TORONTO -- Player Page for David Robertson rubbed the stitching of a fresh baseball at the back of the mound on Sunday afternoon, glancing toward the first-base dugout. He caught the eyes of his manager and pitching coach, then nodded toward first base. With the game on the line, the Yankees reliever wanted to face Justin Smoak.
As manager Aaron Boone cradled his chin with his left hand, pitching coach Larry Rothschild thumbed toward first base, making sure that they understood. Robertson nodded again, and Boone shouted several times through the crowd noise toward catcher Austin Romine, holding up four fingers and signaling an intentional walk for Josh Donaldson.
"It is the matchup that we determined we preferred with Robbie," Boone said later, after Smoak's grand slam had powered the Blue Jays to a 7-4 victory at Rogers Centre. "We like him better against Smoak. I think he felt better with the Smoak matchup. You've got to tip your cap there."
The decision highlighted a rough weekend for Boone and his vaunted bullpen, with the Yankees dropping the final two contests in Toronto while settling for a series split. After Dellin Betances stumbled memorably on Saturday, permitting Kevin Pillar to steal three bases in an inning, Tommy Kahnle and Robertson coughed up a three-run lead in Sunday's matinee.
"[The bullpen] is going to be a strength. I am confident of that," Boone said. "Everything is a little bit magnified in the early days, good and bad. I'm really comfortable over time that those guys will continue to do their thing and not be just a strength, but I think an overwhelming strength of this club."
Sonny Gray needed 89 pitches to navigate four-plus innings of one-run ball, but Chad Green fired two excellent innings, permitting a hit while striking out four. Boone turned to Kahnle, who walked Donaldson to open the seventh before Smoak crushed a two-run homer, trimming the Yanks' lead to a run.
After Robertson recorded the final out of the seventh, Russell Martin opened the eighth with a single and Aledmys Diaz stroked a one-out double. Devon Travis tapped softly back to the mound for the second out, which prompted the exchange of glances between Robertson and the visiting dugout.
Donaldson was 3-for-8 with two homers lifetime against Robertson, but the right-handed hitter appears to be favoring a right shoulder injury. Smoak was 0-for-5 with a walk and four strikeouts against Robertson, although the switch-hitter would stand in the left-handed box.
"I feel like a lot of the history was a few years ago," Smoak said. "It's one of those things, it's going to happen to J.D. a lot. He's an MVP. He's one of the best players in the game, so it's going to happen. I'm ready for it."
Boone said that the call to face Smoak was "not just on a whim," stating that it was absolutely the matchup that the Yankees preferred.
Robertson didn't help his cause by falling behind Smoak, 2-0, though a swinging strike and a called strike evened the count.
"I feel like off of him it's always a battle," Smoak said. "He throws any pitch, any count, and I knew I was going to be getting some curveballs in there. Once I got to two strikes, I tried to battle. He snuck a heater by me that I took earlier in the at-bat, and I figured he might try to do it again."
Robertson went to his curve four times from there, missing the zone with one while generating three soft fouls. The ninth pitch, a 92.9-mph fastball, caught too much of the plate, and Smoak didn't miss it.
"Everything I'm throwing there is quality in the strike zone. I just wasn't fortunate today," Robertson said. "It'd be nice if he didn't catch it on the barrel, but he did."