Blue Jays' strong start spoiled in bullpen game

Richards strikes out 7 in spot start, Cimber charged with six runs in Twins' 8th-inning rally

June 11th, 2023

TORONTO -- For seven innings, everything went according to script. Then it turned into a Michael Bay movie.

The Blue Jays got the full bullpen-game experience on Saturday afternoon at Rogers Centre, as they were handed a 9-4 loss against the Twins that included a seven-run top of the eighth for the visitors.

Navigating the pitching staff in Alek Manoah’s absence was never going to be easy, but nearly coming away with a win only to watch things unravel late added a level of frustration to this loss.

“Really, before the eighth inning, I don’t think we could have scripted it any better than the way it went,” said Blue Jays manager John Schneider. “So it just comes down to making pitches, and today wasn’t the day.”

It did take a while for the Blue Jays’ luck to turn. Before Adam Cimber allowed a grand slam to Carlos Correa to begin the eighth-inning outpour, the home team got commanding performances from its staff, starting with Trevor Richards.

Tasked with going once through the Twins’ order, Richards thrived as the opener, striking out seven batters while allowing one walk and one hit -- an Edouard Julien double on the first pitch of the day. Richards’ outing ended at 53 pitches, the most he’s thrown since 2020, when he was still making sporadic starts for the Rays.

“I kind of just wanted to make sure I went out there every inning attacking guys, throwing as if it was my last inning,” said Richards. “[I wasn’t] thinking about how many [innings] I'll go or anything like that. Just go out there, attack them and focus on the current at-bat.”

The mindset worked well enough for Richards to hand things over to Tim Mayza with the Blue Jays sporting a 2-0 lead in the fourth. Bowden Francis followed with 2 2/3 frames on 33 pitches in his season debut, striking out three and yielding a solo homer to bring the game to 3-1.

What stood out from Francis’ outing?

“Composure,” said Schneider. “The moment didn't seem really big for him.”

That’s a notable compliment, considering the entire game seemed to be high leverage. But despite having thrown just 33 pitches in the outing and being built mostly as a starter at Triple-A Buffalo this season, Francis didn’t return for the eighth, with Cimber getting the ball in his place.

The sidearmer allowed three singles to start the eighth before allowing a one-out grand slam to Correa. Cimber faced two more batters after that, hitting one and allowing a fourth single to another, before the recently reinstated Mitch White came in and yielded a three-run homer to Max Kepler.

As a two-run lead turned into an 8-3 deficit, closer Jordan Romano sat back down and White returned to pitch the ninth.

“It’s how the game goes,” said Francis. “I wanted that [eighth] inning, but I’m just there until they say I’m done, really.”

Despite Francis’ competitive urge to keep going, Saturday’s three-strikeout showing was a positive return after roughly 14 months away from the Majors.

“I was just trying to stay in the moment,” said Francis of his season debut. “I kept worrying about breathing, just staying in the moment and feeling comfortable. It was a good day [for me], but not a good day for the team. So I’ll just keep going forward and hopefully I’ll keep getting innings in.”

The Blue Jays will likely need Francis to get those innings in.

With no real blueprint for Manoah’s return as he works to return to form after a surprisingly bad start to the season, Toronto’s rotation options beyond its five Opening Day starters are thin. Recalling Francis and reinstating White from the 60-day injured list gave the bullpen some length, but those seem like stopgap solutions to a problem that may linger.

Casey Lawrence, who made six appearances with the big league team last season, has pitched to a 5.81 ERA in 12 starts with the Bisons this year. A buzzy option would be No. 3 prospect Yosver Zulueta, but he hasn’t exactly dominated in Buffalo, posting a 4.91 ERA in 17 appearances and seven starts. Meanwhile, top prospect Ricky Tiedemann hasn’t thrown since May 4 with a left biceps issue, and even if he’d been healthy, the club likely wouldn’t have expedited the lefty’s development.

The good thing about getting the best and the worst of a bullpen game on the same day is that it brings lessons in preparation -- a valuable asset as the team sails through uncharted waters.