TORONTO – It's been a bad week for a good bullpen.
Starter Drew Hutchison left after six innings with a 3-2 lead, only to watch as three Blue Jays' relievers collapsed in the seventh, leading to five Baltimore runs. The Orioles wouldn't look back; in fact they would tack on, winning the game 11-4 and the series, two out of three.
It was Brett Cecil's turn on Thursday night. Having not allowed a run in eight-and-two-thirds innings of work this season, Cecil entered with one out and a runner on second in the seventh. He walked Nick Markakis and, after a double steal, intentionally walked Nelson Cruz. Chris Davis slapped a two-run single to left field to give Baltimore the lead. After an Adam Jones RBI double, Cecil's night was over. In the end, he faced four hitters, each of whom reached base and each of whom scored.
“I didn't feel like I had a good feel for anything,” said Cecil. “I was pulling my cutters and curveballs were up. Not as sharp. I thought I made a good pitch to Davis, hit the glove, hit it where (Dioner Navarro) had it and it was two or three inches off the plate. Terrible swing, but he did exactly what he was supposed to with the shift on, just a soft ground ball.”
A week ago Thursday in Minneapolis, Steve Delabar, Sergio Santos and J.A. Happ cratered in the eighth inning, walking a historic eight hitters while allowing six runs on just one hit and three wild pitches. The ordeal turned a 5-3 Toronto lead into a 9-5 deficit.
Aaron Loup walked the bases loaded in the sixth inning of Sunday's game in Cleveland. A David Murphy bases-clearing double later and the Jays' 4-2 lead was erased. The Indians didn't look back in a 6-4 victory.
On Wednesday, Todd Redmond was rocked trying to protect a 6-3 lead in the fifth. In Redmond's defence, he inherited a bases loaded, none out situation against the top of the Orioles' lineup. Baltimore scored six times, total, in the inning and won the game 10-8.
The bullpen's overall numbers aren't pretty in the last seven games: 23 2/3 innings pitched, 22 earned runs, 23 hits and 24 walks.
Manager John Gibbons isn't panicking.
“I don't think it snowballs, at least it hasn't yet,” he said. “There are going to be some blips every now and then. I still think our bullpen stacks up as good as anybody out there. We have some key go-to guys. We had a chance to close it down there, at least get out of that inning, Davis snuck that ball through. But, no, I'm not really worried about the bullpen.”
There's already chatter, less than a month into the season, about whether the bullpen is fraying under the weight of the demand on its arms. Blue Jays starters don't get deep into games often enough. Factor in Toronto relievers threw 552 2/3 innings last season, third most in baseball, and at some point, fatigue will become a problem.
“I believe in that,” said Gibbons. “Over time you look at it, a lot of times it's year to year. Guys that have good years and they're used a lot one year, it's usually somewhat of an off year the next year and then they bounce back. That's kind of, just generally, the way baseball goes. Bullpens get used a lot, I don't care whether you're good or bad, in this day and age, it's just baseball because it's mainly a lot of one-inning guys nowadays, specialists, so they get used a lot, but that's just the way it goes. You have to be durable down there and you have to take your slumps down there sometimes. But it can definitely catch up with you, but it's too early in the season to think that has anything to do with it.”
One reason for optimism: it's been a different guy getting beat each night. Delabar and Santos in Minneapolis, Loup against the Indians, Redmond one night against Baltimore and Cecil the next. The collective result has been abysmal of late but the individual issues have been one offs.
The Jays had better hope these are, in fact, one-offs. Otherwise, a trend's begun which threatens a relatively hopeful start to the year.
GIBBONS CONSIDERS SIX-MAN ROTATION
Drew Hutchison's six innings of work on Thursday night marked just the 10th time in 22 games a Blue Jays starter went that long.
The starting rotation's troubling early trend, combined with this week's post-game admissions by R.A. Dickey and Dustin McGowan to feeling fatigue by the fifth or sixth inning, has manager John Gibbons considering his options with the schedule about to get busy.
