Blue Jays can't afford to, literally, throw away games like vs. the Phillies
On Wednesday, everything was going perfectly for the Toronto Blue Jays on a warm, sunny afternoon in Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park. Kevin Gausman was cruising. Brandon Belt had homered off Phillies ace Zack Wheeler, who hadn’t surrendered a long ball since April 1. The Blue Jays took a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning, their closer Jordan Romano on the mound to finish off the reigning NL champs and send the Blue Jays back home with a win. Then everything came undone, a tragic loss that the Blue Jays could come to regret.
The Phillies tied the game with three hits off Romano, including a double by J.T. Realmuto that brought home Bryce Harper for the Phillies’ first run. In the bottom of the 10th inning, after the Blue Jays failed to score off Craig Kimbrel in the top half, Tim Mayza issued an eight-pitch walk to Trea Turner with one out to put two runners on. Up came Harper, the Phillies' two-time MVP playing the seventh game of his miraculous five-month recovery from Tommy John surgery.
Harper hit a hard groundball right back at Mayza, who tossed to shortstop Bo Bichette covering second to get Turner for the second out. It was a tailor-made double play that should’ve sent the teams into the 11th. But Bichette, who had seemed to overcome the throwing yips that had plagued him much of his career, sailed the throw over the head of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at first and allowed Edmundo Sosa to score the winning run. The game came to a sudden and devastating end for the Blue Jays.
Bichette fields his position with flair. He’s prone to throwing off-balance and on the run, making even routine throws look more difficult than they should be. It usually results in wildly inconsistent accuracy. Bichette led the league in errors in 2021 and was second last season; his 47 errors over the last two years were the most of any position player.
But Bichette had cut down on those debilitating errors so far in 2023. He hadn’t made an error since April 8, successfully converting his last 55 assist attempts including one earlier in the sixth inning. Bichette had finally seemed to learn that his wildness too often cost his team. Today, the old Bichette returned at the worst possible time.
The walkoff error masked an otherwise outstanding performance from Gausman, who had to settle for a no-decision despite six shutout innings. After Harper reached on a weak infield single in the first inning and Nick Castellanos followed with another single to put Harper at third, Gausman struck out Kyle Schwarber to begin a stretch of 15 consecutive batters retired. Eight of them came by strikeout as Gausman finished with nine on the day. His fastball averaged 96.1 mph, his fourth-highest mark since joining the Blue Jays. A 99 mph fastball he threw Castellanos in the fourth inning was his fastest pitch since 2020.
Gausman already has three games this season in which he didn’t allow an earned run over at least six innings but didn’t pick up a win, matching his total from all of last season. No Blue Jays starter has ever had four such games in a season. The Blue Jays scored just one run in three of his eight starts.
The 2-1 loss to the Phillies on Wednesday dropped the Blue Jays to 3-6 on their nine-game road trip. They haven’t had any favors from MLB’s schedule makers early this season. The Blue Jays have now played 25 games on the road, three more than any other team. They’ve 12-13 on the road and 9-3 at home. The pitching staff has a 4.77 ERA away from the Rogers Centre; their ERA at home is 2.76, second-best in the Majors behind the Tampa Bay Rays.
“We’ve been pretty good. On the road, we weren’t our best,” manager John Schneider said following the game on Wednesday.
The Blue Jays now return home for 10 straight games, but their schedule isn’t getting any easier. They play the Braves, Yankees, and Orioles during the homestand, clubs that are a combined 27 games above .500.
It’s those pesky Rays that the Blue Jays are trying to catch, and Wednesday’s (literal) throwaway loss won’t help. It’s a cliche to suggest that every game over 162 matters, but it may be true in the ultra-competitive AL East. The 21-16 Blue Jays are now eight games back of the Rays. They are further behind in the division than the St. Louis Cardinals, who have the worst record in the National League. Every team in the division is above .500; the Yankees, fifth place in the East, would be leading the AL Central.
A game like today, with margins for error so thin in the stacked division, could come back to haunt the Blue Jays later on. In August 2021, the Blue Jays lost an extra-inning game to the Tigers after an errant throw on a soft grounder that should’ve ended the game instead tied the score. It was easy for them to say they would just come back tomorrow and brush it off. The Blue Jays ended up missing the postseason by a single game. That throw cost them their season.
The 2023 season is still less than a quarter way through, but more losses like the one they suffered on Wednesday will have the same effect. A talented roster, with aspirations of championships swirling around them, wondering what could’ve been if not for one throw that got away.