Blue Jays earn invigorating win over Twins as more bullpen questions arise

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MINNEAPOLIS — So, it was the top of the 10th at Target Field on Sunday, moments after Jordan Romano blew his fourth save of the season, giving up a one-run lead in the ninth.

Whit Merrifield started the inning at second, and he’s very fast, which is how he beat Byron Buxton’s throw to third after Santiago Espinal’s medium-deep fly ball to open the inning. And that’s how unbelievably (replay review seemed to show Merrifield was clearly out) he got past Tim Beckham’s shot after Cavan Biggio’s shallow fly ball one pitch later.

Hey, the Blue Jays will take it. A bit of luck. A catcher’s knee that dropped too early, blocking Merrifield’s path to home plate. One who finally went his way. That gave Romano a new one-run lead to protect in the bottom of the 10th. And in a gutsy performance, the Blue Jays closer beat three straight Twins — Jose Miranda, Nick Gordon and Gio Urshela — to help bring his team back from the brink to a 3-2 road win. House.

It was an invigorating result considering the back-and-forth madness that preceded it, not to mention the six scoreless innings the Blue Jays got from starter Kevin Gausman, who is now riding a 14-inning streak in his last two starts.

Gausman was up to his usual tricks, mixing lofty fastballs with splitters that dived under the zone and enough sliders to remind right-handed hitters that he had it. He allowed runners in five of his six innings, but the Twins never threatened to cash them in as Gausman ratcheted up the intensity when necessary, going back for 96 and even a few 97 at critical moments.

Gausman’s success was built on his mastery of that fastball, as he allowed just three balls in play over 100 mph and none harder than 102.5 while using the limits of Target Field to his advantage, earning eight fly ball outs. . And while he got 13 swinging strikes — six on his splitter, five on his fastball and two on his slider — it was still a day that Gausman relied on the defense behind him more often than usual.

That high volume of balls in play and the consistent traffic he threw might have been part of the reason interim GM John Schneider pulled Gausman after the sixth on just 84 pitches and with the bottom of the Minnesota order expired. No one would have batted an eye if Gausman came back for another.

But Anthony Bass was sharp in the seventh, and though Yimi Garcia gave up a run in the eighth on a solo drive, the ball got to Romano in the ninth with a one-run lead. That has been good enough many times this season, but not on Sunday, as Romano clobbered Carlos Correa with an 0-2 run in the heater and eventually let him round out the bases on singles by Gary Sanchez and Luis Arraez.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jays caught up with Twins starter Chris Archer for one in the second, when Bo Bichette doubled off Teoscar Hernandez’s leadoff single, and another in the third, when Lourdes Gurriel Jr. drove in Cavan Biggio with A simple. But they probably should have done more damage considering how well they were squaring Archer, putting eight balls in play at 95 mph or more.

The Blue Jays got four outs against Archer with balls in play with expected batting averages over .440, including a 104-mph Vladimir Guerrero Jr. lineout to short in the first, a 105-mph Alejandro Kirk laser to second one batter. later, and Matt Chapman’s 106-mph ground ball to short in the fourth. Toronto’s bats were considerably calmer for the rest of the afternoon, as the Twins’ bullpen pitched four scoreless innings of relief behind Archer before extras.

Similarly, this week’s series against the Baltimore Orioles has taken on some importance. The Orioles entered Sunday with five straight wins, boosting the AL wild-card standings despite selling Trey Mancini and Jorge Lopez at last week’s trade deadline. Just one game out of a playoff spot and three behind Toronto when Sunday’s game began, Baltimore had moved uncomfortably close to a Blue Jays team that had been hitting .500 for the past week and a half.

Sure, it’s easy to say Baltimore can’t keep winning like it has with a rotation led by Jordan Lyles and Austin Voth. But you could have said the same thing a month ago. Like it or not, Baltimore is still winning, at a .614 pace (35-22) since early June. And of the 54 games left for the Blue Jays, 15 are against the Orioles. Earlier this season, it was easy to look at that delayed schedule and see an easy opportunity for Toronto to rack up wins before the playoffs. Not so much now.

Baltimore’s surge has been fueled in part by the production of Adley Rutschman, who is finally living up to his top prospect pedigree, hitting .343/.495/.562 over the past month. Rutschman’s weakness this season has been against left-handed pitchers, who have held him to a .155/.286/.224 line in 70 plate appearances. With Rutschman hitting second behind left-handed hitter Cedric Mullins, the Orioles have a pocket at the top of their order that any opposing manager would love to counter late in games with a left-handed reliever.

