Blue Jays, or what's left of them, face Red Sox

LHP J.A. Happ, centre, manager John Gibbons and traier George Poulis walk off the mound Sunday in the fifth inning with an elbow injury. Photo: USA Today.

LHP J.A. Happ, centre, manager John Gibbons and traier George Poulis walk off the mound Sunday in the fifth inning with an elbow injury. Photo: USA Today.

By Andrew Hendriks
Canadian Baseball Network

Well, that escalated quickly.

Two days removed from formally placing their top position player on the 10-day disabled list with a strained calf, the Toronto Blue Jays were forced to shelf the 2016 American League ERA leader after reoccurring blister problems proved to be too much for the 24-year-old hurler to overcome. 

Despite the loss of both Josh Donaldson and Aaron Sanchez, a trace amount of residual optimism remained evident heading into Sunday’s series finale against the Orioles. After all, the Jays were coming off of their first walk-off win of the 2017 campaign and former 20-game winner J.A. Happ was tabbed with making his third start of the season.

Although he committed a throwing error on a softly hit ground ball off the bat of Adam Jones in the first, Happ was outstanding on the hill. Through four innings, the veteran hurler notched a first pitch strike to 14 of the 20 batters he faced while limiting the Orioles to only four hits and no earned runs on the afternoon. 

Then, without warning, it all came apart in the fifth. 

As J.J. Hardy led off second base following a double to open the frame, Happ, with one out, delivered a first pitch ball to Adam Jones and, appearing to have injured himself, motioned to the dugout before he was replaced by bullpen stalwart, Joe Biagini. 

Biagini took over a 1–0 count before Jones stepped in and promptly shot a base hit through the right side of the infield for a single. The runner in scoring position was forced to hold at third as the ball got on right fielder Ezequiel Carrera quickly. Realizing this, Jones broke for second in an attempt to draw the throw and give Hardy a chance to score. 

The play went 9–3–6–4 and by the time Jones was tagged out between first and second, Hardy was already walking back to the Orioles dugout after scoring the game’s first run. 

In short, Hardy never should have been allowed to come across on that play and given the Blue Jays offensive woes, an attempt to throw him out at home needed to be made. Hardy’s run was the direct result of a mental lapse in judgment … one likely brought on by the run of ill fortune that had directly plagued the Jays leading up to that event.

Given the results, It’s hard to effectively build an argument defending Toronto’s drive to keep playing after losing their No. 2 starter to an injury on Sunday. Bottom line, they looked defeated.

Benefiting from a pair of Ryan Tepera wild pitches and a rare error from shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, the Orioles would go on to score 10 more times during the 3 2/3 innings that followed Happ’s untimely exit. 

Called up in order to take Sanchez’s spot on the 25-man roster, Matt Dermody, a lefty who had previously allowed a total of nine home runs over 288 1/3 professional innings since signing with the Blue Jays in 2011, took the ball in the eighth and served up three round trippers before giving way to Aaron Loup, who finished the onslaught by recording the final five Orioles outs on the afternoon. 

After the game, a visibly shaken Happ had little to offer reporters outside of the fact that he felt as if his game was coming around following a rough second start in Tampa. When asked about his departure on Sunday, he said “it’s a little concerning and definitely frustrating”.

Was this rock bottom? A Blue Jays can only hope.

A World Series championship has never been won in April, this much is true. So too is the fact that the baseball season is a grind … one of the longest in pro sports.

Every team goes through a stretch of adversity at some point throughout the 162-game campaign. In 2016, that adversity came in September as Toronto fell out of first place in the AL East and was forced to claw their way into the postseason as one of the two wild card squads.

Despite their struggles, most noticeably a cumulative average of .168 (13/78) with runners in scoring position in 2017, it’s not entirely inconceivable to imagine this group finding a way to rebound from a horrid start to the season. 

After all, only two of the Blue Jays 10 losses have come by a margin greater than two runs. Although frustrating, they can build off this. 

Will it be hard? Sure… Especially now that the team will be without three of their key contributors for at least a few weeks. 

Hard, but not impossible.

The American League East is a meat grinder, and all but two of Toronto’s ten losses on the season have come against divisional rivals. This certainly doesn’t help their cause. 

With that said, they have an opportunity to take a few games away from one of those front-running rivals when play resumes with a three-game set against the 8–5 Red Sox starting on Tuesday night at Rogers Centre. 

The Blue Jays will catch a break as Boston has called up Brian Johnson from triple-A Pawtucket in order to make a start for Eduardo Rodriguez, who was placed on paternity leave Monday morning. After getting roughed up to the tune of four earned runs over four and a third innings in his lone big league appearance last season, Johnson will be making his second MLB start on Tuesday night.

Johnson will be followed by 2016 Cy Young winner Rick Porcello on Wednesday. Through three starts, Porcello has pitched to an ERA of 7.56 while allowing a WHIP of 1.74 across 16 2/3 innings on the year. Additionally, a few Blue Jays have put up some serious offensive numbers when facing the Red Sox right-hander in the past. Led by Jose Bautista’s lifetime .421 (16-for-38) batting average with four home runs, other notables include Justin Smoak (7-for-24, three homers) and Darwin Barney’s 5-for-8 career showing. 

Toronto carved out a winning record of 10–9 against the Boston Red Sox in 2016, a team that (offensively speaking) is virtually the same aside from David Ortiz and his 2016 slash line of .302/.422/.604 with three home runs in 16 games against the Blue Jays. 

It’s a stretch, but we’ll call “Big Papi’s” retirement break No. 3 for Toronto. 

- Follow Andrew Hendriks on Twitter (@77hendriks)