Homestand proves it again: AL East is a beast

MLB 43 days ago

After starting 4-1, Blue Jays dropped final 3 to Rays amid more questions about their pitching

TORONTO -- The Blue Jays took a crash course in the 2022 American League East race this week in Toronto, cramming eight games and some lessons learned into seven days.

Sunday’s 7-3 loss to the Rays at Rogers Centre was an extension of Saturday’s uninspiring doubleheader, with pitching woes sinking the Blue Jays again. Those three losses came after Toronto took four of the first five games this week, though, including a series win over the Red Sox.

This week showed that, regardless of what the Blue Jays do, everything needs to be viewed through the scope of the AL East. It’s a nightmarish division to play in, where being good is rarely enough. The East demands that teams be great, and with the Yankees running away with the division at the top, it’s possible that four teams reach the postseason.

Now, the Blue Jays enter a relatively softer portion of their schedule with a West Coast swing against the A’s and Mariners, but there’s no rest for the weary as they open in Oakland on Monday night with no off-day in between. The 44-36 Blue Jays have work to do and moves to make, particularly with the Aug. 2 Trade Deadline now less than a month away.

Here’s what the busy week in Toronto brought out:

Seeking: Starting pitching
Ross Stripling was going strong until the fifth, when the Rays ended his night early, but the right-hander has been extremely valuable to the Blue Jays in the big picture. By sliding in to replace Hyun Jin Ryu, not only has Stripling given Toronto high-quality innings, but he has saved it from a 40-man roster churn trying to find a fifth starter.

The Blue Jays are one injury away from that, though, and this week did nothing to inspire confidence.

Kevin Gausman went down early in Saturday’s Game 1, and while the diagnosis was only a right ankle contusion, it looked much worse, and it’s still possible he misses time. If he or any other starter does, who’s next in line? There’s not another Stripling waiting.

“It’s about pitching, man. As long as you can hit enough,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “That’s why they took the last three, they had three good pitchers going. But again, on the homestead, we were 4-4 against two tough teams.”

Thomas Hatch got his shot as the No. 6 in Game 2 of Saturday’s doubleheader, but he got rocked. The right-hander allowed 10 runs on 12 hits over 4 2/3 innings, a clear setback. Casey Lawrence and Max Castillo remain options for the Blue Jays, but a club of this quality needs depth it can rely on immediately, not depth it needs to hope on.

Bullpen remains a priority
When the Blue Jays are winning, this bullpen looks sharp. A seven-inning start bridging the gap to Adam Cimber and closer Jordan Romano is a clean look. But when the bullpen is forced to carry five, six or seven innings, it’s a different conversation.

The Blue Jays have begun to lean heavily on Trent Thornton and a revolving door of bulk relievers to cover those innings. They even signed 39-year-old Sergio Romo, hoping for one last burst from the veteran, and acquired lefty Anthony Banda in a trade Saturday. Middle and long relievers are rarely a team’s strength, of course, but this is a clear need for Toronto ahead of the Trade Deadline.

“Everybody has pitched a lot,” Montoyo said. “We’ve got to regroup. That’s fine. That’s baseball, and that’s the spirit we have. We’re going to regroup, and we’re going to be OK.”

The higher the Blue Jays aim, the better. Another true back-end arm allows Cimber, Tim Mayza or Yimi Garcia to be spread over earlier innings, and given the unpredictable nature of relievers, adding multiple arms will surely be considered.

Kirk, Gurriel lengthening lineup
Alejandro Kirk is on track to start the All-Star Game for the AL at catcher, and he’s earning it. Few hitters in baseball have been more consistent than Kirk, the human line-drive machine. Along with George Springer, Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Teoscar Hernández, Kirk helps to create a potent top half of the lineup.

Add Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s run, and this lineup only grows more potent. Gurriel loves hitting in June and July, and he’s now hitting .295 with a .785 OPS on the season. He has always been streaky, but these hot streaks make it worth it.

Regardless of the sport, you’ll hear “pitching and defense” as the keys. That’s often true, but along the way, even great teams need to pull off the 10-8 win where pitching and defense go out the window. With Kirk and Gurriel stretching out this order, the Blue Jays should be able to hit their way out of trouble more often.