Ross Stripling bounced back from one of the worst outings of his career with a strong showing against the Mets on Sunday in New York, but that was overshadowed by a late loss that can be pinned on the bullpen.
This is an old ghost that came back to haunt the Blue Jays, but this bullpen group has been stronger of late after going through an ugly month of June. The Mets got to Ryan Borucki and Jacob Barnes for two runs apiece, handing the Blue Jays a 5-4 loss and a series loss at Citi Field as the club continues to look for some traction in the American League East and AL Wild Card races.
Stripling getting back to “normal” is something that the Blue Jays needed to see, though. This club plays 15 games over its next 14 days, including a doubleheader against the Red Sox when it returns to Toronto, so now is not the time to be testing rotation depth. Alek Manoah is already on the IL with a back contusion, and while he should return the next time through the rotation, there aren’t many names ready to step in beyond Thomas Hatch, who will fill in for Manoah on Monday in Boston. T.J. Zeuch, who has made some spot starts in 2021, was dealt to the Cardinals for cash considerations on Sunday after being designated for assignment.
Last time out, Stripling got rocked by the Red Sox, who were right on top of every pitch he threw. The right-hander allowed six runs and recorded just one out, and while his stuff wasn’t at his best, part of Stripling’s struggles were also mental. Following that loss, Stripling explained how he’d been dealing with the weight of learning he could be away from his wife and young son for the next two months as the Blue Jays moved back across the border to Toronto, and that impacted his focus. Sunday represented a step back in the right direction, though, closer matching his strong run that stretched from late May into early July.
“I was just sharper all the way around,” Stripling said. “It can’t get much worse than the last one. I never even got a chance to get in any kind of rhythm in the last one against Boston. Today, everything was a little more crisp. I was able to flip in some curveballs for strikes and get ahead with that, which hasn’t been a weapon for me at all. The changeup and slider were both good and my fastball was solid. As far as my arsenal, it all worked for me today and I kept them off balance. I was able to get through five and keep us in the game coming off the last one where I never even gave us a chance.”
The Blue Jays’ offense had its usual top-heavy approach, with the top five batters in the new-look lineup accounting for seven hits and all four RBIs. The bottom four were held to just two hits, though, and the Blue Jays went just 3-for-19 with runners in scoring position, wasting multiple opportunities to jump ahead throughout the game. There will be days like this to go along with offensive outbursts like Saturday’s 10-3 win, but they can become particularly noticeable when the lineup is falling short in big moments with runners on.
“It’s funny because when you see a guy like Rich Hill, it looks like you should be able to hit him, but that’s what he does,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “He’s a good pitcher and he keeps guys off balance and makes big pitches when he has to. Credit to our offense, we came back against him and we scored again in the eighth inning to make it a one-run game. Then at the end, against their closer, we had a man on second with a chance to tie the game.”
There’s nothing encouraging about the series loss, of course, for a Blue Jays team that still needs that one big hot streak to set the tone for the second half of their season. They came out of the break hot, sweeping a series over the Rangers, but have since dropped four of five to the Red Sox and Mets.
Getting Stripling back to a steadier version of himself is key, because on most nights, this lineup will put up a better performance than its 3-for-19 mark with runners in scoring position on Sunday. This season’s main challenge for Toronto has been getting all of its phases clicking at once -- that’s starting pitching, the bullpen and the offense -- and Sunday's loss is another example of being one phase short.