ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — There was no panic in the Blue Jays heading into what sure felt like a significant Saturday date at trippy Tropicana Field.
TORONTO – The best laid pitching plans of the Toronto Blue Jays fell apart at roughly 2 a.m., when Alek Manoah reached out to head trainer Jose Ministral and said he was struggling with what interim manager John Schneider called “a stomach bug.”
Since the ace right-hander was due to start the opening game of a day-night doubleheader against the Tampa Bay Rays, that wasn’t ideal. The club’s strategy for the day hinged on Manoah going deep in the first game with a bullpen game built around Mitch White carrying some bulk in the second. A late night/early morning scramble followed.
“It’s a tight group that communicates on the phone and then meets when we get here,” Schneider said of the sudden reset. “You have a lot of different options that are mapped out. It’s nice that we have the depth that we have at the major-league level on a lot of sides of the ball, so it’s trying to put the best pieces together as best you can.”
Their construct, Julian Merryweather ideally going two innings as an opener for White, whom they hoped to extend, didn’t go to plan, with some sloppy play in the field also contributing to what finished as a 4-2 loss to the Rays on Tuesday afternoon.
Merryweather allowed consecutive singles to open the game and Yandy Diaz eventually crossed when Randy Arozarena beat out a potential inning-ending double play at first base, while White was burned by a three-spot in the third that was fuelled by some avoidable mistakes.
White did manage to throw six frames, matching a season-high, pivotal with uncertainty around whether Manoah would be well enough to start the back-end, which he will after recovering during the day. But two moments in the third inning were tough to stomach for the Blue Jays:
• Vladimir Guerrero Jr., not getting his foot set on the bag to receive a relay from Santiago Espinal after the second baseman made a great diving play on a Jonathan Aranda grounder, and then not getting a toe on the base in time, loading them up with none out;
• Arozarena slowing up as he went first-to-third on a Manuel Margot single that deflected off Matt Chapman’s glove, lulling Teoscar Hernandez to sleep as he walked the ball back to the infield, and then dashing for home, leading to an airmailed throw to the plate and a demoralizing fourth run.
Played better, the Blue Jays only allow one run that inning instead of three, a key reason Blue Jays (79-62) fell a half-game behind the Rays (79-61) in the wild-card race.
“That’s how (the Rays) play and you have to try to stay ahead of it,” said Schneider. “Hopefully people learn from it and it doesn’t happen again. But we’re familiar enough with that team to where we know that when you give them extra outs, they usually make you pay. Hopefully, we just tighten it up starting tonight and the rest of the series.”
Opportunistic execution led to all four Tampa Bay runs as they went up 2-0 when Arozarena beat out another potential double-play ball after Aranda reached to make it 2-0 and David Peralta followed with a fly ball to left that plated Wander Franco.
Arozarena was a full chaos agent in that third inning, twice having steal attempts negated by batter interference calls before cleverly exploiting Hernandez on Margot’s base hit.
“Sometimes he’s his own third base coach, manager and he’s invisible,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said of the dynamic outfielder.
With Rays starter Jeffrey Springs picking the Blue Jays apart over six innings – an important contribution for a Tampa Bay bullpen that’s carried a heavy load the past three days – there wasn’t much for a crowd of 23,497 to get hyped about until a two-spot in the seventh.
Shawn Armstrong, having escaped a two-one, one-out jam in the seventh unscathed, wasn’t as fortunate in the eighth when Guerrero and Bo Bichette opened the inning with back-to-back singles and Alejandro Kirk’s comebacker brought a run in and Matt Chapman’s base hit another.
Cash turned to closer Pete Fairbanks at that point and he got Danny Jansen on a sharp grounder to short to end the inning before wrapping things up in the ninth for his seventh save. The laser-firing righty hasn’t allowed a run in his last 18 outings after working around a one-out Raimel Tapia single and catcher interference on George Springer by striking out Guerrero and winning a high-drama, 11-pitch duel with Bichette, inducing a game-ending grounder to first.
“He has been on a tear and it’s been impressive to watch,” said Fairbanks. “And so there, I’m trying to attack in the strike zone for as long as I can. One of us is going to win it eventually. Today we get a groundout to get out of it.”
The effort from White, who hustled to the stadium after getting a 10 a.m. call about the pitching change, meant the Blue Jays needed to use only two relievers and marked an important turnaround from the 18 runs allowed in his three previous starts that led to his demotion. He was brought back as the 29th man for the doubleheader and will have to be sent down again after and, barring an injury, won’t be eligible for recall until Sept. 22.
