By the skin of their teeth

A look back on three games against the Orioles, plus a look ahead to this weekend's big series with the A's, roster moves, scoreboard watching, Atkins speaks!, and more!

The Jays remain in the hunt for the second wild card after taking two of three from the Baltimore Orioles. So let’s talk about it!

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Monday (Blue Jays 7 - Orioles 3)

The Jays made us sweat once again in this one, heading into the bottom of the sixth down 2-1 before breaking it open over the course of two frames and allowing us all a big exhale. Here’s three up…

▲ Robbie Ray

We may be talking about more than Zack Wheeler money ($118 million over five years) for Robbie Ray when it comes time for teams to work out his next contract with him. The 29-year-old capped off a spectacular August — in which he posted a 1.76 ERA and 1.91 FIP over 41 innings, with 52 strikeouts and just eight walks — with another brilliant effort. In picking up the win Ray gave the Jays seven innings of four-hit ball with 10 strikeouts, one walk, and just two runs allowed. In so doing he crossed the 1,000 innings pitched mark for his career. His 1,241 strikeouts over that span are now the most in major league history through a player's first 1,000 innings, and while we're obviously in a high strikeout era — Ray also reached the threshold to be considered the all-time leader in K/9, which is a list that titls heavily to the modern era, with Yu Darvish, Chris Sale, Jacob DeGrom, and Max Scherzer being the four pitchers immediately trailing him — it is nonetheless an incredibly impressive achievement. And one that's going to make him an even wealthier man this winter — hopefully by way of a massive cheque from Rogers.

Wheeler was worth 4.7 WAR per FanGraphs in is walk year, which will likely be higher than whatever Ray can put up this season (he's currently at 3.4 wins), likely due to the fact that he does a better job of keeping the ball in the ballpark (1.01 HR/9 in 2019, compared to Ray's 1.41 this season), which helped to give him a slight edge in FIP at 3.41 to 3.43 and a bigger one in FIP- (62 to 85). But that's about the only way you could claim that Wheeler was better. Ray easily tops his walk year in ERA (2.71 to 3.96), strikeout rate (31.9% to 23.6%), and Baseball Reference's version of WAR (6.1 and counting to 4.0). Ray was a disaster for most of 2020, which is why the Jays were able to pick him up so cheaply, and wasn't great in 2019 either, so concerns about a reversion to form may hold back his market a little bit, but it's hard to watch him right now and not come away thinking that this is a guy who has clearly turned a corner. Pay him.

▲ Vlad’s back! Springer’s back! Vibes are back!

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. had homered just three times in the month of August heading into this one, but he changed that in a big way with a pair of absolute rockets to left field — a solo one in the fourth inning to pull the Jays even, then a three-run shot in the seventh to push a 4-2 lead to 7-2.

He also, judging by his confident nodding just moments ahead of his first blast, seemed pretty locked in. That can only be good news for the Blue Jays.

Also on the good news front: the return of George Springer to the lineup. Hitting leadoff as the DH, Springer went 1-for-2 with a walk, a hit-by-pitch, and a pair of runs scored. For good measure, in the third inning he joined newcomer Jarrod Dyson on a double steal, showing (at least for the time being) no ill effects of the knee injury that kept him out for the second half of August.

Dyson probably warrants mention here too, as he got the start in centre field and went 1-for-2 with a walk, and a pair of stolen bases (though he was also caught once). I still think he's best suited to pinch running and late-inning defensive replacement duties only, because he really can't be counted on to hit at this point, but if he wants to do the Ben Revere thing where he makes me look foolish for the rest of the season before reverting back to exactly what I figured he was before he joined the Jays, I'm good with that too!

▲ Seeing the last of Trent Thornton

We didn’t know it at the time, but Trent Thornton’s ninth inning appearance in this one — in which he faced four batters and recorded just one out, necessitating a move for closer Jordan Romano, who the Blue Jays had been hoping to give the day off with the team holding a five-run lead — was potentially his last in the majors for a while. I don’t want to be mean, because Thornton seems like a fine guy and the Jays obviously like him very much, but that was also sort of the problem here. They liked him too much. He’s allowed runs now in eight of his last 14 appearances. His ERA for the season is “just” 4.60, but since the start of June it’s 7.06.

