ST. PETERSBURG -- For weeks, the Blue Jays’ runners in scoring position have remained runners in standing position.
That has left the offense asking each night’s starting pitcher to be perfect, and even with a pair of timely hits in Friday night’s 5-2 loss to the Rays at Tropicana Field -- the Blue Jays' fifth loss in a row -- it felt like more of the same. These problems will only grow more challenging, too, if George Springer misses any time after leaving with a sprained left ankle.
It was a scene already too familiar for Blue Jays fans when Springer raced after Brandon Lowe's drive toward the center-field wall in the bottom of the second inning. Springer leaped on the edge of the warning track and came down hard near the base of the wall, his right foot planting into the ground first. The awkward angle sent him slamming back into the wall, though it injured his other ankle, as Lowe cruised into third with a triple.
It was eerily similar to Springer’s injury last August in Seattle, when he leaped at the wall and came down awkwardly on his left ankle. Add in a pair of quad injuries that plagued Springer earlier in 2021, and it has been a challenging 14 months for a max-effort player who has been served an extra scoop of bad luck. For now, manager Charlie Montoyo is calling this ankle sprain “mild”.
Springer was visited by Montoyo, a trainer and a host of his teammates as he attempted to walk it off in center field. He initially stayed in the game and batted in the third, recording a groundout, then was replaced in center field by Raimel Tapia in the bottom of the inning.
“Obviously, your first thought is the worst-case scenario, like he broke his leg,” said Kevin Gausman, whose seven-plus strong innings weren’t rewarded. “That’s what you’re thinking. Luckily, it seems like it’s just an ankle sprain, so that’s the biggest thing once the game ended. Let’s go find out how George is doing. He’s a guy that brings so much to not just the lineup, but in the clubhouse every day. He’s one of our leaders. I’ve never seen an entire team be out in center field for one guy.”
That only added to the frustration of a tough stretch, one that has included a recent players’ meeting organized by Springer himself.
“They want to win so bad,” Montoyo said. “We all do. Of course. That’s part of trying too hard, when you get frustrated. They’re talking to each other, and the coaches are, too. Hopefully, they get going. At the end of the day, it’s their clubhouse, and they talk to each other. They had their meeting the other day. That’s what we want.”
In a perfect world, Springer bounces back just fine Saturday or after an extra day of rest. Baseball is all about preparing for hundreds of scenarios outside of the best case, though.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Teoscar Hernández and Tapia would form the new starting outfield, with Bradley Zimmer also seeing some time in center, where he excels defensively. Zimmer has hit just .075 with 19 strikeouts and one walk over 42 plate appearances, though, so something would need to change quickly.
Beyond that group, the Blue Jays might need to get creative. Cavan Biggio is building back up at Triple-A Buffalo after a stint on the COVID-19 IL and went 1-for-3 over six innings on Friday night. He’s capable of playing the corner outfield spots along with utility man Vinny Capra, who recorded his first Major League hit on Friday.
At Triple-A, camp curiosity and 14-year MLB veteran Dexter Fowler was released by the club on May 3, leaving Nathan Lukes as one of the top off-roster options. Lukes had a very impressive Spring Training and has carried that into the season, hitting .328 as Buffalo’s leadoff man. Longtime Blue Jays prospect Josh Palacios likely would have been next in line, but he was claimed by the Nationals on April 15.
Regardless of how this happens and who’s in the box, the Blue Jays need to hit, period.
Montoyo said several times following Friday’s loss that he’s encouraged by the players taking it upon themselves to work on this, and to encourage each other not to push too hard or try to do too much. It’s counterintuitive to try “less” in pro sports, but that’s one of baseball’s great challenges.
“George has a good feel for that. He felt we needed to talk and reiterate the things we’re trying to keep doing,” Gausman said. “That’s about being a good teammate and being there for the guy next to you. He just said that this is a grind, but we’re going to come out of this. When we do, we’re going to be better because of it.”
Springer is right. A lineup topped by him, Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Hernández is eventually going to run some teams out of stadiums.
That’s a whole lot easier to do with Springer at the top, though. And at this point, the Blue Jays need some good news.