Second-inning meltdown haunts Blue Jays in fourth consecutive loss

Austin Hedges and Josh Naylor drove in a pair of runs each in part of a seven-run second inning and Carlos Carrasco allowed one run over six innings as the Cleveland Guardians handed the Toronto Blue Jays their fifth straight loss, winning 7-1.

CLEVELAND — As Yariel Rodriguez re-enters the fold for the rapidly-taking-on-water Toronto Blue Jays, there are both short- and long-term considerations at play.

For the coming weeks, Toronto simply needs Rodriguez to be a fifth starter. In the three turns of the rotation since Alek Manoah was lost for the season with an elbow injury, the Blue Jays have run bullpen days that have taxed a stretched relief corps and forced the club’s other four staters to carry heavier loads during their own outings. That isn’t a sustainable strategy with the Blue Jays playing 23 games in 24 days heading into mid-July’s All-Star break.

For the coming years, Toronto may need Rodriguez to be more than that. Manoah is out until at least midway through the 2025 season; Yusei Kikuchi is a pending free agent; Kevin Gausman and Chris Bassitt are in their mid-30s. The upside of the five-year, $32-million contract Rodriguez signed with the Blue Jays in February was the possibility he could develop into a capable, mid-rotation option, providing a starter’s value at a high-leverage reliever’s price point.

Friday, neither consideration was satisfied. Returning to the Blue Jays following a nearly eight-week IL stint, Rodriguez recorded only four outs on 52 pitches, allowing four earned runs on two hits and three walks — all of it in a preposterous second inning that went from bad, to worse, to ugly.

So much for the end of the bullpen days, as Blue Jays manager John Schneider ended up motioning out to his with only one out in the second inning of a 7-1 floor-sweeping at the hands of the Cleveland Guardians. It was Toronto’s fourth straight loss, dropping the club to five games under .500 for the first time in nearly a month.

“I prepared myself very well. Everything was fine mentally, physically. I was ready to go,” Rodriguez said through club interpreter Hector Lebron. “But things just changed and didn’t go my way.”

It was a rough one all around. Rodriguez and Bowden Francis — who did yeoman’s work chewing up 11 outs on 74 pitches — allowed seven runs on four hits and four walks before they’d recorded six outs. Meanwhile, Toronto’s defence imploded behind them with a series of misplays after committing four errors a game prior.

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And an offence that knocked Carlos Carrasco around for five runs over five innings last weekend was mowed down by the soft-tossing 37-year-old only six days later. Carrasco faced the minimum through his first 11 batters before Vladimir Guerrero Jr. broke through with a two-out solo shot in the fourth. The next four Blue Jays hitters made outs on eight total pitches.

“He had better stuff. He had more velo. His fastball was better. And I think everything was sharper overall,” Schneider said of Carrasco. “I think what we could have done was try to wait him out a little bit. I thought we swung really early as the game went on — when the situation of the game didn’t really dictate that we should do that. So, you give him credit for having better stuff and navigating a little bit. But I thought we kind of got out of what we were trying to do in the middle innings.”

And the Blue Jays certainly weren’t trying to do just about everything they did in the second inning. After Rodriguez breezed through his first on only 12 pitches, Josh Naylor nearly matched that leading off the second with an 11-pitch at-bat that ended in a double. Naylor’s liner to left-centre was within the catch radius of both Davis Schneider and Daulton Varsho, but neither called the other off and both outfielders peeled away late as the ball dropped between them.

Tyler Freeman then drew a seven-pitch walk after falling behind 0-2, before Will Brennan bled Rodriguez for a seven-pitch walk of his own to load the bases. Four kicks later, Rodriguez walked in a run with his 29th pitch of the inning.

Rodriguez fought his way off the ropes with a strikeout of Brayan Rocchio. But a batter later, on his 40th and final pitch of the inning, Rodriguez left a breaking ball up to Austin Hedges, who shot it up the third base line to cash a pair. That’s when Schneider made the slow walk to the mound.

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“When I had a couple hitters at two strikes, there was a lot of foul balls. That got me out of my rhythm a little bit. I lost my concentration a little bit,” Rodriguez said. “I think that maybe was the reason in the second inning.”

Suddenly, the Blue Jays were in a bullpen game after all, as Francis began his night with three well-struck balls — one that produced a run-scoring forceout, another that second baseman Orelvis Martinez bobbled for his first big-league error before he’d made his first big-league plate appearance, and one more that Jose Ramirez shot into right at 105 m.p.h. for a run-scoring single.

Ramirez was one of two runs to score on an infield single by Naylor — perhaps you remember him leading off the inning — as Francis bobbled a catch at first base before Freeman and Brennan drew their second walks of the inning to load the bases again. Which is where things finally, mercifully ended with a Jonathan Rodriguez fly ball to the outfield, where all the madness began.

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Hell of an inning. Seventy pitches, 14 batters, seven runs, five walks, four hits, two errors — one for the books. And the Blue Jays responded by going three-up, three-down on 12 pitches in the third.

That’s how Toronto’s plate appearances went through five innings. Carrasco recorded 11 of his first 15 outs on four pitches or fewer. And when the Blue Jays finally made him work in the sixth, leading off with back-to-back singles — including Martinez’s first MLB hit — Carrasco struck out Schneider and Justin Turner at the end of long at-bats before getting Guerrero to lift the second pitch he saw above left field to strand both runners.

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The Blue Jays didn’t threaten again until the ninth, when they loaded the bases with one out only for George Springer to ground into a game-ending double play. Toronto was held to one run or fewer for the 17th time, which represents nearly a quarter of its games played. It’s the kind of night the Blue Jays can’t afford many more of if they’re going to somehow pull this season back from the brink. And the kind of start from Rodriguez they can’t afford, either.

The 27-year-old missed the zone with over half his pitches and generated only four whiffs as the Guardians laid off uncompetitive misses, peskily fouled off anything borderline, and hunted spinning stuff up in the zone. Rodriguez has had his flashes this season, such as a tremendous, 10-strikeout night in the second-last outing of his recent rehab assignment. But he’s also had nights like these where he’s missing either too far off the plate or too far over it.

“I think it kind of sped up on him a little bit there. And towards the bottom of the order, the walks came back to hurt him,” Schneider said. “I think he just lost the zone there a little bit. It’s a tough one for him.”

Considering his relatively light innings base after finishing his Nippon Professional Baseball career as a reliever, the fact he didn’t pitch competitively in 2023, and the two injuries he’s suffered this season, Rodriguez’s workload will be carefully managed going forward. You won’t see him throwing more than 85-90 pitches in an outing.

That makes it imperative he throws strikes. Both from a quantity perspective, as he seeks to record as many outs as possible within his limited pitch counts to spare a battered Blue Jays bullpen, and a quality one, as Rodriguez’s batting average against after starting a hitter with a strike (.206) stood in stark contrast to the times he’d started them with a ball (.391) entering Friday’s start.

And that’s only the near-term consideration as the Blue Jays, lacking a viable alternative, ask Rodriguez to fill the fifth spot in their rotation for the coming weeks. The longer-term one — the club’s ability to develop Rodriguez into a mid-rotation option for next season — remains very much a work in progress. But if things continue the way they’ve been going, the club will have plenty of time this fall to figure it out.

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