The Toronto Blue Jays dropped the final game of their division leading battle with the Baltimore Orioles in an all-too familiar and disappointing fashion – a veritable clash of embattled bullpens leading to trench warfare that resulted in a loss which should have been a victory. For purists in particular, it was as fine a display of highly entertaining and suspenseful baseball as one could hope for – boiling down to closer versus closer, Osuna against Britton, in an almost comic book clash of blazing fastballs and devastating changeups. But the fact that the loss came in extra innings made it difficult for fans to digest and renewed immediate cries for the front office to address a glaring deficiency.
With a record of 4 wins and 8 losses in extra frames this year, the Jays have shown an uncanny ability to remain competitive in games which they end up eventually losing. Sunday’s loss to the Orioles was no exception and ultimately drew the ire of the 47,000+ in attendance who gathered on a gorgeous sunny afternoon to witness a quality start wasted and a key player hurt in the process. In some ways it was a classic Toronto sporting spectacle – resplendent with the doom and gloom of failed promise, a dash of missed opportunity, and the incredulous bitterness which ensues and can only be fully appreciated on social media.
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There is no doubting that these kinds of losses are difficult to swallow and are almost always gruesome to witness, especially at a time of year when every play in every game is scrutinized, magnified, and expertly dissected until the final out of the regular season is registered. Extra innings mean extra arms throwing extra pitches in otherwise abnormal circumstances – it forces us to expect the unexpected, such as when position players are asked to pitch in a contest which ends up lasting the equivalent of two whole games and clocks in at over 7 hours.
Let’s take a moment and review the extra inning affairs for the Jays in 2016:
April 20th – 4-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles (10 innings)
Caleb Joseph scores on a passed ball in the bottom of the 10th when the normally reliable Josh Thole isn’t able to handle the magical stuff of Joe Biagini while facing super villain Adam Jones – a player who probably enjoys beating the Jays more than any other division rival (and it shows). It should be noted that I am saving my Josh Thole magnum opus literary evisceration until after the season is over.
Justin Smoak’s high watermark as he belts his first two home runs of the season with impeccable timing. Unsung hero Biagini gets the win in relief as Smoak does his best Robert Redford impression and ties the game in the 9th before taking the whole enchilada in the extra frame with a majestic left field blast straight out of The Natural. This game was noteworthy for featuring a Rougned Odor home run off the second pitch from Marco Estrada which left countless fans simmering on their couches like an unattended sirloin on the barbecue grill.
Buster Posey is issued a bases loaded free pass and the winning run scores after four straight balls delivered by a struggling Ryan Tepera. Jays tie the game in the 8th inning only to watch the bullpen fail them again while falling back to a .500 record.
May 14th – 6-5 loss to the Texas Rangers (10 innings)
Another loss to the dreaded Rangers, this time on the strength of a Drew Stubbs 10th inning game-winning home run off a woefully ineffective Gavin Floyd. Once again, the Jays rally to tie the game with three runs in the 9th only to have the bullpen vanish when it matters most.
Tulo delivers the winning run on a two-out, two-strike base hit in the top of the 11th which ends a 5-game losing streak. Another come from behind victory requiring Osuna to keep things close as the Jays scuffle to avoid falling four games below .500.
May 29th – 5-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox (11 innings)
Drew Storen wears the goat horns in a game that should have been a breeze against the struggling Buchholz. Former league MVP Pedroia reminds the Jays why he’s still an elite player and delivers a clutch RBI double in the top of the 11th as the Jays lose a glorious chance to sweep away their division rivals. By now it had also become sadly apparent to most fans that Storen was no longer a viable high leverage option for manager John Gibbons.
June 7th – 3-2 loss to the Detroit Tigers (11 innings)
Another former MVP, Miguel Cabrera, provides heroics in the bottom of the ninth with a two strike double to tie the game before Ian Kinsler wins it with a single in the 11th. Aaron Sanchez throws his most dominant game of the season, holding the Tigers to 3 hits and striking out 12 in eight innings of work, but the bullpen is unable to seal the deal, yet again.
