Jose Berrios, latest new-look lineup can’t stop Blue Jays’ spiral in fifth straight loss

Bo Naylor and Jose Ramirez both tallied a home run and two RBI as part of a four-homer night for the Cleveland Guardians who picked up a 6-3 win over the Toronto Blue Jays.

CLEVELAND — Remember spring training? You know, three months ago. When George Springer was preparing to be Toronto’s leadoff hitter, Justin Turner was brought in to bat cleanup and Isiah Kiner-Falefa was positioned to provide a contact approach from the bottom of the Toronto Blue Jays lineup.

When Erik Swanson, Yimi Garcia and Tim Mayza were forming a set-up committee ahead of closer Jordan Romano. When Davis Schneider and Ernie Clement were envisioned in part-time platoon roles while Spencer Horwitz, Addison Barger and Orelvis Martinez were ticketed for triple-A Buffalo.

Well, flash forward 75 games, and things are a bit different. Springer’s been hitting as low as seventh and no higher than fourth — where he batted Saturday and went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts — for over a month. Turner hits fifth, or sixth, sometimes second. Kiner-Falefa just became Toronto’s sixth leadoff hitter of the season.

Romano and Garcia are on the IL with elbow issues. Swanson and Mayza have both been demoted due to performance — the former to the minors, the latter to a low-leverage role. Schneider’s playing every day; Clement’s started six of nine; Horwitz, Barger and Martinez are all in the majors playing positions they picked up within the last 18 months for a team originally built around run prevention.

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Such is the state of desperation the Blue Jays have reached, the reality of how dramatically things can change within a baseball season, and the extent to which this team’s best-laid plans have gone awry. Truthfully, the Blue Jays have been in anything-goes mode for a while now, firing every last bullet they have as the clip nears empty and the opportunity to pull this season out of its tailspin narrows.

Saturday, the Blue Jays inched closer to impact, as Jose Berrios coughed up three homers, the latest new-look lineup produced similar offensive output to the many prior, and the Guardians secured a weekend series victory with a 6-3 win.

Worse yet was the sight of Daulton Varsho, far and away the club’s most valuable player this season, crumpling to the dirt as he left the box after grounding out against Guardians closer Emmanuel Clase in the ninth.

The Blue Jays are describing Varsho’s injury as lower left back tightness and plan to evaluate him further on Sunday. The extent of the injury remains to be seen, but losing Varsho for any duration of time would be a significant blow to both the Blue Jays defence and power — two areas in which the club hasn’t exactly excelled of late.

“His back kind of locked up,” said Blue Jays manager John Schneider. “He’s a gamer. For him to feel it is not ideal. But we’ll see how he is [on Sunday.”]

Somewhat quietly, Varsho has led the Blue Jays in games played since the start of the 2023 season. This year, he’s the club leader in slugging percentage, isolated power, home runs, RBI’s, runs, stolen bases, and wins above replacement. He’s arguably the best defensive outfielder in the game. His absence would be felt considerably.

Yet, that’s the way things have been going of late for the Blue Jays, who dropped to six games under .500 with a fifth consecutive loss Saturday afternoon. It all started with the Blue Jays and Guardians trading home run blows in the second and third innings, first a Schneider blast, then a Bo Naylor response, followed by a Kiner-Falefa drive, and answered by a Jose Ramirez bomb.

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The difference was Toronto’s being solo shots while Cleveland’s came with a runner on base. And so, the Guardians built an early lead while the Blue Jays put only one runner on base — an Alejandro Kirk walk — through five innings.

Berrios kept the Guardians contained until the bottom of that fifth inning, when he left a sinker up to the prolific Steven Kwan and surrendered his third homer of the day. He eventually escaped that 21-pitch inning, but didn’t return for another, failing to make it into the sixth for only the third time in 16 starts this season, and eighth time in 48 outings since the beginning of 2023.

“Today, I was trying to attack more with the fastball in. And I was leaving it in the middle,” Berrios said. “They’re aggressive. They put a lot of contact on the ball. So, we were trying to be aggressive and throw good pitches. But I didn’t.”

What Berrios needs to do against a lineup like Cleveland’s, which Saturday featured nine players batting from the left side and seven carrying contact rates above 80 per cent, is equally balance his five pitches and use them to all quadrants of the zone. Yes, five pitches. The four you know about and a cutter, too, which is meant to give him a weapon to use in against lefties.

But although he was once again reticent to throw that fifth pitch, Berrios had the balance part down with the other four. He threw each at least 19 times. But the location of some of those pitches was an issue, particularly preceding the homers by Naylor, Ramirez and Kwan, which all came off middle-middle fastballs:

“I left three pitches right in the middle and paid for that,” Berrios said. “The three homers were really bad pitches for me, good pitches for the hitters.”

Control and command were issues for Berrios most of the afternoon, as he landed just 51 per cent of his pitches in the zone — facing Cleveland last weekend, that rate was 58 per cent — and didn’t earn a whiff with his slurve for the first time this season. He walked one, hit a pair and stopped throwing his sinker in favour of his changeup as the outing wore on. 

Meanwhile, Toronto’s offence did what it typically does, failing to score four runs for the 42nd time in 76 games this season. There were at least the two early homers and another one late off Kiner-Falefa’s bat on a scorching Ohio afternoon. That should help pull the Blue Jays out of a last-place tie with the Miami Marlins for fewest in the majors this season. How’s that for a consolation prize?

Anyway, about Romano. Recovering from his second elbow issue and anti-inflammatory injection of the season, he spent the last 10 days progressing through a flat-ground throwing program at Rogers Centre, deliberately increasing distance up to 150 feet. He was only days from resuming pitching on a mound. But while playing long toss on Saturday, he experienced some soreness in that elbow. And the Blue Jays made the call to halt his throwing progression right there. 

As of now, next steps are unclear. The Blue Jays say Romano hasn’t yet been sent for additional imaging and that a clearer plan of where he goes from here will materialize in the coming days. Regardless of where that leads, it’s safe to assume the Blue Jays will be without their closer for some time.

That places additional stress on a bullpen that’s already absorbed a wealth of it. Garcia, who’s been pitching brilliantly and took over the closer’s role when Romano went down, is on the IL with an elbow issue of his own and has yet to resume throwing. Swanson, optioned to the minors a month ago after a difficult start to his season, has worked to an 11.25 ERA across his first nine triple-A outings. Mayza, carrying a 5.47 ERA while pitching with diminished velocity, is seeing leverage opportunities only when necessary.

Chad Green is Toronto’s closer. Nate Pearson, Trevor Richards and Genesis Cabrera are his set-up men. Brendon Little’s been facing leverage situations against left-handed hitters. And one of 2023’s best bullpens is carrying a bottom-five ERA and K-BB% into late June.

There are dramatic changes in any baseball season. There are plans gone awry. And then there’s whatever this calamitous Blue Jays campaign is slowly becoming.

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