I remember at the start of the year, Pete Walker talking about how he liked Thornton’s mentality and thought he’d be a really good fit as a reliever. Unfortunately, his stuff didn’t really seem to play up in shorter stints, and though he's had more success this year at limiting free passes than either 2019 or his very brief appearances in 2020, the trade-off for that has been that he's allowed a ton of home runs — 11 in just 47 innings, a whopping seven of which have come in his last 21 2/3.

I'm not sure the Jays believe that Thornton's arm is going to be durable enough to hold up under a full starter's workload — the Astros were always careful with managing his innings, the Jays seemed happy to use him as a reliever this year, and in 2020, after coming off a 2019 season in which he made 29 starts (plus three five-inning outings in September pitching behind an opener), he ended up barely pitching and needed surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow — but I think the move here is to send him to Buffalo next season as a starter. Going into 2022 with Thomas Hatch and Thornton as the seventh and eighth starters on the depth chart (i.e. behind (hopefully) Ray, Ryu, Berríos, Manoah, Stripling, and (ideally) Pearson) seems about right to me.

Tuesday (Blue Jays 2 - Orioles 4)

Aaaaaand we’re back to this again. Oof. Here’s three down…

▼ Ryu’s sixth inning

For five-and-two-thirds innings Hyun Jin Ryu was brilliant in this one. Finally reunited with catcher Danny Jansen after struggling in three of his previous four starts, Ryu had a no-hitter going with two outs in the sixth before coming unglued. After giving up a double, single, walk, and then another double, the Blue Jays suddenly found themselves down 3-1 instead of up 1-0. The culprit here, in my view, was the wave, which was encircling the stands at Rogers Centre as Ryu tried to get out of jam. (Honestly, people, what on earth are you doing the wave for in a tight game? You're supposed to save it for when the action on the field is dull! And even then, how about we just don’t?)

Of course, Marcus Semien not being able to come up with Austin Hays's RBI single — a rocket off the bat at 107.3 mph, but still! — things could have been a whole lot different in this one.

Of course, for that to be true, the Jays would have had to manage to actually score some runs, which, ah, once again, proved difficult.

▼ Failing to score off guys with ERA’s above 6.00

OK, so it’s technically not true that the Jays failed to score off a pair of pitchers with ERA’s above 6.00. They did score. Twice. Over 6 2/3 innings.

Keegan Akin pitched five of those 6 2/3 innings. Despite coming into the game with a 7.26 ERA over 70 2/3 innings this year he managed to allow just two hits on the day, with his only major blemish being Danny Jansen's third inning home run. Reliever Jorge Lopéz followed, entering the game with a 6.14 ERA over 117 1/3 innings — a total he'd racked up by pitching as a starter for most of the year, before being pushed to the bullpen after being deemed not good enough for the 41-90 Orioles' rotation. He got the hold, despite allowing Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s 39th home run of the season.

I’m always quick to point out that these kinds of games happen sometimes in this sport, and certainly don’t only happen to the Jays. But it really does feel like I’ve had to say that a lot this season. Woof.

▼ The George Springer pinch runner flap

Yes, of course the Jays were right to be cautious with George Springer’s left knee and take him out of the ballgame when he was clearly in some discomfort after having to put the brakes on when rounding second base hard in the bottom of the seventh inning. I know he wasn’t happy about being taken out, but the team needs him for the next month more than they needed him in that situation (or his bat with two outs in the ninth inning later on), and it’s not like he didn’t prove the decision right by walking somewhat gingerly to third base after being removed from the game. How was this even a question?

Wednesday (Blue Jays 5 - Orioles 4)

It wasn’t easy, but they did it. Here’s three up…

▲ Randal Grichuk’s sac fly

It’s been tough sledding for Randal Grichuk for most of this season, and you can tell this because he’s getting an up arrow here for making an out. But what an out it was! Just barely deep enough for Bo Bichette to scamper home with the go-ahead run while Teoscar Hernández got himself hung up between second and third for the final out of the bottom of the eighth.

