Stripling, bulk relievers can't slow Yanks

Middle relief an area that Blue Jays could look to improve before Deadline

June 18th, 2022

TORONTO -- The mighty Yankees brought reality to Rogers Centre on Friday night, exposing a Blue Jays weakness while asserting their division-leading dominance.

Even as the Blue Jays have found their stride through May and June, the Yankees exist forever on the horizon, always drifting out of reach. Friday’s 12-3 loss saw the Blue Jays bend in the middle, allowing eight runs in a never-ending fifth inning to hand the Yankees their eighth straight win.

By most measurements, the Yankees are the better team playing better baseball. That’s as of June 17, of course, and as the Blue Jays (37-27) hold themselves up alongside the 48-16 goliath, there’s no secret what needs to change as they work to close the 11-game gap.

That eight-run inning saw the Yankees send 11 men to the plate and hit three home runs, including an Anthony Rizzo grand slam that thumped off the facing of the 300 Level in right field while the stadium fell into a disappointed murmur. It was relentless, the type of inning you’ve become accustomed to the Blue Jays hanging on lesser teams.

“If you play a team that’s that hot, you have to execute. We didn’t do that,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “They just swept the Rays. They’re hot. To get teams like that, we have to pitch better and we didn’t do that today. Obviously.”

The strength of Toronto’s bullpen exists in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, but Friday showed what an elite team can do against the Blue Jays’ middle relievers. Trent Thornton, who had been excellent of late, allowed five runs while recording just one out. Trevor Richards, who’s been the first man out of the bullpen plenty this season, allowed three runs in his one inning of work, ballooning his ERA to 6.59.

“These guys are hot right now,” said starter Ross Stripling, who lasted 3 2/3 innings on 84 pitches and allowed two runs. “They’re clicking on all cylinders. This was a good test for us and we weren’t really up for the task tonight, but we’re better than how we played tonight, for sure.”

Few bullpens in baseball can hold up their “bulk” relievers as a true strength, but for legitimate contenders, it needs to be.

This is where expectations matter. The Blue Jays expect to play deep into October and have every reason to think that. There’s certainly room to add to the back end of this bullpen ahead of the Aug. 2 Trade Deadline, which is typically high on all contenders’ shopping lists, but finding an answer in the middle innings with legitimate upside has to be right alongside it. New York’s deployment of Michael King earlier in the season is a fine example, often pitching him in the sixth and seventh to bridge the gap to the big guns.

“It goes back to what I always talk about, which is pitching,” Montoyo said. “They have good starters, so they have a chance. They’re in the game every game. Of course their lineup is swinging the bats, but they probably have the best bullpen in the league that I’ve seen so far.”

This brings us back to the obvious option all along, Nate Pearson.

Pearson has thrown two innings in each of his last two Triple-A outings, building from 35 to 43 pitches. The Blue Jays would like to continue building his workload and challenge him with some shorter gaps between outings, but it’s clear that the big right-hander is finally nearing the finish line after a long trip back from battling mononucleosis this spring.

Perhaps Pearson is the answer. Perhaps he recaptures the magic from Game 2 of the 2020 AL Wild Card Series, when he came out of the bullpen to strike out five of the six batters he faced over two perfect innings. If that’s possible again, then a few problems will solve themselves, but it takes an optimist to get there.

For now, the Blue Jays will continue working forward with what they have, hoping that the starting rotation can get the ball to the seventh inning more consistently to lessen the strain on those middle innings. Casey Lawrence hauled four innings to finish Friday’s loss while others including Thomas Hatch, Jeremy Beasley and Max Castillo remain internal options.

Great teams expose weaknesses, though, and as the Yankees paused for a midgame session of batting practice, the Blue Jays got a valuable look at one area where they’ll need to close the gap between now and October.