The Jays get Trop'd in a recurring nightmare

On another loss at the Trop, Robbie Ray's velocity dip, the need for more urgency when games are close, Charlie not looking at the standings, Ron Kulpa's terrible ninth, scoreboard watching, and more!

The Tropicana Field curse was at it again on Monday night, as the Toronto Blue Jays coughed up an early 2-0 lead and failed in a late comeback to lose 6-4 to the Rays. So let’s talk about it!

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Monday (Blue Jays 4 - Rays 6)

Welp. Here’s three down…

▼ Robbie Ray

Three earned runs in an outing is hardly the worst thing in the world, but the Jays’ Cy Young candidate only lasted 4 2/3 innings in this one, and it was entirely because he just didn’t have his best stuff. The Rays were able to battle Robbie Ray all night, fouling balls off with more ease than usual, which likely had something to do with the fact that Ray's average fastball velocity was just 93.7 mph, down 1.2 mph from his season average. In his last start, also against the Rays, he threw 28 pitches at 95 mph or above. In this start he threw just three.

Ray racked up 97 pitches through those 4 2/3 innings, allowing seven hits and two walks while striking out five. Again, it could have been worse, but he was in an incredibly tight battle with the debuting Shane Baz — yet another elite prospect from out of the Rays system (by way of their heist of the Pirates in the Chris Archer trade) — and ended up having the worse night of the two.

For a while he was able to escape damage. Part of the reason for that, however, was a brilliant double play in the third turned by: 1) Loudes Gurriel Jr., who made an incredible catch to rob Yandy Díaz with Kevin Kiermaier on second base.

And 2) the Jays’ bench (I’ll assume it was a collaborative effort!) for catching that Kiermaier had failed to re-touch third base after having rounded the bag before seeing Gurriel’s catch and having to scamper back.

Unfortunately, the Rays were finally able to get to Ray in the fifth. With one out, Taylor Walls hit what should have been at least a double down the third base line, but the ball caromed off the umpire and rolled out to Bo Bichette at shortstop, forcing Walls back to first. A wild pitch moved him to second anyway, and then he moved to third on a Kiermaier chopper that the Rays swift-footed centre fielder beat out for an infield single. Four pitches later, Yandy Díaz turned on a 93.4 mph fastball on the inner black and blasted it into the seats to turn a 2-0 Jays lead into a 3-2 Rays one.

This stuff happens, particularly in this godforsaken building. The concern, if any, is the velocity. The Jays are going to need Ray at his absolute best over the next couple of weeks, and for the second time in three games he didn’t quite have it. We’re a long way from panic time on this, but his next start — set for Saturday against the Twins in Minneapolis — just got that much more interesting.

▼ The low leverage relievers

You can pretty easily split the Blue Jays’ relievers into two groups. There are the top guys — Jordan Romano, Tim Mayza, Trevor Richards, Adam Cimber — who are held back for when the team is in the lead. And then there’s everyone else. The system generally works alright, because you definitely want the team’s best relievers rested and available to protect a lead late. The “everyone else” types can’t be trusted in those situations for a reason — and that reason is that they just keep bleeding runs.

For example, Tayler Saucedo got the sixth inning in this one, and he could almost be forgiven for giving up a run, because Jake Lamb made a really poor throw to first to try to make sure he got Kiermaier on a ground ball, which allowed Joey Wendle to score. Unfortunately, Saucedo isn't without blame here, because he got up 1-2 on Wendle and then hit him with a pitch. That's paper cut number one.

Paper cut number two came by way of the still inconsistent Nate Pearson. Formerly a prospect of Baz's stature, the last couple season have been a struggle for big Nate, and this one would only add to that narrative. Díaz singled to lead off the inning. Nelson Cruz next hit a hard line drive right at Teoscar Hernández. After a Randy Arozarena strikeout, up came Manuel Margot. Pearson got ahead 0-1, then got him to swing over a slider for 0-2. The pitch bounced and was blocked by catcher Alejandro Kirk, but unfortunately rolled far enough away from the plate for an alert Díaz to take second. A couple pitches later and Margot held back on a slider in the zone and poked it through the infield to score another run and end Pearson's night.

I think it's worth noting here that, anecdotally (and extremely frustratingly!), it really felt that all night the Rays were hitting balls that were going through the Jays' infield, while themselves always being perfectly positioned to vacuum up the grounders that came at them. Annoying Trop bullshit!