Grichuk has a 65 wRC+ since the start of June, which is now the fourth worst mark among 141 qualified hitters in baseball. But hey, he got it done for his team here. Barely.

▲ Scratching and clawing

The rest of this game was no easier than Grichuk’s sac fly. Steven Matz walked four batters and allowed five hits but battled his way through five innings with just two runs on his record. Tayler Saucedo gave up a double and a single on either side of a pop up to allow Baltimore to get within a run (and may have seen more damage if not for a great pickoff throw from Alejandro Kirk to nab Austin Wynns straying a little too far off first base), and Joakim Soria gave up a walk and a double on either side of a strikeout (and may have seen more damage himself if not for another heads up play from Kirk to get Trey Mancini at third trying to take an extra base when the throw game home), but Tim Mayza and Jordan Romano once again got the job done as the bullpen mostly held. (Some reasons to not look past Kirk as the Jays’ potential catcher of the future were examined this week by my Blue Jays Happy Hour cohost Nick Ashbourne over at Yahoo Sports, and they certainly felt on point after this one.)

On the offensive side of the ball the Jays got a big blast from Marcus Semien in the first, but otherwise had to get scrappy about it. In the bottom of the fourth Bo Bichette beat out a potential double play ball (with help from some big bounces and an aggressive Vladimir Guerrero Jr. slide), then stole second and scored on a Teoscar Hernández single. After a fly out from Kirk, Corey Dickerson then pulled the same trick, singling, stealing second, and then scoring along with Hernández when Lourdes Gurriel Jr. singled.

A real team effort — and another reminder that Gurriel has seemingly turned his season around over the last month. He was hot back in June (130 wRC+), but struggled badly in April (52), May (79), and July (85). Since the start of August, however, he ranks 32nd in baseball (among hitters with at least 80 PA) with a 146 wRC+. Is it just another streak for a streaky hitter? Perhaps. Is Gurriel the guy I tend to think will be the odd man out when the Jays retool next year and try to find put together a lineup that doesn’t quite look so similar? Yes. But if he wants to build that trade value while also helping the Blue Jays down the stretch, I’m very OK with that!

▲ Vlad and Trey Mancini

Back in July, between innings at the All-Star game in Denver, the festivities stopped to allow players, coaches, and fans to honour the people in their lives who have been affected by cancer with Stand Up To Cancer signs, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. chose to write down the name of a division rival, Trey Mancini.

Mancini missed all of the 2020 season after being diagnosed with colon cancer. And though he wasn't an All-Star this season, he was there in Denver to take part in the home run derby — something Vlad gave him some friendly advice about during a Jays-Orioles game in early July. The two teams hadn't met since, and when Vlad reached first base in the fourth, he and Mancini finally got to connect and shared a hug — a rare on-field gesture for players on opposing teams and a pretty cool moment.

Roster moves!

I mentioned the additions of Nate Pearson and Danny Jansen, and the subtraction of Trent Thornton, in the sections above, but for the sake of completeness let’s have a quick rundown of all the Jays’ roster moves over the last few days — which culminated in expansion of rosters on September 1 to a maximum of 28 players.

Monday, August 30

• George Springer activated and Josh Palacios optioned to Buffalo.

Tuesday, August 31

• Danny Jansen activated and Trent Thornton optioned to Buffalo.
• Brad Hand activated from the bereavement list and designated for assignment. On Thursday he was claimed by the New York Mets — a reasonably smart move for a tire fire of an organization, but one I have absolutely no faith will work out for them given how poorly Hand pitched for the Jays, which somehow was even worse than his performance with the Nationals prior to the trade. Putting up -0.4 fWAR in just 8 2/3 innings is hard to do, but he managed to pull it off here. You've gotta Hand it to him I guess. (A big Mets style thumbs down for that joke.)
• Seriously, though, it's amazing how poorly the Hand thing worked out. In 2020 this guy was worth 1.1 WAR in just 22 innings, posting an ERA of 2.05 with 29 strikeouts and just four walks! It's hard to fathom given the guy we saw in a Jays uniform. And while I doubt that Riley Adams is going to keep on producing like the way he's done for the Nationals in his brief time there, the Jays sure wasted a trade asset that could have been sent elsewhere in this deal, didn't they? Ugh. Best to be moving on at least!

