Kikuchi still struggling, Springer ‘managing’ pain as Blue Jays fall to Orioles

Hazel Mae and Shi Davidi discuss why the Blue Jays are leaving their options open with the rotation after another poor start from Yusei Kikuchi and how the Jays lineup looks different with George Springer in it despite his lingering elbow injury.

TORONTO – George Springer doesn’t suddenly feel like a new man after a 10-day stint on the injured list and a cortisone shot into his troublesome right elbow.

Sure, the Toronto Blue Jays centre-fielder feels better than he did a couple of weeks back, when every throw and swing seemed to leave him in agony. But he’s still talking about “managing” the problem and using the phrase “it is what it is” often enough that it’s clear the issue very much is not behind him.

“I’ve got to do a better job of hiding it,” Springer said of the visible pain he was in before the IL stint. “That’s my goal – just go out there and play. It doesn’t feel good, but there’s nobody on the field at this point on either side that actually feels good. So, oh well.”

The gist is that he simply plans to make do with what his body allows, a reality the Blue Jays have had to come to terms with as his elbow issues grew from June irritation to recurrent obstacle. By using him at DH for the time being, even with the corollary lineup issues that causes, they can still field their best batting order more often. “I’m not going to let it stop me – I’m going to go play,” said Springer. “We’ve just got to get to the end of the year and we’ll address stuff then.”

So while the resolution there can wait, far more urgent for the Blue Jays is what to do with the ever-confounding Yusei Kikuchi, who again left them with more questions than answers by allowing six runs, three earned, in a 7-3 drubbing Monday from the Baltimore Orioles.

The loss, a seventh in nine outings, was the type of maddening affair that have become all too customary in the left-hander’s starts. He looked strong out of the gate and deserved better in the first when an Anthony Santander single cashed a bloop Ryan McKenna double just beyond Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s reach down the right-field line.

Perhaps he could even be forgiven for Blue Jays nemesis Ryan Mountcastle’s two-run homer in the third, although a two-out walk to Santander that preceded it was avoidable.

But a messy three-run fourth that allowed the game to unravel, immediately after the Blue Jays had rallied for a pair on Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s two-run single in the third that cut Baltimore’s lead to 3-2, was troublingly familiar.

A one-out Bo Bichette error on a Jorge Mateo grounder that took a strange hop started the trouble, but rather than picking up his teammate, Kikuchi kept digging the whole deeper. He walked Terrin Vavra. He made a senseless pickoff attempt at second base that ended up in the outfield and advanced the runners. A Tyler Nevin fielder’s choice brought in one run. McKenna’s RBI double brought in another and ended his night. An Adley Rutschman sacrifice fly off Trevor Richards closed the book on his night.

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“There are a few things that we’ve been working on. I’m trying to figure out what’s good and what’s bad,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando, adding that he had rhythm early but lost it in the fourth inning. “I feel like we’re just caught in between the ups and downs right now.”

With Ross Stripling due to return from the injured list Wednesday, the Blue Jays suddenly have options in the rotation thanks to Mitch White, a clever trade deadline addition who’s impressed in two starts thus far. While he’s not fully built up and for the moment may be a twice-through-the-order type of guy, running with him is a possibility the club is sure to consider.

Telling is that before the game when asked if White, who started Saturday, could be used out of the bullpen in the coming days, interim manager John Schneider said, “at this point, probably not. … Things can change in a hurry.”

Over the course of another lost evening, they very well might have.

“Everything’s on the table right now,” Schneider said when asked if it was possible Kikuchi could skip a start to try and get him right. “We just want him to continue to focus on the things he’s working on. But having options and having other guys that can step into roles is a good thing. And we’ll figure that out in the next couple days.”

While Schneider tried to accentuate the positives in Kikuchi’s outing, he also noted that “it’s more urgency than patience right now – the season’s getting short.”

White was groomed with the Dodgers to fill a Stripling-esque swingman role, so the possibility of creative usages exists. And worth keeping in mind is that there’s no real starting depth behind White, so if something happens elsewhere in the rotation, the Blue Jays are pretty naked.

At the same time, it’s impossible to ignore that they’re now 6-14 in the 20 games started by Kikuchi. Constantly digging out of big holes is a tough way to hit and for a Blue Jays offence still trying to click back in, the constant need to rally during the current skid isn’t helping things.

“Playing in sync is important and right now we’re not doing that,” said Schneider. “That’s got to change going forward.”

Some signs of improvement there were visible Monday.

In the third, after a Danny Jansen walk and Springer put men at second and third, a frustrated Guerrero threw his hands up after fouling off an 0-1 fastball from Kyle Bradish but fought back to work a walk that loaded the bases and set the stage for Gurriel’s two-run single.

Guerrero also homered in the fifth while the Blue Jays put two on against tough closer Felix Bautista in the ninth. Still, the type of sustained relentless approach they need at the plate was still absent.

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“I really liked Vladdy’s at-bat on the 3-2 walk to get to Gurriel for the bases-loaded single,” said Schneider. “We have to do more of that going forward and put more runs on the board and not have guys pitching down by four when they should be up by two. That’s basically what it is. We’ve got to take care of the ball. We’ve got to score more runs and put guys in the right spots.”

Aside from the double, Springer also singled and walked, suggesting that in spite of the elbow issue he can still be a significant catalyst for a team that needs something to spark them from their current funk. A year ago at this time, the Blue Jays were in the midst of a 4-10 stretch that threatened their season but they righted themselves then and must trust in that again now.

“There’s no substitute for experience,” he said. “We went through it a little bit last year as a team, to kind of understand what it’s like to play in these types of games this late in the season and it’s only going to get more intense as we go. I think we’re in a much better spot just from an experience standpoint. …

“I’m not really overly concerned,” he added. “We still have (48) games left … but we understand as a group what has to get done. You can’t try to be somebody that you’re not or be something that you’re not because then you’re just going to attempt to do something you don’t know how to do. So just be ourselves and we’ll see what happens.”

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