ST. PETERSBURG -- Turning to a bullpen day for Game 152 in the middle of the American League Wild Card race isn’t how the Blue Jays drew it up, and neither was Wednesday’s result.
The Blue Jays took a 7-1 loss at Tropicana Field that never felt close, and after dropping this series to the Rays, they enter their final 10 games of the season with no room for error and a bullpen that could use a breather after things nearly boiled over in the late innings.
Ryan Borucki, on the mound to close things out in the eighth, hit Kevin Kiermaier in the back with a 93 mph fastball on the very first pitch. Kiermaier was involved in a controversy following Monday’s series opener, when he picked up a card that had fallen from the wristband of Blue Jays catcher Alejandro Kirk. Rays manager Kevin Cash apologized to the Blue Jays, and Toronto manager Charlie Montoyo called it “agua under the bridge,” but that wasn’t the end of it.
Both dugouts cleared, and for a moment it looked like something more would happen, but the players stayed near the first- and third-base lines, exchanging words. Borucki was ejected, forcing the Blue Jays to use another arm in Nate Pearson, and pitching coach Pete Walker was right behind him, ejected after a heated exchange with the umpiring crew. Borucki said following the game that he missed arm side and that it was accidental.
“We didn’t want to use another pitcher, that’s why Pete was so upset,” Montoyo said. “He missed. He hit him, but I understand what it looks like. That’s why I don’t get excited, because I understand what the other team thinks about it and what the umpires think about it, because that [story] was out for two days. That’s what happened.”
With the loss, the Blue Jays briefly fell back into a tie with the Yankees, who host the Rangers on Wednesday night, for the second AL Wild Card spot. The Red Sox, two games up on the Blue Jays for the top spot, are hosting the Mets. Even Boston's two-game lead seems like a comfortable cushion after these past two weeks, where all three of these teams have stayed locked in a race that feels destined to come down to the final day.
Wednesday’s bullpen day was born out of necessity, not strategy. Left-hander Hyun Jin Ryu is on the 10-day IL with neck stiffness, and while Thomas Hatch represented an option for a more traditional starter, the Blue Jays opted to roll with Julian Merryweather as the opener in front of “bulk reliever” Ross Stripling. The Blue Jays have been very fortunate with good health in their rotation for most of the season, but this was a reminder of what it looks like when that’s not the case.
Merryweather was shaky, and he's still searching for his April form and the 100 mph fastball that captivated fans before he hit the IL. Still, he got through his inning without allowing a run, which is mission accomplished for an opener. The Rays jumped on Stripling, though, to blow the game open with a six-run third inning highlighted by Austin Meadows' three-run homer.
With Stripling lasting just 1 1/3 innings, not the three the Blue Jays had hoped for, they were forced to burn through Tayler Saucedo, Anthony Castro, Borucki and Pearson. Chalk it up as a win for Toronto that it stayed away from Adam Cimber, Tim Mayza and Jordan Romano. But it will need steady outings from Steven Matz and José Berríos over the next two days to position itself well for the final week.
“There were some good things today, of course, like Pearson coming in there at the end and doing a good job,” Montoyo said. “Castro looked really good. Merryweather, the more he pitches, the better he’s looking, so that’s only good news for us. It’s just that a couple of guys struggled and we got in a hole against good pitching, so it was tough to come back.’
Guerrero pads stats in AL batting race
The bright spot? You guessed it -- Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Guerrero went 2-for-3 with a double and a walk, raising his average to .323. This is the highest Guerrero’s average has been since Aug. 3, and it keeps him out in front of Houston’s Yuli Gurriel (.319) for the batting title.
For a time, it looked like Guerrero might have a shot at being Major League Baseball's first Triple Crown winner since Miguel Cabrera in 2012. But with 10 RBIs separating him and league leader Salvador Perez, that’s not likely in the cards. Guerrero and Perez remain tied with 46 home runs, though, setting up the kid and the veteran for one of baseball’s most exciting races down the stretch.