Troubles persist for Springer, Blue Jays after move from leadoff spot

Jonny DeLuca knocked a two-run go-ahead homer in the eighth inning as the Tampa Bay Rays rode a late-game rally to a 5-4 win over the Toronto Blue Jays.

TORONTO — The Blue Jays have needed more from George Springer all season long. That’s been very clear. But on Saturday morning, the club issued perhaps its strongest language and action yet underlining that fact. 

“It really comes down to we need George Springer,” Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said during his 23-minute availability with media prior to the afternoon contest against the Tampa Bay Rays at Rogers Centre. “We need to get him going.”

Springer has been in focus because of his .197/.270/.287 batting line this season. That spotlight only intensified with the club’s decision to remove him from the leadoff spot Saturday, dropping him to sixth while batting Davis Schneider first in the lineup. 

The switch didn’t pay immediate dividends as the Blue Jays’ troubles continued with a 5-4 loss to the Rays in front of 34,416. The club has now dropped four of its last five games and sits 19-25 on the season. 

“We obviously are not in a good spot right now,” said Blue Jays starter Kevin Gausman, who allowed three runs over six innings. “We’re in last place. We kind of dug ourselves in this hole.”

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Atkins expressed confidence in the Blue Jays’ roster and, at this point, the most impactful changes will have to come from within. A shakeup to the batting order is one area to explore and to that end, Blue Jays manager John Schneider said he spoke to Springer following Friday night’s loss about the decision to remove him from the leadoff spot.

“Conversation was totally fine,” Schneider said. “Professional. Understands this isn’t about one guy. This is about us. And, ultimately, if we’re going to be where we want to be, we need George to be good. And while he’s working through some things, not doing it in the leadoff spot is beneficial for us. He gets it. He understands it.”

This marks the first time this season Springer has started a game outside of the leadoff spot and he hasn’t hit this low in the starting lineup since his rookie campaign in 2014.

Schneider said nothing is set in stone regarding where Springer and Davis Schneider will ultimately end up in the batting order. There’s no cutoff date the club has in mind. The goal is simply to create more production.

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“If it stays where it is, so be it. If it changes, we’ll make that decision,” said Schneider. “I think we’re at the point where you got to try to figure some things out to get some more runs going.”

That was the case on Saturday, with the Blue Jays tagging Rays starter Zach Eflin for four runs on nine hits. Springer opened the scoring in the fourth inning by driving the first pitch he saw from Eflin up the middle for an RBI single. Daulton Varsho doubled to right-centre field in the next inning to plate two runs while Vladimir Guerrero Jr. added an RBI single of his own. Davis Schneider also collected two hits and scored one run. 

The Blue Jays’ four runs were the most the club has scored in a week. However, it simply wasn’t enough.

Gausman rebounded from his worst start of the season and left the game with the lead. That was preserved by a scoreless frame from Yimi Garcia, however, Blue Jays right-hander Nate Pearson allowed a go-ahead, two-run homer to Rays right-fielder Jonny DeLuca in the eighth.

“It’s obviously the difference in the game,” said Schneider. “I thought we had chances to add on, really, or to put some more traffic out there. You feel bad when you give up the lead in the eighth inning … I think when Nate’s good, he’s just looking a little bit better.”

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While the loss highlights the instability of the Blue Jays’ bullpen, it’s the offence that has largely put this team in its current predicament. Only the MLB-worst Chicago White Sox have scored fewer runs than the Blue Jays this season.

Gausman was asked to describe the level of urgency in the Blue Jays’ clubhouse. 

“I don’t think the normal fan understands how hard it is to be a position player and play every single day,” Gausman responded. “It’s a lot to ask of those guys. And so, I think at certain times, we come out and our hair is on fire and you can see the glimpses of, wow, this is the team that we can be. But then there’s also spurts where we feel like we’re down by 10 runs and we’re winning. That’s what needs to change, more than anything, is we have to feel like we’re going to win every game, even if we’re down or winning.

“We just need to be a little bit more fiery and just kind of, I guess, grab the bull by the horns,” added Gausman.  

Any conversation about the struggling bats will obviously involve Springer. His move out of the leadoff spot is not unprecedented — last season, the Blue Jays removed him from the No. 1 spot for a four-week stretch before placing him back atop the lineup for good in late August. 

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Springer, who turns 35 in September, has seen his offensive production steadily decline in each of his four seasons with Toronto. His average exit velocity this year is 87.2 m.p.h., which ranks in the 23rd percentile of MLB.

Both Atkins and Schneider pointed out that the club’s hitting coaches — a group led by offensive coordinator Don Mattingly — have worked diligently with Springer to get him to try to drive the ball more frequently in the air on the pull side. 

Entering Saturday, only 9.7 per cent of the balls Springer has put in play this season were in the air to left field. That ranked 277th out of 313 qualified players and is down from 16.1 per cent last season and his career-best mark of 25.8 per cent in 2021. That year, Springer’s first with the Blue Jays, saw him post a 141 OPS-plus with 22 home runs over 78 games. 

“Getting the ball in the air to left field more often — when he’s been really good, he’s always done that,” said Atkins. “He’s put balls over the fence in that direction. 

“His fight and his commitment and the strength is there,” the GM added. “If that intent shifts to the ball getting in the air a little bit more, I think that we could get him back into someone that is a meaningful part of the top of our order.”

Springer still remains a work in progress. He did drive in a run on Saturday but went 1-for-4 on the day and failed to get the ball off the ground in any of his plate appearances. The Blue Jays say he’s been putting in the work to make adjustments and, of course, the results won’t come overnight.

Nonetheless, the club desperately needs those changes to arrive very soon. 

“The exit velo is there, the intent is there, the drill work is there, the buy in [is there], so I feel like it will come,” said Atkins. “And now, we have time, but it needs to start to change.”

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