More pertinent here, however, is the fact that there may at least be some kind of explanation for Pearson's struggles. According to a segment between innings on Sportsnet with analyst Joe Siddall and host Jamie Campbell, Pearson may have been tipping his pitches.

"It looks like when he comes set there's a little movement with his glove on the slider," Siddall explained. "The glove stays more still on the fastball."

He offered the following — and more — as visual evidence.

It’s definitely subtle, as Siddall himself noted. But you can see the glove moving before throwing the slider, as he seems to feel around for the grip, whereas on the fastball he’s much quieter.

Margot definitely whiffed on a slider outside the zone, like the one we see Arozarena take above. And Arozarena himself struck out. So maybe this isn’t what it looks like. On the other hand, a guy tipping can still be really difficult to hit — sort of like how the Astros, in the thick of their trash can scheme, were better than they should have been, but hardly putting up video game numbers. And I certainly wouldn’t put it past a team like the Rays to have picked up on something like this.

Then we have Ryan Borucki. He got a big out to end the seventh, but then gave up a solo shot to Wendle to begin the eighth, pushing Tampa's lead to 6-2.

Borucki went on the injured list in mid-May. At that point in the season he had a 4.05 ERA over 13 1/3 innings, but that was coloured largely by a blow-up against Atlanta. He'd generally been fairly successful, albeit not as good as 2020. He had a 3.16 FIP, was striking out over a batter per inning, had a BB/9 of 3.38, and had allowed just one home run.

Borucki returned to action against Texas in mid-July. Though he hasn't been with the Jays the entire time since then, he's racked up 8 1/3 big league innings. In those he's struck out just seven batters, walked six (6.48 BB/9), given up four home runs, and posted a 6.48 ERA and 9.88 FIP.

That’s a really small sample, and this certainly isn't the only answer to what's wrong with Borucki, but guess what happened between those two stints in the big leagues?

I suppose it’s not particularly insightful to point out that relievers who haven’t proven themselves trustworthy enough to protect a lead are struggling or have flaws, but at this point in the season, given what is on the line, it behooves the Jays to stop treating a 3-2 deficit any differently than a tie game. Their lineup has proved, time and again, that they’re able to come back and make a game of just about any hopeless cause. They did it again in this one, and damn near pulled it off.

They may have actually done it had there been a little more urgency from the bench to keep the game from getting away from them when it was still so incredibly tight. Granted, trustworthy options are limited in the bullpen right now, and ultimately it falls on the relievers called upon to execute better. Plus, I’m sure there would have been howls if the Jays had burned some of their better relievers for the sake of a lost cause. But as we can see, the cause wasn’t lost, and with the stakes as high as they are, I’m not sure how much longer these types of decisions can keep on being made as though it’s mid-June.

Of course, a lot of Jays fans will probably be saying today that perhaps that has to do with this silliness.

Now, a few things here. First of all, this isn’t a good thing to say. Uh, full stop. Like… what, man? You’re just asking for people to call you nuts or unserious here.

Fortunately, it’s almost certainly untrue, or even if it is true, not knowing the up-to-the-minute standings does not mean not understanding the stakes. It also doesn’t mean that the people Charlie collaborates on decisions with and takes pre-game input from don’t know all this very well. I can absolutely see Charlie trying to put out those “one day at a time” vibes by maintaining a line like this as a way to trying to keep guys as loose as possible at an incredibly stressful point of the year. That seems to really be primarily his job, right? But all those fans who already think the guy’s clueless are going to run with this, and I don’t know how defend it. Weird thing to say as a manager in the middle of as tight a three-team race for two playoff spots as one could imagine!

Anyway, Merryweather and Pearson need to figure it out or this will continue to be a problem.

▼ Ron Kulpa

I said last night on Twitter that the Jays didn’t really have a lot of right to complain about awful umpiring given that they entered the ninth inning with just two hits to their credit all night. And yet, hoo boy, they absolutely have some right to complain. The top of the ninth inning was a travesty from an umpiring perspective.

And it wasn’t just the ninth, either.

