ST. PETERSBURG – To say Sergio Santos is struggling would be an understatement. To suggest a mutual parting of the ways between the Blue Jays and their former closer after two and a half injury-interrupted seasons would be right on the mark.
After the 31-year-old laboured through the seventh of Saturday's 10-3 loss to the Rays, an inning in which he gave up two runs on three hits and two walks to spike his season ERA to 7.78, Santos suggested he's having difficulty getting into a groove due a lack of consistent game action.
"It's just kind of, to get that slider was a little tough today," said Santos. "I don't know if it has to do with not getting as much work in the last couple of weeks as I would have liked but that's part of the game as well."
Santos' time in Toronto has been a grind. Acquired from the White Sox for pitcher Nestor Molina before the 2012 season, he was supposed to be the Blue Jays' closer for years to come.
There was reason to believe. Santos had authored a 30-save campaign for Chicago in 2011, his second season in the big leagues after converting to pitcher from shortstop, the position he played when the Jays had him in their system in the mid-2000s.
However, a shoulder injury in April, 2012, turned out to be season ending when it required surgery.
Two weeks into the 2013 season, Santos went down with a triceps strain and a month later underwent a procedure to clean bone spurs out of his elbow. Santos was terrific upon his return in the final two months of the year, making 24 of his 29 appearances and allowing earned runs in only three of them.
This year, Santos went to the disabled list after a May 9 appearance with a forearm strain. He returned on June 17 and after six-straight scoreless appearances (5 1/3 innings), he's been hit hard in his last four outings, allowing five earned runs in just 2 1/3 innings.
He insisted it's not a matter of confidence.
"Not so much that," said Santos. "Once you get in the flow of the game and you get there consistently it's a lot easier to kind of have those pitches. When you don't it's just tough because you can throw as many flat grounds and bullpens as you want but there's nothing like a game situation."
Santos wants the ball more and feels that's the only way he'll harness a slider that, when Santos is commanding the pitch, is as nasty as any in the game.
On the other hand, manager John Gibbons can't be blamed for using Santos in mop up duty. Until a relief pitcher proves he can perform in relatively non-pressure situations, he's unlikely to be handed the ball with the game on the line.
Santos did rack up five saves to start the year when Casey Janssen was down with an oblique strain but he blew his next three, including on that frigid night in Minneapolis when the bullpen allowed six runs on just one hit, an otherworldly eight walks and three wild pitches in the eighth inning of a loss to the Twins.
Santos hasn't been the same since.
It's believed general manager Alex Anthopoulos is facing the same budgetary pressures he did during the quiet offseason.
There is a need to upgrade the bullpen. There is a need to acquire an infielder. While the club has been pleasantly surprised by the performance of its starting corps, there isn't a team in baseball that wouldn't upgrade its rotation if presented with the right deal.
Santos makes $3.75-million, the final guaranteed year of a deal that includes three consecutive club options ($6-million in 2014; $8-million in 2015; $8.75-million in 2016).
Given the strange nature of relievers, how they can go from underachievers to consistent performers and vice versa in the blink of an eye, Santos could be of use to another team with playoff aspirations. He has the stuff.
He also has a salary that, if moved, would help to facilitate a dollar in-dollar out deal.
Anthopoulos talks often about getting "creative" in trade talks.
This one seems rather obvious.
McGowan explains Friday meltdown
Dustin McGowan has generally been very good since returning to the Blue Jays' bullpen on May 18.
In 22 relief appearances, the 32-year-old has posted an ERA of 2.86 and an opponent's OPS of .605. He's allowed earned runs in only three appearances.
Yet the perception of McGowan is changing, somewhat, because his two biggest meltdowns have happened recently and they've both been ugly.
On June 28 against the White Sox, it took McGowan one pitch to erase what had been 6 2/3 innings of scoreless work by Marcus Stroman. He hung a slider to Dayan Viciedo, who hit a three-run home run to turn a 2-0 Jays lead into a 3-2 deficit, from which Toronto wouldn't recover.
Fast forward to Friday night, with four scoreless appearances (four innings) in between, McGowan entered the game in the seventh inning with a 5-2 lead.
He walked Evan Longoria on a full count. He walked James Loney on five pitches. That brought up right-handed hitting Sean Rodriguez, who on the third pitch in a 1-1 count slammed a game-tying home run. Just like the pitch to Viciedo, it was a cement-mixer slider.
"It seems to be my nemesis right now, the hanging slider," said McGowan. "I've got to fix that."
In advance of the home run, McGowan was up with his fastball and at other times wide. He was bouncing his slider but the Rays wouldn't offer. He knew in the bullpen he was in for a battle.
"Getting loose I was a little erratic, too" said McGowan. "For me, sometimes, it's different coming from the 'pen to the mound, usually you can lock in on a hitter. It's just one of those games where I couldn't find anything."
While McGowan admitted the sting of failure more than once in a brief period can affect confidence, he vowed the next time a crucial situation called for a slider, he'll throw it.
It doesn't hurt the psyche when the team bounces back and wins, as the Jays did with three runs in the ninth for an 8-5 final score.
"That made it a lot better," said McGowan. "If we had lost the game it would have been really hard on me but we came back and won the game, the guys battled back and that made it a lot easier."
Munenori Kawasaki wasn't in Saturday's starting lineup after feeling hamstring tightness the night before.
Approached by TSN.ca, Kawasaki announced his availability.
"No problem," said Kawasaki. "I play today."
Kawasaki's hit .289 in 23 games since rejoining the club on June 17. He's proven an adequate defender at second base.
"Just cramps," said Kawasaki. "Just cramps. I play today, no problem."
Reimold not okay
Nolan Reimold also was injured in Friday night's game and the news on the recently acquired outfielder isn't as good.
An MRI revealed a left calf strain. Reimold was placed on the 15-day disabled list.
Anthony Gose was recalled to take Reimold's place.