TAMPA, Fla. — The Blue Jays are in a funk. They have been for a while now.
A night at Tropicana Field only further exasperated their troubles.
On Friday, Toronto lost its fifth straight game, this one a 5-2 defeat by the Tampa Bay Rays. Making matters worse, George Springer also exited the game in the third inning after crashing into the centre-field wall and rolling his left ankle while trying to make a leaping catch on a Brandon Lowe triple an inning earlier. The initial word from the Blue Jays was that it was a left ankle sprain. After the game, manager Charlie Montoyo added the team believes it’s mild and the injury is characterized as “day to day.”
Even before the latest loss, the Blue Jays had been struggling to snap this skid. It’s why they held a players-only meeting, led by Springer, after Wednesday’s loss to the New York Yankees. One of the messages within that meeting, according to Bo Bichette, was that even good teams — World Series-winning teams — go through poor stretches like the one Toronto is mired in. Kevin Gausman, who allowed four runs (three earned) on five hits over seven innings on Friday, said the meeting helped to remind everyone of the fundamentals they want to uphold.
“George just has a good feel for that. He had a feeling that we needed to talk and just kind of reiterate the things that we’re trying to keep doing, and that’s being a good teammate, be there for the guy next to you. And he just said, like: ‘Listen, this is a grind right now, but we’re going to come out of this. And when we do, we’re going to be better because of it,’” Gausman said. “Any time you have a roomful of guys who are all pulling in the same direction, even when you have a little skid like we’re having right now, you still feel like you’re going to come to the ballpark and win.”
Even if the players are frustrated — and with each loss, it’s certainly mounting — their support for one another is clear. The dialogue between hitters in the dugout has been ongoing and is preaching the right attitude, Montoyo said. When Springer went down hard in the second inning and stayed on the ground for a while, the entire Blue Jays lineup, save for Gausman and catcher Zack Collins, made its way to centre field to check on him while he was being tended to by Montoyo and head trainer Jose Ministral. It was a not-so-subtle sign about how much the centre fielder means to this team and how much the players care for one another.
“He’s a guy that brings so much — not just what he brings in the lineup, but just being in the clubhouse every day. He’s one of our leaders. I’ve never seen an entire team be out in centre field for one guy,” Gausman said. “So that was pretty cool. You can see how much he means to this team.”
Springer tested his ankle, walking gingerly around the outfield. He initially remained in the game and finished the inning. He took his next at-bat in the third inning, grounding out, but didn’t look comfortable. Raimel Tapia replaced Springer in centre to begin the bottom of the inning.
There is no doubt Springer is a tough dude with a high pain threshold. This wasn’t the first time we’ve seen him attempt to stay in a game after getting injured, only to exit it shortly after. Last month, after taking a fastball to the forearm in Boston, he stayed in the game to take his base but didn’t go back into the field. He took two uncomfortable-looking pinch hit at-bats the next game before finally sitting out a full game.
Springer’s intensity with how hard he plays can be his blessing and a curse. His fall on Friday was similar to a play last season in Seattle, when he crashed hard into the wall trying to make a leaping catch. He went on to miss 13 games with a left knee sprain. The Blue Jays will likely proceed with caution, but if Springer has avoided a serious injury, it’ll be a break for Toronto amid a stretch in which it’s not catching many of them.
“Obviously, your first thought is the worst-case scenario — he broke his leg or something,” Gausman said. “That’s what you’re thinking, but luckily it seems like it’s just kind of an ankle sprain.”
Putting aside Springer’s injury, the issues in the loss to Tampa Bay weren’t anything new; it’s more of what’s plagued the team all season. The offence hasn’t been able to capitalize on many opportunities and get hits with runners in scoring position. Thus, the Blue Jays haven’t been putting up many runs. Their 3.84 runs per game remain below average. The Blue Jays went 2-for-5 in runners-in-scoring-position situations and left four on base against the Rays. It hardly needs reminding that they remain the worst-hitting team with runners in scoring position with a .185 batting average.
After falling behind the Rays 2-0, the Blue Jays rallied, scoring a run in the sixth off a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. RBI single. They began the eighth with three hits in a row, including an RBI single from Tapia. But Rays reliever Andrew Kittredge came into the game and struck out Bichette, then got Guerrero to ground into a double play, ending the inning and Toronto’s best chance to take the lead.
Without the run support, another strong outing from Gausman went to waste. He returned for the eighth inning but allowed three consecutive hits, including a go-ahead RBI single from Manuel Margot. Tim Mayza replaced Gausman and induced a double-play grounder but then gave up back-to-back hits and the Rays were up 5-2.
Not to excuse Blue Jays pitchers for not getting the job done, but this team was built around an offence that was supposed to be able to paper over some leaks on the pitching side, and it’s just not been doing that. Montoyo has been saying all the right things so far, defending his players, who he sees are pressing, and believing it’s only a matter of time until they turn things around. It’s true: This lineup is talented, and all logic suggests it’ll work itself out of this funk, which has been going on for much of the season. The Blue Jays didn’t fluke their way into the top of several offensive categories last season.
“They’re trying,” Montoyo said. “That’s why they’re getting frustrated, as you can see. Some guys get frustrated because they’re trying. Nobody goes out there to make outs. They’re really trying. … One guy’s going to start, and it’s going to spread out. That’s usually how it starts — takes pressure away from this guy and that guy and that guy. When everybody’s struggling at the same time, everybody feels the same pressure.”
But even amid the stress and pressure, the players have to find a way out of it, to adjust, to take what they’re given and find a way to be the offence they’re capable of being.
“From experience, like, good hitters are going to hit,” Montoyo said. “And, of course, you guys listen to me and say, ‘OK, when, when, when?’ But we got 129 games left and can’t panic about a good offence that you know is going to hit. … Just right now, because we play so many close games, every little thing, it gets magnified. Because everybody expected our offence to be one of the best in baseball.”
In baseball’s long season, even good teams falter and go on losing streaks. But the best teams prevent those streaks from snowballing. As bad as it may be, losing a fifth straight game and seeing their leader go down in a heap of pain, the Blue Jays have to put this behind them and find their best, and the sooner, the better.
“We have a lot of guys who know what it takes to play 162 games,” Gausman said. “And so you just got to know that no matter what happens tonight, just turn the page, forget about it. I guess as bad as we’re playing right now, we’ve had a chance to win a lot of these games. And so if we think about when we start getting going in every aspect, it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch.”
(Photo of Kevin Gausman: Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)