But, of course, the ninth was the real kick in the teeth. George Springer began the frame with a bit of good fortune, blooping a double behind first base. Then, in classic bloop-and-a-blast tradition — and also in the tradition of Marcus Semien being awesome — the Jays’ second baseman crushed his 41st of the season to make it 6-4.

Suddenly we have a game! Except apparently the umpire had dinner plans or something.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was next up and managed to work a walk. Bo Bichette came next, and he looked at four straight balls from the Rays' new pitcher, J.T. Chargois. Unfortunately, in a pattern that would keep repeating itself throughout the frame, one of those balls was called a strike.

Bichette flied out to right on the fifth pitch. And even if we can't simply say that he should have gotten a free pass out of this at-bat — because Chargois would have approached things differently had he gone down 2-0 instead of evening the count at 1-1 — Bo also would have at least gotten a juicy 2-0 pitch to look at. In at-bats that get to 2-0 this season, Bichette has a .453 on-base. From 1-1 his OBP is only .320. That’s a pretty significant difference.

Next up was Teoscar Hernández, and once again Kulpa made a poor call that changed the at-bat completely. Chargois was clearly having trouble finding the zone, and Teo — who had homered once in the game already — took two obvious balls to go up 2-0. He took the third pitch as well, and it was accurately called a strike. The fourth pitch, however, was clearly low but called a strike anyway.

If you take a look at the image in the bottom right corner of Chris Black’s tweet above, you’ll see that Blue Jays’ pitchers were certainly not getting called strikes in this part of the zone all night. So that was another incredibly frustrating part of how this all went down.

Teoscar ended up working the count full and then swinging at an outside slider for out number two. Had a ball correctly been called on the fourth pitch the count would have been 3-1. Hernández has a .561 on-base in plate appearances that get to 3-1 this season. In at-bats that get to 2-2 his OBP is just .257. That’s a game-altering screw-up.

Danny Jansen followed with a single, then Lourdes Gurriel Jr. managed to work a walk, despite the fact that Kulpa made another poor call on a ball off the plate outside that ran the count to 1-1 instead of 2-0. This loaded the bases for Breyvic Valera.

Valera looked at three straight balls. Then, depending on the source, he looked at two more balls, both of which were called strikes. He ultimately didn’t have a good at bat from there, accidentally fouling off a high and inside fastball as he checked his swing which would have certainly walked in a run, then staring at a fastball firmly in the zone for a — surprisingly correctly called — strike three.

Despite his failures after getting jobbed, this remains another egregious bit of umpiring. Except, well, about that “depending on the source” bit. To be fair to Ron Kulpa, Baseball Savant had both of the first two strikes called to Valera as in the zone.

MLB Gameday (which, to also be fair, I trust less than Savant) captured them much more the way I saw them (i.e. horseshit calls).

And the great Umpire Scorecards tabbed them as the worst two calls of the night. Which also absolutely tracks.

Two runs in Tampa’s favour? Yeah, that sounds about right. Now, remind me what the final score was again????

Scoreboard watching

It was not a great night for the Jays on the scoreboard watching front, which is precisely why it was so vital to have opened up a 1.5 game lead for the second wild card spot heading out of the weekend. The Yankees beat the lowly Rangers on Monday to cut the Jays’ lead to just a half a game. Boston was off, but with the Jays loss they are now 1.5 games behind the Red Sox, who resume play here on Tuesday against the Mets.

The Mets will have Marcus Stroman on the hill tonight, taking on Eduardo Rodríguez and his 5.00 ERA, so that’s at least some good news. In New York it’s lefty Jordan Montgomery (3.64 ERA) for the Yanks versus right-hander Dane Dunning (4.28 ERA) for Texas. The Rangers have an AL-worst 80 wRC+ against left-handed pitching this season, so maybe don’t scoreboard watch that one too hard. The A’s and Mariners continue to face each other, which will hopefully soon eliminate both teams from contention.

The Jays, of course, will send Alek Manoah to the hill to face Drew Rasmussen of the Rays, who they struggled with last week. Or, at least, struggled to get results off of. In that one the Jays had three outs with an xBA of .780 or above in that one, two more that were over .400, plus a .380 and a .390 to boot!

Could their luck both against Rasmussen and at the Trop finally change tonight? Let’s hope so, because the umpiring sure as hell isn’t likely to be any better. Joe West will be behind the plate calling the balls and strikes. Buckle up, Jays fans!