed to the positives. Down 5-0, they battled back with a four-hit game from Vladimir Guerrero Jr. plus home runs from Cavan Biggio and Isiah Kiner-Falefa. A clutch Daulton Varsho three-run homer even gave the Blue Jays the lead in the eighth, but Yimi Garcia let the Tigers tie it and they walked it off against Jordan Romano in the ninth.

“It was a very tough game to lose, especially at the end,” Biggio said. “But I love the way we fought.”

“That was a beautiful moment for Daulton and for our team.”

“It’s easy to quit after that and the guys did the exact opposite,” added manager John Schneider. “There were so many good things that happened offensively, but overall it was just a frustrating series here.”

Now, admittedly, there’s time remaining on the calendar, and a week against the White Sox and Pirates is about as much as you can ask for, schedule-wise. But still, some simple math tells the story clearly.

Let’s set the AL East aside. Quite obviously, the Blue Jays have already played themselves out of contention for the division. But to match last year’s total of 89 wins, they’d have to finish 66-44, a 97-win pace. If you lower the bar to 84 wins, the lowest of any 2023 playoff team, you’re still looking at a 90-win pace from here on.

But remember, 84 wins isn’t typically enough to reach the playoffs, so that’s the bare minimum. More likely, the Blue Jays need to play at a 95-win pace starting now. Can they do it? It’s been done before. But the way the Blue Jays are playing, they’re far from a lock to be next.

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So, does their current predicament leave them stressed, or do they embrace the cliché and focus on one day at a time?

“We want to win,” said shortstop Bo Bichette, “So stressed out or not stressed out, there’s not really anything you can do about it. We’ve got to keep on coming and putting our best foot forward, which I thought we did today.”

Under the circumstances, is staying mentally fresh a challenge? 

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“We’ve got no choice,” Bichette said. “We’ve got to win games. I haven’t even thought about it.”

Added Biggio: “If you look at the standings and you look at how far back of .500 we are, I’m sure fans feel it. But end of the day, it’s one game at a time. How far back are we in the wild card (5.5 games)? It’s not even June yet, so we have a lot of baseball yet to play and a lot of great players in (the clubhouse) and I feel like today’s a very good step forward.”

Frustrating though it has all been, the Blue Jays wouldn’t gain anything by declaring themselves sellers tomorrow. There may come a time that they have to do so, of course. It’s never looked more likely, in fact. But the trade market doesn’t fully develop until July, so they may as well play things out, preserving their chance to win now while knowing the returns will be just as good in two months, maybe better.

Until then, this team’s offensive issues are still very real. George Springer and Justin Turner started the day on the bench Sunday, and it’s possible both will see some reduction in playing time, but it’s not as though the Blue Jays’ bench is overflowing with clear answers to their offensive questions. Maybe it’s time to give minor-leaguers Spencer Horwitz or Orelvis Martinez a shot.

This much is clear: it’s tough to complete trades this time of year. Early on, teams rely on off-season additions, yet the Blue Jays are where they are in part because only one of their off-season moves has worked as intended. Give Kiner-Falefa credit; he’s playing well. Otherwise, every move the Blue Jays made has backfired to date:

• The pitchers in whom they invested most heavily, Chad Green and Yariel Rodriguez, have spent much of the season on the injured list, combining for just 23 innings. 

• Their new designated hitters have been among the worst in baseball. Justin Turner has a .660 OPS while Daniel Vogelbach has a .586 OPS and Joey Votto’s progress has been derailed by an ankle injury.

Kevin Kiermaier, the other position player the Blue Jays signed this winter, is batting .226 with a .624 OPS.

• Adding to the offensive struggles, the structural changes to the team’s hitting coaching haven’t led to enough meaningful improvement. If anything this team is worse offensively since making Don Mattingly offensive coordinator, with fewer runs than every team except the Mariners and White Sox entering play Sunday.

Who knows, maybe these players are on the brink of a turnaround and the Blue Jays are about to start playing like a far better team. Weird things do happen in baseball. But at this point, they can’t wait another month, or even another couple weeks. If they keep squandering winnable series like this for much longer, they’re going to have no choice. It’ll be time to give up on the 2024 season and sell.

“If you get too far ahead of it, you’re going to find yourself chasing your tail,” Schneider said. “Progress definitely, especially from the offence. Not where we want to be, but you’ve got to move on to Chicago.”

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