TORONTO – Up as the potential tying run during a sudden attempt at a seventh-inning rally, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., dug in for a fourth time against Shane Bieber and with the count 1-1, let a middle-down fastball at 93.5 m.p.h. go by.
The ball barely popped Austin Hedges’ glove when the Toronto Blue Jays slugger whipped his bat through the zone, frustrated he didn’t swing. Bieber’s next pitch was a slider to the same spot, inducing a weak ground ball that ended the inning and preserved the lead.
It was a plate appearance symbolic of the Blue Jays as a whole right now, a team stuck between speeds, and the results are showing it. A 7-2 setback to the Cleveland Guardians on Sunday afternoon was a sixth loss in eight outings, with defeats in consecutive series after splits in a pair of sets beforehand, all against fellow contenders.
The Blue Jays, now 61-52, haven’t won back-to-back August games and another tough week looms with the Baltimore Orioles, against whom they’re 2-4, arriving for three games beginning Monday. A four-game set at the New York Yankees, whom they’re 4-8 against, is right after.
“That at-bat, in a nutshell, if you look at what Beiber was doing over the course of the game, it wasn’t too many back-to-back heaters, so he probably had Vladdy in between,” interim manager John Schneider said of the pivotal seventh inning confrontation. “And overall, if you have a pitching staff like (Cleveland’s) that locates, we have to make an adjustment. We have to be able to either lay off pitches or when they are in the middle of the plate, do some damage and get on base. So I think that’s the adjustment going forward and looking forward to doing it against Baltimore.”
A boost is expected Monday when George Springer is likely to be activated from the injured list. Ross Stripling is due to return for a start Wednesday, pushing Jose Berrios back a day to the opener in the Bronx.
Neither will right things on their own.
Sunday’s loss, before a crowd of 41,002, was among the more frustrating recent setbacks, the Blue Jays bled by a Cleveland team adept at delivering perpetual papercuts.
Kevin Gausman fell victim to that, allowing five runs in 4.2 innings, the four that followed Amed Rosario’s solo shot in the first inning each the by-product of BABIP blues.
Austin Hedges’ go-ahead RBI single in the second, for example, came on a blooper that dropped just in front of Raimel Tapia in centre field and then bounced over his head allowing Owen Miller to score from second.
In the third, a throwing error by Alejandro Kirk on Tyler Freeman’s stolen base put the third baseman on third and allowed him to score easily when Cavan Biggio didn’t get to a Hedges fly ball down the right-field line for a double.
In the fifth, a single by Josh Naylor of Mississauga, Ont., off a diving Whit Merrifield deflected into centre and allowed Rosario, who’d advanced on a wild pitch, before a Miller double brought home the fifth run.
With tighter defence, the damage could easily have been far more limited and the game not quite as out of reach.
“Sometimes it’s the way the game goes, it’s baseball,” said Gausman. “Once the pitch leaves your hand, you can’t determine the outcome a lot of times. It’s frustrating at times, but that’s the way it goes. You just kind of realize that it’s going to change at some point. I’ve had a lot of bad luck this year, but at some point it will turn.”
The Blue Jays did have their chances, tying the game 1-1 in the first on a Teoscar Hernandez RBI double that left men on second and third with one out, but Bieber recovered to strike out Matt Chapman before Naylor swallowed up a Tapia smash at 105.6 m.p.h. at first base.
Another chance to put up a crooked number came in the fifth when the Blue Jays again put men at second and third with one out, but Guerrero waved at a first-pitch slider before again swinging at the pitch for a run-scoring groundout. Kirk then lined a ball to right-centre but Myles Straw just chased it down to end the inning.
At 0-for-4 on the day, Guerrero’s hitting streak came to an end at 22 games. Lourdes Gurriel Jr., whose stay in the leadoff spot will end with Springer’s return, had three of the Blue Jays’ eight hits Sunday. Over the weekend, they managed just four runs on 17 hits while having their approach tested by Cal Quantrill, Triston McKenzie and Bieber.
“Overall, guys over the course of the year are doing a good job of deciding which pitches to swing at – right now, probably in a little bit of a rut,” said Schneider. “And when you’re facing a pitching staff that locates well, it just compounds that a little bit. But what we preach all the time is get a good pitch, don’t miss it and lay off the ones that are edge, edge off.”
The improved Orioles’ pitching staff won’t offer quite the same test but as they hang around in the increasingly clustered wild-card standings, taking them lightly would be a mistake. Building some momentum against them would offer a good springboard into the looming clash with the Yankees, the first meeting for the rivals since June, when New York took two of three here.
“Obviously, we’re not playing our best baseball right now, but we’ve got the Orioles coming into a new series,” said Gausman. “We’ve got to be able to just turn the page and realize that you can’t dwell too much on it, especially this time of year. We’ve put ourselves in a good spot now. We’ve just got to kind of keep our head down and really just kind of focus on ourselves and not really focus too much on what’s going on around the league.”