Wednesday, September 1

• Brian Baker added to the 40-man roster, taking Hand's spot, and added to the active roster.
• Nate Pearson recalled from Buffalo and added to the active roster.
• Anthony Castro reinstated from the injured list and optioned to Buffalo.
• The Jays announce the completion of their July 30th trade with the Diamondbacks for Joakim Soria. Going the other way are catcher J.J. D'Orazio (19) and left-hander Yaifer Perdomo (20). D'Orazio hit well in the complex league this summer, though the strikeout and walk numbers aren't so impressive, and he's struggled in a very limited taste so far in Low-A Dunedin. Perdomo was excellent in the complex league as well, striking out 59 batters in 33 innings and posting a 2.45 ERA, and he's also struggled in a very limited look at Dunedin. Lottery tickets.

Scoreboard watching

The Jays are off as I write this here on Thursday, waiting for the Oakland Athletics to come to town following a series with Detroit that concludes today. The Jays are chasing the A's, with Oakland currently 2.0 games back of the Boston Red Sox, who hold the AL's second wild card spot. Boston plays in Tampa today before heading back home to host Cleveland over the weekend. Seattle, who inexplicable remain in the race at 3.5 games back of Boston, are off on Thursday and visit Arizona over the weekend. At 4.5 back, it's do or die time for the Jays who have to go to the Bronx for four with the Yankees next week. A major stumble in either series and it will get that much harder to see them coming back.

The Jays haven't announced their starters officially for the three-game set with the A's, but we do know that Oakland will be sending lefty Sean Manaea to the hill on Friday, right-hander Paul Blackburn (who has had three nice starts for them this season despite not having big league success since way back in 2017) on Saturday, and another lefty, Cole Irvin, on Sunday.

Atkins speaks!

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins spoke with members of the media on Monday in Toronto, ahead of his team’s 7-2 victory over the Baltimore Orioles. Unfortunately for me, this particular scrum actually took place at the Rogers Centre, with various beat reporters in attendance, rather than on Zoom. I was, therefore, unable to transcribe Atkins’ words myself, and have instead had to cobble together this selection of quotes from pieces by Kaitlyn McGrath of the Athletic, Mitch Bannon of Sports Illustrated’s Fan Nation, Rob Longley of the Toronto Sun, Scott Mitchell of TSN, Laura Armstrong of the Toronto Star, Shi Davidi of Sportsnet, Keegan Matheson of BlueJays.com, and Tim Wharnsby of the Canadian Press. (Sorry if I forgot anyone!)

Here are the highlights.

On the team’s offensive funk

Obviously the Blue Jays haven’t been hitting much in the second half of August, and especially of late, having averaged just 2.7 runs over 10 games from the start of their previous homestand against the Tigers through their series in Detroit last weekend. “We have yet to have a time where all things have been happening for this team,” Atkins told reporters, and this is undoubtedly true. The bullpen and the lineup were excellent out of the gate, but it took some time for the starting pitching to stabilize — which it largely did after Ross Stripling’s mechanical changes and the move from Tanner Roark to Alek Manoah. The bats kept on going at that point, but somewhere in May things in the bullpen went absolutely sideways, and the bulk of June and July were spent plugging holes there while also finding new and unique ways to piss games away. The ‘pen wasn’t exactly “fixed” with the additions of Adam Cimber and Trevor Richards in late June and early July, but with those moves, the addition of Joakim Soria at the trade deadline, and the reemergence of both Jordan Romano and Tim Mayza, in August things at least started to get better, at which point the bats dried up.

For his part, Atkins, ever the optimist, isn’t overly concerned. Or if he is, he isn’t letting on.

We feel good about the team, we feel good about the shape of the organization and feel that we have enough season left to really make a good run. We have yet to have all things clicking at once. Even in that 9-2 stretch (during the team’s first homestand back in Toronto), it was really our pitching that kind of carried us through that. We’ve yet to have a time where all things have been happening for this team and very confident that it’s in our future and, certainly, hopeful it starts soon.

