Depleted Blue Jays get taste of unforgiving schedule in loss to Phillies

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. crushed a solo home run to right field to give the Blue Jays the lead in the sixth inning.

Late Friday afternoon, in placing Ryan Borucki on the injured list with a left-forearm flexor strain, the Toronto Blue Jays initiated an 89th transaction and 23rd IL placement through the season’s first six weeks. And that the club then opted to play the evening’s series opener against the Philadelphia Phillies with only 25 of 26 active roster spots filled was either an indication of how outrageous its attrition rate has been or how audacious its confidence has grown in spite of it.

Were the Blue Jays simply caught in a bind, unable to make a corresponding move with time and circumstance conspiring against them? Or are they just so assured in their collective resilience that playing without a full complement of players is hardly an issue?

It’s the former, clearly. The Blue Jays learned of Borucki’s fate too close to first pitch to ship in a triple-A arm — likely Ty Tice, because, well, what’s the alternative? — from the currently New Jersey-based Buffalo Bisons. But there’s still an argument for the latter, too.

After all, Toronto entered play Friday with the American League’s fifth-best record, and its fourth-highest run differential — winners of nine of its last 13 despite being trapped in a never-ending game of health roulette. A dozen players currently sit on the club’s IL, which doesn’t include Nate Pearson and Josh Palacios, two 40-man-roster players currently unavailable due to injury while on minor-league option.

It’s ridiculous. The club is essentially out of pitching depth, with Pearson (sent to the minors earlier this week and battling a shoulder issue), TJ Zeuch (currently building up his pitch count at triple-A after recovering from a shoulder ailment of his own), Elvis Luciano (a 21-year-old developmental project who battled extreme command issues this spring) and Tice the only arms remaining on the 40-man roster who aren’t currently active or on IL.

But what’s been the harm? The club just completed an 11-day, 10-game, three-time-zone road trip against a trio of clubs that have been post-season teams for three seasons running. They split four games with Oakland, dropped two of three to Houston and swept Atlanta, overcoming deficits in five of six wins on the trip.

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That gave Toronto 10 comeback wins on the season — tied for the third-most in MLB. It also put the club four games over .500 despite playing 25 of its first 36 games on the road and, frankly, playing its home games on the road, too, at a spruced-up minor-league ballpark meant to be hosting low-A competition.

“I think the team deserves a lot of credit — they really do,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said Friday before his club fell, 5-1, to the Phillies. “Eighty-something transactions. Guys getting hurt. Other guys stepping up and doing their job. That’s a lot of credit to the team. We play every day to win. Playing good teams. And we’re hanging in there.”

Friday brought another opportunity to hang in, as Blue Jays starter Steven Matz traded zeroes with his Phillies counterpart, Vince Velasquez, through five innings. Matz wasn’t as economical as he’d like to be, finding himself in tough battles all night — not to mention botched third-inning calls on an Andrew McCutchen checked swing and a full-count ball on the plate to Bryce Harper that cost Matz two strikeouts — as his pitch count surpassed 100 in the fifth. But he found ways to grind through and make big pitches when he needed them most, stranding seven base runners, including a bases-loaded jam during that patience-testing third.

“The biggest thing for me was just, ‘make a pitch.’” Matz said. “That was really what I was trying to keep my focus on. There was a lot of other things that could have steered me in a different direction. So, that was something that I really tried to focus on — just being in the moment and just trying to execute that pitch.”

Meanwhile, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. finally got to Velasquez in the sixth, hitting a solo shot — the 23-year-old’s ninth homer of the season tied his 2020 total — over the right-field wall. But the Phillies hit back hard against the Blue Jays bullpen in the seventh, working four walks in the inning — three consecutively with two outs — to scratch the run back. Then Rhys Hoskins smoked a Tim Mayza sinker to the wall, opening the floodgates. The Blue Jays went quietly from there.

“You’ve got to wash it away,” Montoyo said. “We keep losing guys, but people have got to step up. And that’s what they’ve done until now, until today. Different guys have stepped up. So, hopefully they keep it going. Just a bad night tonight for the bullpen.”

It can’t be a comeback every night. But the Blue Jays will need to keep finding ways to win against all odds and adversity, because the pace of the season isn’t about the lessen. It’s borderline remarkable that the club has already banked 20 wins, playing at an 88-win pace despite an unforgiving schedule rich with games against competitive clubs in their ballparks. The Blue Jays have yet to play a game against the Baltimore Orioles or Detroit Tigers, doomed sides against which Toronto has 25 games remaining. But they won’t play a game against either of them until mid-June.

Between now and then, the Blue Jays will face nothing but stiff tests. The Phillies represent one this weekend. Built to contend in a loaded NL East, they won’t be an easy out — nor will Boston or Tampa Bay, which will pass through Dunedin next week. Then there’s a trip to Yankee Stadium after that, before continuing on to Progressive Field to play a 21-14 Cleveland club. And early June brings the Astros, White Sox, Red Sox, and Yankees again. No matter who’s healthy enough to play on any given night, Toronto’s gauntlet will continue.

“I think we’ve shown a lot of resilience,” said Blue Jays second baseman Cavan Biggio. “I think at any point during a game, regardless of what the score is, we’re not out of it. … We have a really deep lineup. And with guys coming in and out with injuries and whatnot, we’ve been able to fit them in and keep it going.”

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