Even in loss to Rays, Blue Jays prove they are more diverse than last year

Josh Lowe knocked a three-run homer, then delivered a ninth-inning walk-off hit as the Tampa Bay Rays rallied to defeat the Toronto Blue Jays 7-6.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – An unintended consequence of the Toronto Blue Jays’ attempt to both diversify their offence and improve their defence last off-season has been the sacrifice of some power at the plate.

No matter what, they were going to have a different look in 2023, but with seven games to go, the gap of 24 homers between a year ago and now (200 to 176 and counting) is one reason why they’re in a down-to-the-wire fight for a wild-card spot rather than comfortably in the post-season.

Still, this iteration of the Blue Jays has more ways to beat opponents, including the type of attrition baseball they’ve displayed during their current road trip, a talent that plays in the grind of October. 

Worthwhile trade-off then?

“I love the defence, for one, I love the speed,” said manager John Schneider. “It’s tough. There are times where you try to force the issue with the steal and bunt, hit and running, something like that and then you still have guys that can do damage, so you don’t want to get in their way of potentially doing that. It’s just a matter of seeing how the game, or the stretch of games, is unfolding and saying, ‘OK, we’ve got to do a little something different.’ But it is nice that you have different ways to do it, for sure. You’re just looking for it to click one way or another. If games like (a 6-1 win Friday) night are the way we’ve got to do it, that’s totally fine.”

Games like Saturday’s wild 7-6 walk-off loss to the Tampa Bay Rays fit that profile, too, when the Blue Jays erased a five-run deficit by pouncing on what was given to them, but without a big-damage blow left the margin close enough for a win to slip away in the ninth.

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Talk about three hours and eight minutes of good, bad and ugly, for both clubs.

“It’s your closer, it’s a guy that you trust in any situation,” Schneider said of sticking with Romano against Lowe with fellow lefty Tim Mayza up and ready in the bullpen. “Wanted to be careful with (Lowe) a little bit, obviously, that’s why (pitching coach) Pete Walker went out there. And he just kind of yanked the heater to where we didn’t want to go. But you’re looking at being a little bit short in the ‘pen after Jordy and the game already tied. You wanted to kind of keep Timmy for a clean inning in extras.”

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That Schneider would ride-or-die with Romano in that spot is no surprise, given his tendency to lean most heavily on those in his circle of trust. During the mound visit after the Diaz double, Romano told his manager and trainer Jose Ministal that he was good to go and that was that.

“It was a non-issue,” Romano said afterwards. “I can still make pitches and stuff. Shouldn’t be an issue going forward.”

Asked if there was any impact on his command, he replied, “I don’t think so. It’s just a little annoying, but nothing too serious, nothing I’m worried about.”

The gut-punch in the ninth came after the injury-riddled Rays, looking nothing like their usually fundamentally sound selves, had unravelled before a Tropicana Field crowd of 22,655, as a pair of errors and a wild pitch opened the door to a four-run Blue Jays sixth and a one-hit, one-wild-pitch, three-walk, one-hit-by-pitch rally produced a go-ahead two-run rally in the eighth.

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But the Blue Jays also didn’t open the game up when they had the chance, leaving runners on second and third in the second and sixth, and the bases loaded in the third and eighth, missing an opportunity to strengthen their hold on a wild-card spot. 

At 86-69, they’ll surrender some ground to someone after beginning the day a half-game up on the Hoston Mariners (84-69) and 1.5 games up on the Seattle Mariners (84-69). The Mariners were at the AL-West leading Texas Rangers (85-68), while the Astros hosted Kansas City. 

The Rays unloaded early on Hyun Jin Ryu, getting home runs by Yandy Diaz, leading off the game, and Josh Lowe, a three-run drive, in the first inning plus a solo shot from Christian Bethancourt in the fourth. 

Each came on a fastball during an outing where his velocity was down and location off.

“I don’t think they were really hunting the fastball,” Ryu said through interpreter J.S. Park. “Against Diaz, I did locate where I wanted to throw the fastball and he just had a great swing. The second one, it was low over the plate, I didn’t miss my spot. And the third one, that was where I want to throw it. I guess the velo wasn’t there for me today.”

The game opened a crack for the Blue Jays in sixth, when Kevin Kiermaier’s speed forced third baseman Mead into a bad throw that pulled Diaz off the bag at first, leading to an error. Tyler Heineman then struck out on a wild pitch and reached first when Christian Bethancourt’s throw to Diaz was low.

That ended starter Zack Littell’s day and the Blue Jays then went to work on Shawn Armstrong, getting a two-run double from George Springer, base hit from Bo Bichette, RBI single by Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and run-scoring double from Cavan Biggio. That made it 5-4.

Then, after Whit Merrifield was thrown out trying to score on a Kiermaier to end the seventh, pinch-hitter Santiago Espinal opened the eighth with a double, was replaced by the speedy Cam Eden who advanced on a Springer groundout and scored on a wild pitch. Walks to Guerrero and Biggio and a Matt Chapman hit by pitch before a Merrifield walk brought in the go-ahead run.

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“They never think that they’re out of the game,” said Schneider. “It’s a tough task to come back against this pitching staff when you’re down by five. And the fact that you take the lead and you have Jordy on the mound in the ninth, you’ve got to like that outcome except for the final result.”

A bad bounce kept them from scoring in the third, when Biggio’s double to centre hopped over the wall, preventing Guerrero from coming around all the way from first. Regardless, a game-breaking home run, such a regular feature of their offence in recent years, during any of their prime pressure points in this game may very well have pushed the lead beyond the Rays’ reach and that’s an ingredient they’ve missed this year. 

Rarely do teams have everything, of course, and the defence and speed they’ve added have helped them win games they would have lost last year, too, with the way they beat Michael King and Tyler Glasnow in the past week immediately coming to mind. 

The Blue Jays got only so far with the bash-the-ball route in recent years. The verdict on their attempt to diversify is soon to come.

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