Rare defensive miscues help prevent Blue Jays from completing first series sweep

Xander Bogaerts hit a solo shot, Fernando Tatis Jr. collected his 15th RBI of the season, and the San Diego Padres took care of the Toronto Blue Jays 6-3.

SAN DIEGO – A key driver for the Toronto Blue Jays during their run of four straight series wins over the past couple of weeks has been the dominant work of their starting rotation. Ten times in the past 12 games their starters have allowed one run or less and even Sunday, when Chris Bassitt allowed four runs, three earned, in 5.1 innings of a 6-3 loss to the San Diego Padres, they were very much left in a position to win. 

Expecting the rotation to remain that dominant all season long is unrealistic, of course, but consistent quality from the starters is very much going to be the bedrock of any success the Blue Jays experience this season. Their typically elite defence is fundamental to that, as well, with some rare miscues and nine walks in the finale before a Petco Park crowd of 44,527 preventing them from collecting their first series sweep of the season.

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“We’ve got a lot of trust in those guys, obviously it was a really good turn through,” manager John Schneider said of his starters. “It’s a strength of ours, really. The difference today, didn’t get the lead, albeit we took it back 2-1 after the (first), but they got some big hits in big spots and we didn’t really help ourselves with the walks. But with us, when our starters are going really well, like they have been, it lines us up for success.”

Another factor working against them Sunday was the ongoing spread of an illness that had already been working its way through the clubhouse for at least the past week. Bassitt is among the latest wave of players and coaches to be hit – “You got about 20 guys on our team sick, I’m one of them, personally,” he said – and looked sapped after grinding through his outing.

“We’re passing around a good sinus infection. It’s not fun,” he said,” describing his approach on the mound as “not try to do too much. Try to recover as much I can in between innings. Didn’t really do a good job of it. It is what it is.”

The game’s first run scored when Manny Machado’s single to right field slipped under George Springer’s glove and rolled far enough for Jake Cronenworth to score from first. Then in the decisive two-run sixth, a catcher’s interference call on Danny Jansen with the bases loaded pushed across the second run after a Trevor Richards bases-loaded walk broke a 2-2 tie.

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The Padres tacked on two more in the eighth on Xander Bogaerts’ bases-loaded walk and Fernando Tatis Jr.’s sacrifice fly off Nate Pearson – the first runs of the season off the right-hander – and it was too much for the Blue Jays to overcome.

“You walk in two runs and make a couple errors, it’s tough to beat a good team,” said Schneider. “Still a good series. Obviously didn’t end the way we wanted today. It starts on the mound for us every day and walks came back on us.”

Davis Schneider’s solo shot in the second tied the game 1-1, Ernie Clement’s solo shot in the third – on a shoulder-high fastball from Joe Musgrove – put them ahead and Schneider’s run-scoring groundout in the seventh pulled the Blue Jays within a run at 4-3.

“It’s a good thing that I was locked into my plan,” Clement said of hammering a pitch 4.18 feet off the ground over the wall in left. “I wanted to get him up and I saw a fastball up and that’s what I was looking for. To put a good swing on that is huge.”

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Not huge is that the Blue Jays had just two at-bats with men in scoring position all game and they’ll need more production against the Kansas City Royals, who they visit for four beginning Monday.

Runs remain at a premium for them, with their per-game average of 3.91 runs ranking in the bottom third of the majors, well below the big-league average of 4.49.

Even while winning four straight series, they’ve scored a maximum of five runs in their 10 victories, which has meant their starters and relievers have again had little margin of error to work with.

That’s also meant they’ve needed to be opportunistic and better in other facets of the game to squeeze out whatever production they can find.

To that end, what’s so far been improved baserunning has helped. In Saturday’s 5-2 win, for instance, Isiah Kiner-Falefa made a clever read on a wild pitch that squirted out just past the dirt cutout and scooted home with a run that made it 4-0, while Daulton Varsho set up an insurance run in the ninth with a key stolen base.

Even with Bo Bichette getting caught stealing Sunday, jumping for second before Musgrove went into his windup, the Blue Jays have converted 14 of 17 attempts this year, an 83 per cent success rate well above last year’s 74 per cent. As well, their five outs on the bases are third fewest in the majors, compared to the 63 they had last year, which was fifth-most.

Cleaning that up was one point of emphasis during internal off-season discussions, said first base coach Mark Budzinski, who oversees the baserunning, and has been a frequent talking point from spring training onwards.

The message to players has been “running the bases aggressively but intelligently,” said Budzinski, “knowing the situation, the outs, the inning, how we’re playing, who we’ve got on base and then make it more of a focus and talk about it every day. We have a report I post every day for the guys to keep it in front of us and make sure we’re keeping it top of mind.”

As a player, Budzinski feels he probably wasn’t aggressive enough as a baserunner with decent speed and feels at times as a minor-league manager, he may have pushed the envelope too far at times. In trying to help the Blue Jays find the right balance, he’s “showing video, showing plays of our team and as well as other teams, good decisions and bad decisions and why, just trying to educate each other on our thoughts and feelings on it.”

“There’s not always agreement between a player and a coach on it,” he added. “Sometimes they’re like, ‘I think that’s the right play right there.’ And we may say, ‘Well, based on the situation, we don’t want you to run in that spot, we don’t want you trying to attack the extra base there.’ Or like (Friday), Schneider moved up on a turf ball that he ended up getting thrown out on, we were up four runs, that’s worth a shot right there. Keep doing that. Different situation, if we’re down four runs there, maybe not.”

Done well enough over time, “hopefully it’s more runs,” said Budzinski, “because last year we made a lot of outs on the bases. We had some trouble scoring and I think that was a big part of it. Hopefully we can run a little more intelligently, take advantage of situations where we can, but hopefully that leads to more runs. That’s the goal. More runs, more wins.”

Especially with the starting pitching the Blue Jays have. 

Their rotation is seventh in the majors with a 3.80 earned-run average and Bassitt believes there’s still upside, saying “I still think we’re not really in our grove yet.”

“Obviously (Yusei) Kikuchi and (Jose) Berrios are a little bit of the outliers there, but overall, I still think we can improve a lot more (on) what we’re doing,” he added. “We’re giving our team a chance to win every game, so I’m happy with that.”

As are the Blue Jays, series sweep or not.

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