Familiar feeling for struggling Blue Jays as all-star break approaches

Toronto Blue Jays' Lourdes Gurriel Jr. reacts after he grounded out with a man on base during the first inning of a baseball game against the Seattle Mariners, Sunday, July 10, 2022, in Seattle. The Mariners won 6-5. (Ted S. Warren/AP Photo)

Perspective is easily lost and negativity can snowball quickly in a sport where failure is inherent, particularly amid the type of jarring and traumatic stretch it’s been for the Toronto Blue Jays.

A mere nine days ago, after a 9-2 Canada Day win over the Tampa Bay Rays pushed them 11 games over .500, confidence reigned. They looked to be emerging from an irksome 5-8 stretch by taking two of three from the Boston Red Sox and grabbing two in a row from the Rays.

Then a line drive struck Kevin Gausman’s right ankle early in the first game of a doubleheader. Real-life tragedy struck early in the second when first baseman Mark Budzinski’s daughter, Julia, died in a boating accident. As the team reeled amid the anguish and grief, the games kept coming when it seemed so pointless to keep playing them. The corresponding results followed.

Buoyed by the presence of boisterous Western Canadian fans, a four-game series in Seattle against the surging Mariners offered a reset. An opener and a guy made the first game a lost cause and then baseball, “which can be cruel sometimes,” in the words of manager Charlie Montoyo, went acutely dark in three losses, each more heartbreaking than the last.

The chef’s kiss was the relay on what should have been an inning-ending double play ripping through the webbing of Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s glove, the first step in a 4-1 lead becoming a 6-5 loss in the team’s 31st game in 30 days.

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On Monday, the team’s obvious priority was supporting Budzinski and his family, with a charter scheduled to take a sizable contingent of the team and staff to Julia’s funeral. By any measure, that’s a lot of torment to process in a concentrated period.

“I’ve been through some tough stretches and some tragedies over the course of my career. Everyone handles it differently. There are a lot of us who, our hearts are still with Bud and his family,” veteran reliever David Phelps, on the mound when Guerrero’s glove burst, said in contextualizing what the team has gone through. “We get that news and the next thing you know, we have a West Coast trip. It’s been a grind. At the end of the day, nobody’s going to feel sorry for us. Nothing’s going to get us through it other than ourselves. We just need to keep picking each other up, from all aspects of the game, just lifting each other up and pulling together 26 guys and really just going out there and start winning some baseball games.”

The game is unforgiving and relentless in that way, which means Tuesday the Blue Jays will open a two-game series at home against the Philadelphia Phillies facing questions that are all too familiar.

At 45-42 through the first 87 games, the current group is in the same place as the one from a year ago, once again feeling like less than the sum of its parts, once again frustrated by wins left on the table.

The Blue Jays have lost nine of 10 and are just 8-17 over their past 25 games. There are certainly ways to rationalize why that’s happened — losing Hyun Jin Ryu, Yusei Kikuchi’s struggles, a lack of depth in the bullpen – but notable is that it came against the Orioles, Yankees, White Sox, Brewers, Red Sox, Rays, Athletics and Mariners, mostly measuring-stick clubs.

That six of those losses were by one run demonstrates how every little detail matters.

For example, Friday’s 5-2 loss in 11 innings, after a players-only meeting beforehand, was a matter of execution, as the Blue Jays went 2-for-20 with runners in scoring position.

Saturday, it was a J.P. Crawford single against the shift in the seventh that set up Carlos Santana’s homer in a 2-1 loss. Sunday, after Guerrero’s glove burst opened the door, Gabriel Moreno dropped a routine Crawford pop-up that set up another Santana winning homer.

That can be shrugged off as baseball. But a question for the Blue Jays to wrestle with is whether there’s something more to those games and the others like them. There’s undoubtedly good fight in this team, but does it too often fall back on its talent and lapse in necessary focus?

That was a question last year at this point, too, and the Blue Jays finished 91-71, a game short of the playoffs.

“When you look at last year, the first half was a grind and this team got hot. We’re fully capable of doing that,” said Phelps. “One of the things we talked about the other day was as a group, we would not consider the first half of the season a success. This is not where we want to be. This is not how we envisioned the first 87 games going. But at the end of the day, we’re in a playoff spot. That’s something to realize. OK, we haven’t played nearly up to our ability but that just means that the future is brighter once we start really all get clicking. I think we’re on the precipice of that and we’re going to start rattling off a lot of wins in a row.”

An ill-timed down week for the offence exacerbated the problems last week, reverting to some patterns from April’s slow start. The Blue Jays have a proprietary measure for swing decisions, based on hacks taken at pitches in a hitter’s optimal zones, and through May and June, they were top five in baseball in their estimation, and better with runners in scoring position.

That reverted in the past week when “we put ourselves in a bad spot losing games,” said hitting coach Guillermo Martinez. “We’re swinging at pitches that are not our pitches to drive, even though we’re still able to do that on borderline pitches. But still, those aren’t the pitches we want to swing at. There were some situations (Saturday) night where we had men in scoring position and we’re swinging at pitches two balls off the plate. A lot of it is more mental than anything else, trying to force the issue instead of taking the walk like we had been before this past week.”

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To combat that, Martinez is reminding his hitters of what they did when they were at their best, urging them to slow themselves down. They prepared well and battled some elite pitchers, Robbie Ray, Logan Gilbert and the Mariners bullpen among them, and key is remaining steadfast at the plate.

“It’s definitely in there,” said Martinez. “We have the ability to turn this thing around. But again, just because we put ourselves in a tough spot this week, I just think we’re trying to do a little too much.”

With everything the Blue Jays have been through, that’s understandable.

But the players are clearly feeling it, with Phelps taking about the need for the group to lift each other up and George Springer saying, “everybody is trying to find out why (the team is struggling) instead of just going out there and playing.” More external noise is to come with the trade deadline approaching and the roster having obvious needs.

“We’re going to keep our head up and we’re going to battle through it,” said Montoyo. “This team has gone through more in the last two years than any other team. So, hey let’s go, let’s regroup and let’s go against the Phillies on Tuesday.”

Maybe it’s as simple as a reliable rallying cry. Maybe it’s more.

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