“I think you’ll see (a turnaround) in run differential turning into wins and being more consistent wins,” he added.

“We feel good about the team. We feel good about the shape of the organization and we feel that we have enough season left to make a really good run,” he also said.

However, in situations like these, there is only so much that the front office can do. Atkins’ solution?

Making sure that the information that we’re providing is as helpful as possible, that it’s synthesized and simplified in a way that’s digestible and something they can use. And then constantly thinking about any slight competitive advantage that we can find. It’s not that we don’t do that. Now when things don’t go as planned, then we think about how can we do it better, how can we do it differently?

How indeed. But Atkins does seem to believe that the struggles the team has gone through lately are maybe not as bad as they’ve seemed. Part of it, he believes, is a matter of perception.

It’s just so magnified, I think, with where we are in the standings, how well they have performed offensively all year. We’ve had so many big individual performances and in many cases a lot of really good team performance from an offensive standpoint. It’s a combination of guys just hitting a little bit of a lull, which does happen, and if we had the answer to why that’s occurring then it would be occurring less.

It’s not only about perception though, he conceded.

I think there is a lot to be said for having different approaches in your lineup and having a little bit more balance to it — not just necessarily right-handed, left-handed but how many pitches they’re seeing, what type of pitch types can be used to attack certain hitters.

The similarity in the Jays’ lineup is something he acknowledged on Bob McCown’s podcast last week, which I wrote about at the time. Cavan Biggio certainly gives the lineup a different dimension when he’s available — something Dante Bichette identified as vital for this team nearly a year ago.

Another player who helps in this regard is, of course, George Springer.

On George Springer’s return

George is a proven, very professional (hitter) with plate discipline and elite ability to swing at pitches he can drive, so that will be a big add to the lineup for sure.

Obvious stuff here, obviously. But while the fact that Springer is an incredibly good and dangerous hitter is obviously the key takeaway from his return, in the context of the conversation above he’s also important because he can actually pass the baton. This season Springer’s walk rate is 11.7%, second on the team behind Vladimir Guerrero Jr., whose 12.9% rate ranks 15th best in baseball among qualified hitters. If Springer was qualified for the batting title himself he’d rank 26th.

That kind of a hitter is so important, the Jays figure, that with their season running out, they’re pushing him back into the lineup a little early.

“I think it’s the point in the season where we’ll take the DH at-bats in that progression,” Atkins said, “and then we’ll just go a day at a time, in making sure that the recovery’s there.”

If it seems as though the Jays are playing the same sort of dangerous game that burned them with Springer earlier in the season, that’s because it’s true. But the club is going into this with open eyes.

We were comfortable with the risk and what the medical assessment is and understanding from our doctors that he is not putting his knee at more risk from running and from moving forward with the next step.

He added that the club has “pushed him very hard … to make sure that he's not masking anything or covering anything up.”

Yeah, good idea! And hey, instant impact, amiright?

On Robbie Ray

The Blue Jays have the potential American League Cy Young winner on a one-year free agent contract worth $8 million. It’s pretty remarkable!

The fact that they might end up squandering that season, while also having the two best position players in baseball by fWAR? Remarkable in a different way.

Anyway, asked about what’s made the difference for Ray this season, Atkins explained:

Just getting on the plate has been the biggest adjustment and that was a concerted effort from our scouting staff, from Pete Walker, and he has obviously taken it and run with it because the strike-throwing is now at a level that had made him one of the best pitchers in the game for this year.

Speaking of remarkable, last season Ray walked 45 batters in 51 2/3 innings. This season he’s walked just 39 in 159 1/3.

Ray spoke after Monday’s win about how his manager and coaches have helped him.

We built a really good relationship with (pitching coaches) Pete and with Matt Buschmann, and with Charlie and I feel like the trust is there and it’s only grown. I feel like Charlie’s allowed me to go deeper into the game, maybe pushed the envelope a little bit sometimes and in those situations, I feel like I’ve earned that trust and I’ve made it to where he can trust me in those situations.

