BUFFALO, N.Y. -- If you're the type of Blue Jays fan who turns off the television after five or six innings to get a good night's sleep, you might think this club is 10 games above .500, cruising towards a playoff spot.
The bullpen comes out after dark, though, and it gave up yet another lead in Thursday's 8-4 loss to the Yankees. Now 33-34, the Blue Jays are below .500 for the first time since April 28 and have taken a flurry of gut punches over the past week. Manager Charlie Montoyo is sticking to what he knows best, optimistic that this club will turn things around while he looks for positives in their play.
"We're having fun and we're working hard," Montoyo said. "That's what people need to know… You've seen us. We're working hard. We're taking ground balls and we're trying to get better every day. People are in a good mood."
The Blue Jays didn't help themselves early, of course. With two on and none out in the first, the Blue Jays ran themselves into an ugly triple play, just the 10th they've hit into in club history. T.J. Zeuch could only give the Blue Jays three innings in his spot start, too, leaving the bullpen with the daunting task of covering six frames.
It looked like the bullpen might finally find its groove, as Joel Payamps and Tayler Saucedo turned in a pair of sharp, scoreless appearances, but the Yankees got to Anthony Castro in a hurry. Castro, who opened the season as the surprise success story in the 'pen, had his ERA jacked up to 5.14 on Thursday by surrendering four runs on five hits, retiring just one of the six batters he faced.
"We keep doing the same thing," Montoyo said. "We keep fighting, our kids play hard and we work hard, it's just that we haven't been able to hold the last three innings. You guys know that. I don't even have to say it. It's encouraging, because that's what we do. We have a good group."
The pitchers the Blue Jays built this bullpen around are on the injured list, and the arms that replaced them through the early stages of the season -- often very admirably -- are simply running out of steam. As the club picks up from this series sweep at the hands of the Yankees and heads to Baltimore, here's what it can take away from the past three days:
The bullpen still needs help, but it's not coming tomorrow
Flickers of hope like Saucedo on Thursday or Patrick Murphy in his 2021 debut on Wednesday are important, but if that's what the Blue Jays are going to lean on, they'd better find them in bunches. This group needs multiple upgrades, not just incremental improvement.
Some of that will come internally, as Julian Merryweather works his way back from the 60-day IL (left oblique strain), ideally later this month. Merryweather's 4 1/3 innings in April were jaw-dropping, touching 100 mph and baffling hitters. Ryan Borucki (left forearm flexor strain) will help, too, but it's clear that trade additions will need to be considered. It's a bit early for teams on the bubble to admit they're sellers, but as that begins to happen into July, expect the Blue Jays to be involved. Contracts and prospect capital should not be an issue.
The lineup needs to carry the team… for now
Think back to those 2015-16 Blue Jays teams. Some nights, they just had to plain outscore their opponents. We love to lean on the old mantra of "pitching and defense wins championships," but when your offense is your strength, lean on it. Besides, a 9-8 win counts the same as a 2-1 win.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is playing like an MVP, Marcus Semien has recaptured his 2019 form and George Springer is on the verge of a return. Slugging your way to wins isn't exactly the most sustainable way to win, but the Blue Jays have the offensive firepower to run teams out of ball parks some nights. Until this bullpen improves, they'll need to.
Division games matter, and it's no longer early
"Early" ended a long time ago. Looking back to late May, when the Blue Jays dropped six in a row against the Red Sox and Rays, those are what you'll point to if this division tightens up down the stretch. If, on Sept. 17, you look at the standings and see the Blue Jays two, three or six games behind the Yankees for a Wild Card spot, remember a series like this.
The silver lining? The Orioles. Baltimore sits in the basement of the division for a reason -- well, many reasons -- and the Blue Jays haven't faced them yet. That changes Friday, when the Blue Jays travel to Baltimore for a three-game set, and they'll need to cash in on every single opportunity against weaker teams.