PHILADELPHIA — With a three-run lead and six outs to go, the Blue Jays were well positioned entering the bottom of the eighth inning Wednesday night.
Tim Mayza had just struck out Bryce Harper with the bases loaded to escape a jam in the seventh inning and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. responded with a no-doubt three-run homer. With their best relievers rested and two innings to go, the Blue Jays were in a good spot.
But Yimi Garcia immediately gave up three runs and Matt Vierling would later outrun Adam Cimber with his fifth hit of the night as the Phillies beat the Blue Jays 4-3 in a 10-inning game that took four hours and eight minutes to complete. A strong start by Kevin Gausman went to waste and a wild drive at Citizens Bank Park ended in disappointment for the Blue Jays.
“It was just a tough night,” Blue Jays interim manager John Schneider said. “You always feel good with a three-run lead and the back of our bullpen. It didn’t work tonight.
Granted, the Blue Jays’ bullpen has been better in recent months, with closer Jordan Romano in particular offering remarkable consistency. But he now has blown two straight saves dating back to Sunday’s series finale against Baltimore. And as Cimber came in with a ghost runner already on second, he couldn’t get away.
Anthony Bass, meanwhile, didn’t pitch at all, but Schneider said the right-hander was available. The Blue Jays simply preferred other relievers to Bass, who pitched last Friday against the Orioles. If nothing else, the timing of this bullpen drop comes at an inopportune time, given the importance of the games ahead.
“We depend a lot on those guys,” Gausman said. “It will happen. it’s baseball. This time of year, you don’t want to think about it too much… throw it away and move on.”
Earlier, Guerrero Jr. seemed to have given the Blue Jays all the offense they needed. With runners on the corners and none out in the top of the eighth inning of a scoreless game, Guerrero Jr. smashed a 99 mph pitch from Seranthony Dominguez 429 feet into the left field seats for his 30the home run of the season.
Those power numbers are perhaps easier to miss than they should be. By hitting 48 home runs last year, Guerrero Jr. showed that he is capable of more. This year, that potential has not been fulfilled.
At the same time, he entered the game Wednesday with a 134 OPS+, which means he’s 34 percent better than the league average at the plate when you factor in era and ballpark. Among hitters with a 134 career OPS+: Mookie Betts, Prince Fielder and Fred McGriff. This performance doesn’t match what Guerrero Jr. accomplished last year, but it still ranks him among the best offensive players in the game.
As Schneider said: “Great at-bat for Vladdy.”
Gausman, meanwhile, allowed just five singles, walked two and struck out eight against a tough Phillies lineup. His material was lively, with a fastball that topped 98.4 mph and a splitter that generated 11 swings and misses. In addition, he worked seamlessly with Alejandro Kirk, who returned to his position behind the plate after soreness in his left hip led to an eight-day layoff at catcher.
Thanks to the Rays’ loss, the Blue Jays remained tied with Tampa Bay, but the Yankees swept the Pirates, meaning the Blue Jays fell to 6.5 games in the AL East. At this point, each Yankees win further moves the division title further away and increases the likelihood of a three-game wild-card series.
“Everyone is checking the scoreboard and paying attention,” third baseman Matt Chapman said Wednesday afternoon. “For us, every game is an obligation to win… That’s the mentality right now: win every day.”
Of course it doesn’t help when the Yankees pull off unlikely comebacks like they did Tuesday, when Aaron Judge hit home run No. 60 and Giancarlo Stanton followed with a grand slam lead off.
“We’re paying attention,” Chapman said. “Seeing what Aaron Judge does day in and day out is impressive. He is a great player. It’s fun to watch. Unfortunately, he’s leading that team that’s ahead of us right now…that’s how tough this division is.”
Meanwhile, two players experienced problems on the left side on Wednesday. Santiago Espinal left the game with soreness on his left side, while Gausman stretched out his left arm in an attempt to corner a pitch from Guerrero Jr. in the second inning, only to overstretch the glove side. Afterwards, he said that he felt fine physically despite the awkward move.
From here, the challenge only intensifies when the Blue Jays head to St. Petersburg, Fla., to play four games against the Tampa Bay Rays, the team chasing the Blue Jays in the wild-card race. With Tampa Bay holding an 8-7 lead in the season series, the Blue Jays will need to win at least three of four against the Rays to clinch tie-breaking advantage should the teams finish the season with identical records.
And while it can be argued that finishing third and securing a first-round matchup against the AL Central winners, that’s not how Chapman sees it. The Blue Jays are 43-32 at Rogers Center this year, and there’s more comfort at home, too. Even if the Blue Jays now have an overwhelming chance to attain the playoffs, they care how they get there.
“Regardless of where we end up, we want to host,” Chapman said. “We want to play in front of our home fans. We know how well we play at home and how much fun it is to have our fans behind us. I’ve played on the road in the playoffs before and it’s tough. It’s always good to have the home crowd, so we really want that.”
Ideally, the Blue Jays would make sure these four games in the Trop are their last.