TORONTO -- With Kevin Gausman laying on the infield turf two innings into the Blue Jays’ split doubleheader at Rogers Centre on Saturday, it looked like a long day was turning into a nightmare.
Struck on the right ankle by a 100 mph comebacker off the bat of Tampa Bay's Wander Franco, Gausman went down and stayed down. The medical staff rushed on and even the Blue Jays’ three outfielders ran in to be with their pitcher, but Gausman walked off and the Blue Jays got some good news. With X-rays negative, Gausman only has a contusion.
“I was just hoping that it wasn’t anything worse than a contusion,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “And that’s what it was, which is good news. Then I thought about who was going to cover the game, but it was [Gausman] first. Gausman and his health. He’s one of our best pitchers.”
Too quickly, the focus of each game became survival. That’s not how it’s supposed to work for a star-studded team with World Series aspirations.
When Gausman went down, Casey Lawrence jogged in with a clear understanding of his job. He needed to keep the Blue Jays in the game and save the bullpen, even though he’d just thrown 99 pitches in Triple-A on Tuesday, making this “short rest” for someone who’s typically a starter. He eventually allowed six runs, but gave the Blue Jays 5 2/3 innings on 87 pitches, earning respect and praise from Montoyo after leaping into action.
“In those situations, you throw your routine out the window and just try to get loose,” Lawrence said. “Luckily, they were going to give me as much time as I needed. Then it was balancing, after pitching Tuesday, not throwing a whole lot to get loose to save as much as I could for the game. I just did what I could to get ready and left it all out there.”
By taking one for the team, Lawrence set the Blue Jays up to bounce back in the second game of the doubleheader with Thomas Hatch on the mound, but the Rays rocked the 27-year-old. Hatch allowed 10 runs on 12 hits and two walks over 4 2/3 innings, including three home runs. Coming off four wins in five days against the Red Sox and Rays, this loss left Saturday’s marathon feeling rather uncompetitive.
This was a golden opportunity for Hatch, too. Injuries slowed the right-hander in ‘21 and he’s pitched to a 5.12 ERA in Triple-A Buffalo to open this season, but this is a young starter the Blue Jays have believed in. Last Spring Training, pitching coach Pete Walker called Hatch a “dark horse” of the group and said that he had “the ability to be an outstanding Major League starter.” Walker isn’t one for empty praise, either.
Even with X-rays coming back negative, it’s possible Gausman misses time. Toronto will know more in the coming days, but if Hatch had pitched well Saturday, he’d be the automatic call to slide in for the next trip through the rotation.
Now? The Blue Jays would be searching for answers.
Hatch would still be part of that conversation, of course, along with Lawrence. Max Castillo, the 23-year-old who’s impressed of late but was optioned following Game 1 on Saturday, is another option. The fact that there is a conversation, though, and not a solid, obvious depth option is telling.
When Hyun Jin Ryu was lost for the season to Tommy John surgery, Ross Stripling slid into the rotation automatically. It’s been incredibly valuable for the Blue Jays, but there’s no Stripling 2.0 waiting in the wings. That brings the Blue Jays to the Trade Deadline, exactly one month away on Aug. 2. Starting depth was already a clear priority for Toronto, but after Saturday, that can only grow.
This is why the ‘20 Deadline continues to work as an interesting model for the Blue Jays. High-end options could make sense, but that year, the Blue Jays went out and added Stripling, Taijuan Walker and Robbie Ray, back before Ray was reborn as a Cy Young Award winner. Such depth additions could help to shore up the back end of this group, allowing the top end to shine.
With so much talent elsewhere on this roster, this one long day was a lesson on how important smaller issues at the bottom of a roster can be.