TORONTO – Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is like a cheat code right now.
Seriously, who turns on an 0-2 fastball from the usually nasty Hirokazu Sawamura that’s running up and in at 96.1 m.p.h. and launches it 443 feet to left-centre? His latest awe-inspiring drive left the bat at 111.3 m.p.h., and it wasn’t even his hardest-hit ball of the game, trailing his 113 m.p.h. first-inning single.
“It’s one impressive thing after another,” said Ross Stripling, who was staked to a 5-1 lead by the Guerrero two-run homer in the sixth that seemed like an exclamation mark on what had been shaping up as a good night for the Toronto Blue Jays. “We were saying, like we’re over here playing on MVP mode and he’s playing on rookie mode – it’s just easy for him. That’s an elite pitch and he hits it basically into the night sky.”
Also disappearing into the deep of the night sky Friday night was yet another Blue Jays lead against an American League East rival. Rather than quelling a sixth-inning rally, Tyler Chatwood helped fuel a three-run outburst, triggering the latest bullpen implosion in a 6-5 Boston Red Sox victory.
Chatwood hit two batters, walked another and unleashed a wild pitch behind a solid Stripling who deserved better. Unlikely leverage candidate Carl Edwards Jr. gave up the tying homer in the eighth and a Bo Bichette error to open the ninth led to Alex Verdugo’s walkoff single off Rafael Dolis.
The Blue Jays have now lost their last six meetings with the Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays, with five of the games decided in the final frame and the other in the eighth. They’ve blown leads in the sixth inning or later in four of them, and Jordan Romano, their most reliable relief arm, wasn’t available for the opener of a four-game series against the AL wild-card leaders due to forearm tightness.
And each setback brings only more questions on where to turn for manager Charlie Montoyo, whose every bullpen move right now is like spinning the roulette wheel.
“It’s not easy, as you know,” Montoyo said of having Chatwood, who had emerged as mid-game fire extinguisher, struggle. “He was really good the last two outings. It was perfect – get me four outs. When you lose that, somebody has got to pick up the slack. We’ve got what we’ve got. We’ve still got good arms, but somebody’s got to do it, you know? So we’ll see. I don’t know where we go from here. Our guys in the bullpen need to do the job. That’s just what it is.”
Indeed, because there are no easy fixes.
Losing David Phelps for the season was a dagger, compounded by the injuries to Julian Merryweather, Ryan Borucki, Travis Bergen and A.J. Cole and the fact that no one is forcing their hand at triple-A Buffalo, either.
Thomas Hatch started Friday but only made it through two innings against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre because he hit his pitch count, said acting Bisons manager Corey Hart. While the right-hander allowed only a hit and a walk in two shutout frames and struck out three, he also needed 51 pitches to do it.
“He was a little picky at times,” said Hart. “And I think he felt he should have put some guys away when he didn’t. But overall it was a pretty good job.”
Patrick Murphy is trying to regain his form after a shoulder injury while Hobie Harris, a power arm trying to force his way into the mix, has struck out 18 in 12 innings with a WHIP of 1.00 and is intriguing. As for the trade market, it’s cold right now, and there’s no unicorn need-for-need deal like the one the Rays and Brewers swung that landed J.P. Feyereisen in Tampa.
The problem for the Blue Jays is that they don’t have the runway to let guys work through their struggles or suddenly start experimenting, given their need for leverage help.
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Stripling left the game up 5-2 with two on and two out in the sixth and Chatwood, who had a good rebound outing Wednesday in Chicago, was an understandable choice. But he just didn’t have it, hitting Christian Arroyo with his second pitch, issuing a run-scoring walk to Marwin Gonzalez, uncorking a wild pitch to plate another run and then hitting Bobby Dalbec to reload the bases.
Shoutout to Tim Mayza for getting out of the jam with the Blue Jays still up 5-4. But lacking options, Montoyo sought four outs from Edwards, who surrendered a game-tying homer to Arroyo with one out in the eighth. He’s now given up runs in four of his six outings and been tagged for three homers in 5.1 innings.
“Romano was out so Dolis had to pitch the ninth, so Edwards had to pitch in that inning,” said Montoyo. “That’s one of the things, you’re putting guys in different spots because that’s all we got, you know what I’m saying? These guys have to pick up the slack. That’s just it. We’re not going to be looking for people. That’s what we got.”
Dolis found himself in a jam when Bichette threw wide after scooping Kike Hernandez’s grounder and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. – who struck out on a high chase pitch that would have been ball four and loaded the bases in the top half – had the ball pop out of his glove on a tag try.
Verdugo singled off the Green Monster four pitches later to end it.
“Obviously it kind of unravelled on us as a team,” said Stripling. “Just a bummer we weren’t able to hold onto that one. Feel like up 5-1 in Fenway, got to find a way to win that one.”
Late-game drama didn’t seem to be on the menu early, as Teoscar Hernandez delivered RBI singles in each of the first two innings, sandwiched around a Bichette run-scoring single in the second that opened up a 3-0 lead off Garrett Richards.
While the Blue Jays left opportunities for more on the table – especially in the first when Randal Grichuk’s single loaded the bases with one out but Rowdy Tellez lined out to centre before Gurriel struck out – Stripling looked to have things well in hand.
The last time he faced the Red Sox, on May 19 in Dunedin, he got pounded for six runs on eight hits, including homers by Verdugo, J.D. Martinez and Hernandez, over 3.2 innings. Stripling also gave up doubles to Rafael Devers, Dalbec and Hernandez in that one, prompting him to return to the windup after discovering that he had been tipping his pitches.
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He’s been on a roll since and looked good again in the return engagement while relying mainly his four-seamer, cleverly mixing in his slider, changeup and curveball. A Dalbec solo shot in the third was the only damage against him through the first five frames, and he got two outs in the sixth after Verdugo’s leadoff double and before Hunter Renfroe’s single made it 5-2.
Christian Vazquez followed with a single that ended a night in which he allowed five hits and two walks with six strikeouts.
“I think it kind of cements (the changes),” said Stripling. “They put up five on me on the first and then another one there in the second, it was 6-0 before I even knew what happened (the last time). They were taking good swings. I mean, it was a laser show to not even put it lightly.
“Then to go out today and feel like I was able to keep them off-balance, obviously significantly better than I was in that start in Dunedin, and low-pitch count, get some first-pitch outs, get some strikeouts and then pitching into the sixth, gave us a chance to win a ballgame, it just didn’t fall that way, is definitely encouraging,” he continued. “Feel like now I don’t even have to think about what I’m doing with my hands and any of that. It’s just who I am moving forward and now focus on getting hitters out and not thinking about what I’m doing over the rubber.”
The Blue Jays can only wish for that same level of comfort with their bullpen right now. They don’t have it, don’t have an easy way to get it and it’s costing them important ballgames.