The Blue Jays are in a weird spot. On paper, they’re supposed to be a good team (most projection systems had them around 85 wins), but they’ve gotten off to an extremely rough start and have several players on the disabled list.
However, none of these injuries appear season ending at this point. So the game the team is playing now revolves around trying to stay within striking distance of .500 by winning series where they can. If they pull that off, they might be able to get hot and make a run that matters when the big pieces come back - Possibly starting with Aaron Sanchez and Troy Tulowitzki over the next week.
This is why a game like the one the Blue Jays won last night is so important. If they’re going to climb back into the race, they need to steal a few in that fashion. So let’s dig a little deeper and explore some of the story lines that evolved in one of the sweetest wins of the season so far.
1) Francisco Liriano was wild again
Unfortunately the news wasn’t all good. As fun as the night turned out for Toronto, the win obstructed another stinker from Liriano, and this is becoming a problem. The idea of the Blue Jays climbing back into the race hinges heavily on having five solid starters in the rotation. If they can get that for even a month or two, they’re likely going to rip off a 20-10 type hot stretch at some point.
With Aaron Sanchez scheduled to return to the rotation on Sunday, there’s a scenario on paper where Biagini adequately replaces Happ and you have a rotation that reflects what you wanted production wise going into the season. Unfortunately, there’s some alarming warning signs with Liriano right now which could create a hole of a different kind in the rotation going forward.
Recently the red flags have been masked by the offense scoring eight runs in each of Liriano’s last two starts and the bullpen doing an exceptional mop up job both times, but that’s not a formula you can lean on every five days. Liriano’s now walked 23 batters in 28.1 innings, and if you remove his gem against Baltimore on April 13, he’s actually walked more guys (21) than he’s struck out (20) in his other six starts. The walks have also contributed to high pitch counts, resulting in Liriano only pitching more than 5.1 innings once so far this season.
The key to Liriano’s turn around last year after the trade from Pittsburgh was getting his wildness under control, but it hasn’t translated to 2017 so far. Perhaps he really does need Russell Martin to navigate through each start? It’s worth noting that Liriano’s two worst outings both came with somebody other than Martin behind the plate. Either way, it’s something to keep an eye on going forward.
2) The bullpen paved the way to the win
What Leone, Barnes, Tepera, Smith and Osuna were able to pull off last night was extremely impressive. The pen had to pick up five innings on Sunday because Biagini wasn’t stretched out in his first start. Then Barnes, Smith and Osuna all had to pick up important innings in Monday’s win, and then the bullpen was asked to clean up another ten outs in Tuesday’s loss.
This group is down Biagini thanks to a hole in the rotation and can’t trust Grilli in anything that resembles a high leverage situation and they still managed to completely close down Cleveland’s carousel after the third inning. The team doesn’t win without this. They needed every guy to be on their game, and they were.
Check out the breakdown from last night’s pitching lines:
Liriano: 2.0 IP, 7 ER, 0 K, 3 BB
The pen: 7.0 IP, 0 ER, 8 K, 0 BB
Now to be fair, Leone did allow a double to the first batter he faced, which made Liriano’s line look worse, but that also may have been a key turning point in the game because ....
3) Devon Travis threw out Brandon Guyer, and it killed Cleveland’s last best chance to score
This did not look like a big play when it occurred. Cleveland just got their bases clearing double to take a 7-3 lead, the bullpen needed to pick up seven innings, and it looked like the depleted lineup was going to have to score about ten runs to win the game at that point. The rout was on.
But as it turned out, this is where the game really swung. If Guyer isn’t thrown out, Cleveland almost surely plates an eighth run that inning, and then they have an extra out to play with after the Gomes double which brings them an extra chance to bring home a ninth run with the top of the lineup up.
Now you could argue that the Jays were going to put up a crooked number in that final inning anyway if they needed it, but I’m not sure the events play out the same way. The bullpens are probably used differently if this is not knotted at seven after four innings. (Andrew Miller was never used in this game.)
The play was also a nice moment for Travis who currently has an abysmal .464 OPS and is in serious danger of being sent down to Buffalo if everyone gets healthy. Whenever a guy is struggling at the plate like that, it’s always nice if they can provide a positive impact somewhere else, and Travis did that here - And heck, he also had a decent night at the plate too.
4) The battered lineup battled back
Metaphorically speaking, it feels like the Blue Jays lineup is being held together with duct tape. Josh Donaldson’s only played nine games this season, Tulo’s missed nearly three weeks now with a hamstring injury, Dalton Pompey’s missed the entire season so far with concussion issues, Russell Marin’s recently joined them on the DL with weakness in his left shoulder, and Kendrys Morales was unavailable last night thanks to his own hamstring tweak.
At this point, it feels like there’s more production on the shelf than there is in the actual lineup. That’s what made Wednesday’s night’s win so sweet. It was a complete team effort that required production from unexpected places. Carrera had three hits including a game tying home run. Goins had three hits including the game winner. Barney netted a pair of hits, and Bautista launched his third home run of the season (the power’s been rare for him so far this year).
Sure, part of the equation is that Cleveland’s pitching staff had an off night, but there were also numerous good at bats in key spots. The Jays struck out only seven times in this one and earned six walks, a balance we haven’t seen nearly enough of so far this season.
The Smoak and Pearce walks in the ninth were especially crucial. Both were down to their last strike, and both waited for Cody Allen to lose control of the situation. That’s what put Goins in the driver’s seat when he came to the plate, and fortunately for the Jays, he took full advantage of the situation.
What a great win. Now let’s see if they can build on it.