Carrying a one-run lead into the bottom of the eighth with a shot at opening this four-game series at Fenway Park on a positive note, the Blue Jays' bullpen ran into trouble once again. Alex Verdugo launched a two-run home run off Trevor Richards to hand Toronto a 5-4 loss, dealing another blow to a club that just can't seem to find the traction it needs for a season-defining run.
The Blue Jays' bullpen stepped out of that unwanted spotlight for a while through late June and early July, but it was the second game in a row Toronto's relievers have surrendered a lead.
The Red Sox won both games against the Blue Jays last week in Buffalo, N.Y. -- the third being rained out -- and Monday's loss had shades of Toronto's last trip to Boston in June. Over a month ago, the Sox walked off the Blue Jays twice, which made a 2-2 series split feel like a series loss.
"It comes down to pitching at the end, and the moment [starter Thomas] Hatch doesn't go five innings, you've got to piece everything together," said manager Charlie Montoyo. "The whole bullpen actually did a nice job, and Richards made one mistake. [Adam] Cimber went five [outs], we were hoping for Richards five and [Jordan] Romano four. We were one out away from getting Romano in the game, but when you've got to piece it together … the bullpen did a good job today and Richards made one mistake."
The Blue Jays are now 4-8 against the Red Sox in 2021, and when you combine that with a 5-8 record against the Rays and a 6-6 record against the Yankees, that's the difference between Toronto making a true push in the AL East and staying at arm's length.
Hatch could have set up the bullpen better, as Montoyo alluded to, but the right-hander was in an awkward spot after not pitching in a Minor League game since July 13, and he was making his season debut. Hatch was scheduled to pitch last week against the Red Sox in Buffalo, but that game was rained out and he instead threw a long bullpen session. Including a long second inning, Hatch gave the Blue Jays 3 2/3 frames, allowing three runs on seven hits while striking out four on 73 pitches.
"For the most part, my stuff was arriving where I wanted it to," Hatch said. "I felt like they made some good swings on some pretty good pitches. The second inning kind of took it out of me a little, but I was able to battle and get a few more outs there. It's not what we completely wanted, but I think it's something to build off of."
Verdugo's homer was a gut punch after Bo Bichette put the Blue Jays in front with a two-run shot, his 18th of the season to give him 67 RBIs. Prior to this past weekend's lineup reshuffle, Bichette doesn't think he's ever hit cleanup, with his attacking mentality and speed built for the top two spots in the lineup, but he's looking at home in his new role.
Montoyo liked Bichette in the cleanup spot because of that aggression, which can be a little more productive with high on-base hitters ahead of him in George Springer, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Marcus Semien. Bichette's at-bats will be littered with RBI opportunities, and for a hitter who loves to take big hacks and put the ball in play with hard contact, that's a recipe for success. There will be plenty of noise in the coming days between this Red Sox series, the club's return to Toronto and the Trade Deadline on Friday at 4 p.m. ET, but Bichette is focused on what's right in front of him.
"Honestly, I don't really pay attention to what's going on outside of the clubhouse. This game is hard enough as it is and we have enough on our plate as it is," Bichette said prior to the game. "For me, I'm just focused on what we can do tonight, how we can do our best tonight and the same thing tomorrow and the next day. This team, right now, has the ability to produce and win at a really high level. Whatever happens happens, but whatever happens, we'll continue to fight. I believe that we can do something special."
At 49-47, there's no realistic scenario that would see the Blue Jays being true sellers. With a young core and the potential to go on a run, this is still a conversation about which level of "buyer" Toronto will be, but a quick run of a few wins over Boston to end this series would be a fine way to move the needle. If this run is going to happen, a key part of it needs to happen within the AL East.