June 10th – 4-3 win over the Baltimore Orioles (10 innings)
Mired in a horrific 0 for 19 slump, Edwin breaks out and wins the game in the bottom of the 10th with a walk-off home run in a pivotal early season game. The bullpen was the difference for a change, providing 4 innings of superlative shutout relief back when Storen could still spot his fastball and Chavez was temporarily on fire.
Losing on Canada Day to a team winning their 14th in a row represents the nadir of fan angst and bitterness. This game was featured prominently in one of my earlier articles and included two position players tossing an inning of relief work and a viciously bad home plate umpire hell-bent on ejecting all our best players in a single game.
July 26th – 7-6 win over the San Diego Padres (12 innings)
It’s the Travis show as he nearly wins the game with a walk-off three-run blast before scoring the winning run after drawing a walk during an unearthly 14-pitch plate appearance. One of the few extra inning games where the Jays seemed destined to win. Devon deserves his own variety television show.
July 31st – 6-2 loss to the Baltimore Orioles (12 innings)
As was the case throughout April, May, June, and most of July, our beleaguered relievers failed to protect a spectacular starting pitching effort. With new addition/reclamation project Morales in to offer left-handed pitching support, the O’s explode for 4 runs in the top of the 12th to prevent the sweep and extinguish any remaining momentum of a surging Jays team. Sanchez delivered yet another quality start for naught.
August 1st – 2-1 loss to the Houston Astros (14 innings)
Russell Martin ties the game in the top of the ninth with a visually inspiring home run, but Jays hitters strike out 22 times en route to a crippling 14-inning loss – especially frustrating in lieu of Stroman’s wizardry on the mound – 7 innings, a single earned run, 3 hits, one walk and 13 strikeouts.
With the decline of traditional middle relievers, aka “long men”, the Jays are continuously flipping a coin when pressed beyond the ninth inning – a problem that’s been largely avoided thanks in part to the mercurial league-leading 68 quality starts from the starting staff and their stellar 47-24 (.662) winning record. On the other hand, the bullpen is a ghastly 12-23 (.343) and has failed miserably in addressing the enormous struggles beyond regulation innings.
Great things were expected from veterans like Drew Storen and Brett Cecil as key cogs on the road to the closer. Jesse Chavez was brought in to be the optimal long relief option and subsequently imploded. If not for unlikely contributions from Grilli, Biagini, and Schultz – pitchers not even a blip on the projected fan radar before the start of the year, who knows where this team would be?
Last year, the 2015 Blue Jays played .676 second half baseball on the way to a 48-23 record, finishing with 8 wins and 6 losses in extra inning tilts. Four of those victories came down the stretch and further emboldened the notion that a winning culture was here to stay in Toronto. But this also included valuable appearances by a freshly acquired Mark Lowe, the elder statesman LaTroy Hawkins, and an absolutely brilliant Cecil putting on nightly pitching clinics.
If not for the impressive and unlikely contributions from Grilli, Biagini, and Schultz – pitchers not even a blip on the projected fan radar before the start of the year, who knows where this team would be?
When I began writing this article, Joaquin Benoit represented the only meaningful acquisition to solidify our flagging bullpen – a 39 year-old journeyman, no less. Faced with the looming trade deadline, Shapiro and Atkins added versatile right-hander Scott Feldman to the mix and an aging warhorse in Francisco Liriano. But it will take considerably more for the faithful to feel confident that late inning leads can be protected – convincingly, consistently, and without the usual emotional anguish and heart palpitations associated with most extended game experiences this year.
Contending teams find ways to win most of the time. Championship teams find ways to win when it matters most. And in a three dog race where the margins for victory and defeat remain razor-thin, a winning record in extra innings can often be the difference between celebrating another division title, fighting over a wild card spot, or missing the playoffs entirely.