TORONTO — The stark differences between a 60-game sprint and a 162-game grind are starting to show.
The ups, the downs, the injury attrition and the mental warfare players and coaches go through during a six-month regular season schedule simply weren't there last year.
It was a sprint in the truest sense of the word, and the Toronto Blue Jays were able to lunge across the finish line last September to land in an expanded postseason.
Fast forward eight-plus months and the Jays are being reminded how gruelling a 162-game schedule can be and the toll it can take on the psyche of a clubhouse at times, as well as the body as the injury list lengthens.
The aspect many forget at this point is good handful of these players — including a lot of the most important ones — are experiencing it for the first time.
Despite their inherent baseball IQ and their time in major-league clubhouses growing up, even Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio have never gone through this.
The high-water mark for games played in a season for that important trio is 100 for Biggio back in 2019, a 95-loss season that was quickly erased from memory by last year’s successful sprint to a 32-28 record.
Last year, there was no time for frustration. This year, there’s plenty of time for that.
Thanks to bullpen meltdown after bullpen meltdown leading to a drop from six games above .500 on May 18 to a .500 record as of today, this is without a doubt a Jays team that’s in need of a short-term reason to believe.
Long-term, they’ll be fine and the big-picture plan still remains at the forefront, but mix a few ugly losses with high expectations and a tendency as an organization to read social media and this is where you end up.
Consider manager Charlie Montoyo’s frustration following Tuesday’s bullpen blowup.
As far as I can recall, it’s the first time he’s used an on-the-record expletive since he sat at the podium inside Rogers Centre — in front of actual people — after another frustrating night during that rough 2019 campaign.
“It seems like every day I get a question, what’s wrong with [Anthony] Castro? What’s wrong with [Tyler] Chatwood? Or now [Rafael] Dolis. What’s wrong with Dolis? Why are you pitching Dolis in that inning?” Montoyo said. “It’s been every f***ing month, I mean the whole month, about the same thing.”
Montoyo isn’t wrong. But of course the questions are going to be about the bullpen.
The pen has struggled mightily since May 20, blowing six saves and posting a staggering minus-1.0 Wins Above Replacement, by far the worst in baseball.
When the starting rotation was struggling, that was the line of questioning.
Quietly, thanks to Hyun Jin Ryu and Robbie Ray acting as anchors, Steven Matz’s 7-3 record and overall effectiveness, Alek Manoah’s early seamless transition, and Ross Stripling’s adjustments, the rotation has become a sudden strength.
All that consternation from the fan base for not applying more resources to the starting five for months and this is where we sit.
The front office’s rotation reclamation projects and gambles have worked out.
But for the last month, those same additions in the bullpen — after looking so good in April — have not.
Welcome to the ebb and flow of 162.
Will the rotation continue to be a strength into August? The bet here is there’s still some ebbing and flowing to come, and health will unfortunately be a part of it.
Let’s not even get into Manoah’s potential innings limit and how that could affect things.
It’s also impossible for the bullpen to continue to be this bad. That will ebb and flow, as well.
But there’s no way around the fact that it’s costing them games and it’s given general manager Ross Atkins and the front office group a lot to think about heading into the July 30 trade deadline.
To compete with the big boys in October, another frontline starter is needed.
But maybe one of the top high-leverage relievers on the market would be a better target. Perhaps two of them.
We all know how big of a role dominant bullpens can play in October.
It’s almost like nothing has changed: The Jays need pitching. Lots of it. In any form.
Technically, with all the talent in the farm system, they could go out and get all that they need, but that would deviate from the long-term plan that has worked so well up to this point.
In all likelihood, some help will have to come from within.
Nate Pearson is smartly continuing to be stretched out at Triple-A, as the Jays keep the big picture in mind with their top prospect. Moving him to the bullpen in June would be as reactionary as it gets. Moving him to the bullpen in August after the trade deadline has come and gone and Pearson has been able to log important developmental innings in the rotation, however, is likely.
Same with Thomas Hatch, who’s seven Triple-A innings into his stop-and-start return from an elbow ailment.
They look like bullpen help as of today, but by July or August we could be talking about needs in the rotation once again.
Getting Julian Merryweather back from an oblique strain — the Jays are holding out hope for the end of June or early July as a best-case scenario — would provide another boost, but even if the 29-year-old right-hander does return, it’s anyone’s guess for how long with his track record.
Ryan Borucki (elbow) is another arm they need back, but he has just started a throwing program and hasn’t even thrown off a mound yet.
Beyond that, improving the bullpen might come down to a stroke of luck, similar to this front office regime’s 2016 midseason scrap-heap additions of Jason Grilli and Joaquin Benoit that stabilized John Gibbons’ bullpen and helped get them back to the postseason for the second year in a row.
Relievers are the most volatile commodity in baseball and bullpens as a whole follow. No matter how solid the collection of names seems to be, year-to-year, month-to-month and even week-to-week, as Jays fans are being reminded, you just never know.
There’s no quick fix for the pen, just as there’s no substitute for a young clubhouse experiencing the ups and downs of the grind.
This is why Marcus Semien and George Springer — who’s 1-for-8 through two rehab starts at Triple-A, by the way — were added to the mix and not second-or-third-tier pitching.
The veteran voices need to help steer the ship when waters get choppy. And there’s no doubt things are getting choppy for Montoyo & Co.
When Stripling was caught scolding third baseman Joe Panik after an error Wednesday, it would be easy to scream at the TV and say “THIS TEAM IS FALLING APART.”
It would have been a much bigger problem if Stripling was seen yelling at Vladdy or Bo or any other young player, but the veteran right-hander quickly apologized to Panik, an eight-year vet, as well as to the entire team behind closed doors, and then again on social media.
“It’s the most disrespectful thing I’ve ever done, maybe ever,” Stripling said of the incident “Certainly on a baseball field. I’m completely embarrassed about it.”
It provided a glimpse into how the grind of a season can take a toll on a clubhouse, just like any other workplace spending day after day together.
Stripling has been around the block, but emotions are at play over the course of the day-in, day-out nature of trying to win baseball games.
“This game beats you down and then it builds back up and it’ll beat you down again,” Stripling noted.
Montoyo, who has taken the brunt of the criticism for the bullpen walking the world and giving away wins, continues to stay the course with his public messaging.
“When you’re playing bad, that’s when you get frustrated and you go, ‘Okay, we’re just not playing good,’ and it [shows] in team meetings and stuff,” Montoyo said. “But we’re playing good baseball and playing teams over .500 for a month now. So we don’t need to be frustrated.”
Nobody questions the talent dotting this roster, but this stretch has been a reminder that they’re far from perfect as an overall team and it is not only fixes that are needed, but perhaps some patience, too.