Just one problem for the Blue Jays: They don’t currently have one. After Tim Mayza dislocated his right shoulder on Saturday, Toronto’s bullpen is exclusively right-handed. Trevor Richards has significant reverse splits throughout his career, and Yimi Garcia has neutralized lefties to a .157/.241/.294 line this season. But it stands to reason that the Blue Jays would like to sneak at least one true lefty option into their bullpen.

Matt Gage could be that guy. He joined the Blue Jays in Minneapolis on Sunday morning on the club’s cab crew after throwing a scoreless inning for the Buffalo Bisons a time zone away in Scranton the night before. It would have been too much to ask for Gage to be available to throw such a quick trade after a sleepless night. But it could be a possibility this week in Baltimore.

And the 29-year-old rookie impressed during an 11-start MLB season earlier this season, allowing just two earned runs in 13 innings pitched and striking out a dozen before getting stuck on a random list. Toronto’s player evaluation model identified Gage as a positive play last offseason and all he’s done since then is prove him right, pitching with an identical 1.38 ERA in both triple-A and the majors. There is no denying that he has earned something of a career.

Beyond Gage, there’s Foster Griffin, whom the club acquired from the Kansas City Royals in a smaller deal before the All-Star break. Since then, the cut-heavy 27-year-old has made five scoreless appearances for the Bisons, but struggled at the major league level with the Royals this season, allowing six earned runs in 4 1/3 innings.

There’s also Tayler Saucedo, who has been on the disabled list since suffering a hip injury in April. Saucedo has been back in competition for some time with Buffalo, pitching a 0.75 ERA with 15 strikeouts and six walks in 12 innings since late June. But one impediment is that the Blue Jays need to carve out a spot on the 40-man roster for Saucedo, who is currently on the 60-day disabled list and in the midst of a second rehab assignment that began July 24.

Beyond those three — Anthony Kay has been shut down for more than a month — the Blue Jays will have to look outside for left-handed relief help. And wouldn’t you know, there’s Jake McGee floating on waivers for the second time in the last four weeks.

McGee was dominant just one season ago, pitching with a 2.72 ERA and 3.35 FIP with a 20.1% K-BB from the San Francisco Giants bullpen. He spent much of the year serving as the closer for a 107-win club, converting 31 saves in 35 chances.

But that success didn’t carry over into 2022, as McGee imploded after a series of rough outings in May and ended up on the disabled list with lower back strain. He fared better on his return, stringing together nine blank appearances from late May to mid-June and reclaiming the role of influence from him. But a span of four starts in which he allowed six runs and nine hits convinced the Gaints they had seen enough, and the team designated him for assignment in early July.

McGee eventually found his way to the Brewers in a minor league deal, but the change of scenery didn’t affect his results, as he’s now back on the waiver after giving up four runs on seven hits in six appearances with Milwaukee. The biggest problem for McGee, no matter where he’s pitched this season, has been a significantly depressed strikeout rate, down from 41.8 percent with the 2020 World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers to 24.3. percent in 2021 and now to 12.4 percent in 2022. .

It’s hard to say why the McGee stuff suddenly stopped being effective. He has always been a dominant fastball shooter, using his heater more than 90 percent of the time in each of the past two seasons. But he’s given up an incredible damage rate with him this year: a .401 wOBA against. He’s throwing the pitch as hard as ever, averaging 94.6 mph, and using it similarly to how he did last season. He’s just not getting the same results.

Part of the problem could be McGee’s slider, which has lost considerable movement in recent seasons as he started throwing it harder. Hitters just aren’t tempted by that, swinging at McGee’s sliders just 38 per cent of the time this year after offering more than 50 per cent the last two. But that’s still a release he uses only 16 percent of the time. He lives and dies with his fastball.

Do the Jays see anything in McGee’s delivery that could be tweaked to help his heater play like he used to in the zone? Could they help him get back what he lost on his slider and make it more attractive to hitters? Is it unrealistic to expect those kinds of adjustments to be made and stick around in a few weeks? Those are the questions the Blue Jays will have to ask themselves as they consider McGee.

Another, perhaps more pressing question: what other options do they have? Gage has earned an extended look and Saucedo appears to be in triple-A form, but the Blue Jays would certainly feel better with those two providing depth behind someone more proven. What is certain is that even after acquiring two relievers at last week’s trade deadline, Toronto’s bullpen will remain a fluid situation for weeks to come. And it could prove itself this week at Camden Yards against a club no one should take lightly anymore.

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