Sounds like a guy who certainly wouldn’t be disinclined to stick around if the money is right. And last week on McCown’s show, Atkins didn’t exactly throw cold water on the idea himself.

I'm so happy for him, I couldn't be happier for him. The guy has worked exceptionally hard, and like I talked about, the competitiveness, and we'll see. Obviously we'll remain interested and would love to get him back here and will do everything in our power to make that happen.

Pay him.

On Nate Pearson and Julian Merryweather

Both Pearson and Merryweather pitched on Tuesday night, with Pearson getting the call to the big leagues a day later.

Back on Monday, Atkins was pleased with the progress of both, saying their situations were “really encouraging. Both are recovering well. Both are feeling strong. Their stuff is there. It's just more about refining and command at this point.”

On Pearson, he explained that “the power is certainly there, the depth to his slider has been impressive, his curveball has been effective. It’s really just been about command.”

As for Merryweather: “Coming off one outing, we were extremely encouraged by where his power was with his velocity. For him, the crispness of his secondary weapons will be what we’re looking for.”

Either of them could be a difference-maker down the stretch. Getting both of them going would be divine.

On Cavan Biggio

As mentioned above, Cavan Biggio would certainly also give lineup another type of hitter for pitchers to have to deal with. The Jays, Atkins says, are hopeful that he can return before the end of the season after suffering an elbow sprain while on rehab assignment in Buffalo last week, but he remains shut down from baseball activity and they’re currently taking things “a week at a time.”

Atkins recognizes how important he could be for the team, though, provided he can make it back while the season is still salvageable — and provided that, once at full health, Biggio can put the on-field struggles that have plagued him all season behind him. On Monday he said that he had spoken to him, and that his message was to “just be yourself, it’s exactly what we need is yourself.”

The guy with an elite walk rate on a team that ranks 24th in MLB at just 8.0%? Yeah, that could help.

On Santiago Espinal

I may have missed this elsewhere, but I think I only saw this note in Kaitlyn’s piece at the Athletic, so I’ll credit her by name here. Regarding Espinal, here’s what she wrote:

Santiago Espinal’s right hip strain has been diagnosed as a Grade 1-plus, meaning it’s closer to a Grade 2 strain, but either way, Atkins said the infielder is expected to be out beyond the 10 days of an IL stint.

On one had, I suppose it’s good that Kevin Smith and Breyvic Valera are around to help the Jays weather this. On the other, it’s a real shame, because Espinal has been such a pleasant surprise for the Jays this season. And at 1.4 WAR in just 213 plate appearances, pretty valuable too.

On Gabriel Moreno

The Jays’ top catching prospect has been out with a broken thumb since late June, but fortunately a return to the field seems to be on the horizon.

He’s progressing well and could be playing baseball here soon. He’s doing all baseball activities, it’s just a matter of now having his body ready to play five to seven to nine innings.

The plan appears to be for him to return to Double-A, but a move up to Triple-A could still happen before the season is through — a possibility this year because the Triple-A scheduled, like the big league one, lasts until October 3.

“It’ll just depends on how he’s feeling, recovering and what our options are at that point,” Atkins said about that possibility.

It seems unlikely that we’ll see Moreno in the majors this year, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility entirely. As for next season, if he gets to Buffalo by the end of 2021, the path for him to become the full-time starter sometime in 2022 is wide open.

On Charlie Montoyo

The dreaded vote of confidence!

One of the hardest things for a baseball manager, a leader in sport, football, basketball, hockey, whatever it maybe is, is to let individuals be just that. It is a clear strength of his. He wants to impart his values and his morals in a way that is constructive and respectful. He wants individuals to be that, and you can see that in the personality of the team. You can see that in stressful times in the way they rally around one another and how proud they are of one another.

It’s abundantly clear — both from what he says, and from how this dugout has tended to operate — that what Atkins wants in a manager is very much not a tactician. It puts Charlie in a difficult position, because fans can only see and evaluate so much, and it will be an interesting to see how — or whether — the team responds to the braying masses who are so sure that one man alone is responsible for the weird choices the team tends to make too much of a habit of.