SEATTLE – All too often in this week of struggle, the Toronto Blue Jays have found themselves caught in a vicious cycle. Their starter struggles, leaving behind a big deficit and a bunch of innings for the bullpen to cover. The offence, looking for big strikes to make up the gap, comes out of its approach, becomes overly aggressive and fails to put up crooked numbers. As that plays out, a worn-out bullpen is unable to hold the opposition in check and the game unravels.
The end result is that problems in the Blue Jays rotation have led to bad habits at the plate through a troubling start to July.
“We’ve still got to find ways to get on base, but it is tough to come from behind almost every day,” manager Charlie Montoyo said of his club’s predicament. “This month, we’re (27th) in ERA and that’s why I always talk about pitching. Pitching is No. 1 for me. If you pitch, you have a chance to win. This month, it’s been tough. We’ve been behind a lot and when you’re behind, everybody feels the pressure. And that’s what’s going on. Kind of like early in the season when we were not swinging the bats as well. Everybody feels the pressure. Everybody’s trying to do a little bit more. The only way to stop that is talking to the guys about one at-bat at a time. If you don’t get your pitch, give it to the next guy. That’s what we need to do better.”
Well, the Blue Jays did a lot of things better Friday night but it still wasn’t enough as Eugenio Suarez’s three-run homer in the 11th gave the Seattle Mariners a 5-2 win Friday before a raucous, Canuck-filled crowd of 32,398 at T-Mobile Park.
The winning rally came after the Blue Jays narrowly escaped the 10th, as they intentionally walked Ty France with two out only for J.P. Crawford to single to left. But Lourdes Gurriel Jr., saved the day with a perfect throw home to easily get Abraham Toro.
On the other hand, the Blue Jays lost for the seventh time in eight games, freezing momentum that had built with four wins in five outings after another 4-8 stretch, in what’s becoming a frustrating period.
“We know we’re not playing even close to our best brand of baseball,” said Ross Stripling, who allowed two runs over five gutty innings. “I wouldn’t say we’re pressing, I wouldn’t say were panicking but you can tell that it’s not right, either. You can’t necessarily put your thumb on what, why or what needs to change, but I think everyone would give you the answer that I’m giving, which is just we’re not playing our best version of baseball right now and it’s got to get better.”
At least this one played out much differently than most of the games during the 1-6 stretch that preceded it thanks in large measure to Stripling, who kept a surging Mariners lineup under control.
Key was the way he cleverly limited the damage to two runs allowed during second- and third-inning rallies, striking out Sam Haggerty and Andrew Knapp to strand a pair in the second, while getting Suarez swinging to end the third after Bo Bichette stole a single from Carlos Santana with a gem.
“Kind of in traffic all night,” Stripling said of his outing. “Really didn’t feel like I was getting ahead as well as I normally do. Seem like the leadoff guy was on every inning, but was able to sequence some good at bats there and get a couple of good punch outs in the second and some outs there in third and fourth and keep it to two there through five.”
Not buried early for a change, the offence worked starter George Kirby and meticulously built innings, even if it didn’t really fulfil them as another early-season bugaboo — hitting with runners in scoring position –– re-emerged as they went 2-for-13 through the first five innings and 2-for-18 overall.
“We did get hits, but with men in scoring position, we tried too hard, it seems like,” said Montoyo. “There were some good at-bats, but other ones that were not as great.”
Perhaps most frustrating was the fourth inning when with two runners on, Santiago Espinal dunked a flare into centre field that Julio Rodriguez charged just aggressively enough to freeze lead runner Gurriel Jr., allowing him to fire a 99.6 m.p.h. strike to third base for a force.
After a Cavan Biggio strikeout, George Springer walked to load the bases for Bichette, who got to a full count and then was frozen by this mesmerizing 97.6 m.p.h Kirby heater that was a ball out of the hand before 18 inches of horizontal break brought it back to the outer edge.
Who can blame him for slamming his bat into the ground in frustration?
The Blue Jays eked out runs on RBI singles by Gurriel in the second and Teoscar Hernandez in the fifth but there was no decisive blow, leading to innings of increasingly high leverage until the 11th, when the Blue Jays couldn’t get to Borucki and ran out of leverage arms to give their offence another chance, on a night they had plenty of opportunity.
“It’s ebbed and flowed all year, right?” said Stripling. “It feels like in April we were doing great or whatever, and then we struggled and then we’re doing great and then we’re kind of struggling again. That’s baseball. It’s a 162-game season. This one feels heightened maybe more than most. I don’t know if it’s because of leading into the all-star break or maybe it’s just some winnable games that we’re not winning, but I think everyone would say that we can play better than what we’re doing.”
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