After Monday's off day, before a three-game series in Kansas City, Toronto will have only one off until June 2.
A six-man rotation could be implemented.
“We've even talked about because May, it's jammed up, creating our own off day, maybe just spot-starting someone in there; maybe Happ or something,” said Gibbons.
The first date a sixth man would be used is the Sunday, May 3 finale of a three-game series in Pittsburgh. J.A. Happ isn't the only option. Marcus Stroman, who along with Aaron Sanchez is the organization's top pitching prospect, is off to a fine start for Triple-A Buffalo. In three starts he's posted a 2.18 ERA and 26 strikeouts against six walks in 20 2/3 innings. Stroman's hit total is high, he's allowed 22, but most of those runners aren't scoring.
Gibbons mused that a six-man rotation could be implemented on multiple occasions leading up to the All-Star Break.
This is a reaction to Wednesday's comments by McGowan, who admitted publicly to feeling fatigued in the fifth inning when, with a 6-3 lead, he walked Ryan Flaherty, gave up a single to Jonathan Schoop and hit David Lough with a pitch. McGowan was lifted for Todd Redmond, who promptly coughed up the lead.
McGowan hadn't complained about fatigue to Gibbons or anyone else. His comments to the assembled media were the first the manager had heard about it, which led to a conversation between the two in Gibbons's office on Thursday.
“I was curious what he had to say,” said manager John Gibbons. “He says he feels great. I guess he just answered questions or something (Wednesday) night brutally honest. He'll make his next start and we'll see what happens.
“The thing is, I think his stamina is fine,” continued Gibbons. “He said he ran out of gas, but if you leave him in there, I guarantee you he can throw 90 to 100 pitches. It's just do you leave him in there or not. That's my decision.”
The Blue Jays continue to monitor McGowan and Brandon Morrow closely. While their respective situations are different, both have extensive injury histories. McGowan insists his arm is okay, which offers hope that his fatigue may subside if his body can adjust to the rigours of pitching every fifth day. Remember, a stomach virus shortened McGowan's spring. What's more, he hasn't been a regular starting pitcher in six years.
“We've told him, if something's bothering you, it doesn't feel right in your arm simply because of what you've been through, let us know and he's guaranteed he'll let us know,” said Gibbons. “But I think, (Wednesday) night, he was just brutally honest with you. And I kind of like that.”
GIBBONS TALKS PINEDA AND PINE TAR
Blue Jays manager John Gibbons believes his Red Sox counterpart, John Farrell, had no choice but to ask the umpires to check Yankees' starter Michael Pineda for an illegal substance in the game between Boston and New York on Wednesday night.
“You almost had to,” said Gibbons. “If you don't ask, everybody's looking at you. You'd catch heat for that.”
Pineda was found with pine tar on the right side of his neck. He was ejected and on Thursday he was given a 10-game suspension.
Gibbons asked the umpires to check the inside of Orioles starter Miguel Gonzalez's glove in the fifth inning of Tuesday night's game. They found nothing.
“Well, you want to make sure if you do it, you're right and we weren't right,” said Gibbons. “So we're 0-4 with appeals and 0-1 on checking on the pitcher. It's got to get better, doesn't it?”
It's generally accepted that pitchers use foreign substances, typically sprays, to improve their grip on the baseball. Gibbons believes the Pineda incident, especially considering the same substance was thought to be on his hand in a start earlier this season, is different.
“I still have a hard time believing pine tar (is) not making the ball do something,” said Gibbons. “It's for your grip but it's a heavier substance, so it's something that's going to affect, if the wind hits that thing, it's got to do something.”
FRIENDLY TRAFFIC REMINDER
If you're coming to Rogers Centre this weekend to see the Blue Jays take on the Red Sox, keep in mind the Gardiner Expressway closes for spring maintenance at 10 o'clock Friday night. It doesn't reopen until 12-noon on Sunday.
It's best to plan an alternate route or method of transportation if you're traveling into Toronto.