The Blue Jays have a hole in the rotation Friday – another bullpen game is likely – but then won’t need a fifth starter again until Sept. 24 at Tampa Bay. Either way, White’s work with pitching coach Pete Walker and Kevin Gausman, whom he said “has been great,” should help him the next time he’s needed with a focus on “just kind of simplifying things.”
“What (Gausman) has been saying is 80 per cent. Nice and smooth and easy,” White continued. “I got myself in trouble trying to overthrow in that last outing and the few previous ones, too, trying to do too much. Today was all about tempo and rhythm, nice and easy 80 per cent. …
“Most of it is just mindset. That’s what gets me out of whack mechanically,” he continued. “When I’m smooth and in rhythm and attacking the zone, then it’s fine. Maybe a handful of two-strike pitches I’m going to expand, but every single pitch was like, all right, I’m throwing this in the zone.”
His longest outing since joining the Blue Jays at the trade deadline largely erased the possibility they might have to pitch some relievers in both ends of the doubleheader, though Schneider said beforehand that “those plans have kind of already started, if needed.”
Bullpen coach Matt Buschmann said using someone from the bullpen twice in a day was very feasible, especially since relievers do daily pre-game throwing. Given how that takes place roughly 4-5 hours ahead of their work in the game that follows, “it’s not unusual for them to experience throwing, relaxing and then building back up to throw in the same day,” he explained.
Between games the Blue Jays planned to review everyone’s throwing load, “which we can track in various different ways,” said Buschmann, and if someone was green-lit, “you’d go through the outing, get some recovery and then basically go out to the second game as if the first game inning was like playing catch.”
Manoah wasn’t in the clubhouse before the first game, as the Blue Jays sought to “give him a little bit extra time to get hydrated up, rest, and hopefully get ready for Game 2,” Schneider said in the morning.
That’s what happened.
“He’s feeling fine,” Schneider said after the loss. “I expect a normal outing for him. Feeling a lot better so just ride it out like we always do.”
At this point, you sort of feel sorry for Kyle Dubas every time he talks.
What’s he going to say that will change anybody’s mind? And given that impossibility, why does he have to keep saying it?
But the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager keeps getting pushed out on stage at the end of a sword. Once there, he keeps saying the same silly things. He was out there again this week as training camp started, doing this semester’s first lecture of Intro to Tragedy 101.
“Nobody wants to hear us talking about it,” Dubas said. “They want to see us do.”
Fair enough. Under the circumstances, not bad.
Then, not one minute later: “Our goal is not to win one round. It’s to win four.”
There you go talking about it. How about you win one round and then start lipping off about how you’ve got the big one right there in your sights.
At this point, you sound like a guy who’s just booked his flight to Kathmandu, looks off in the general direction of Everest and says, “Just a few more steps.” Maybe get to base camp before you start setting your intentions in front of the class.
This is the conundrum of modern sports communications. You don’t want to say nothing, because people will fill the void for you. But anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of media law.
Nobody’s good at explaining losing, but right now no one is as bad at it as the Leafs. Their answer to everything is that meme of a cartoon dog drinking coffee in the midst of a house fire saying, “This is fine.”
Has that dog been copyrighted? Because he should be the new Leafs mascot. Then they can send him out to do the talking.
To varying degrees, everyone on this team is trapped in a conversational loop from four years ago.
“We’ve obviously been right there,” captain John Tavares said.
To whom is that obvious, exactly? And how are you defining “right there?”
“We’ve established ourselves as an elite team in this league,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said.
I’ve just realized the perfect thing to get the Leafs for their birthday – a dictionary.
First thing you do, look up the words ‘established,’ ‘elite’ and, just for kicks, ‘team.’
Everybody’s bad at it, but the weight falls on Dubas. He’s the boss, plus he wears glasses. So he must know what’s going on.
Once one of the more forthcoming, three-dimensional GMs in hockey, Dubas’s public persona has been beaten flat by years of failure. He still sounds excited, but excited about talking so fast, for so long, that there is the slim possibility he may avoid facing more questions.
When he gets one he doesn’t have a great answer to (ie. a lot of them), he retreats into hockey boilerplate.
Why do you like this team, someone asked (an inside-out way of asking the more interesting question – why don’t you dislike this team?).
“Everything they are doing now is about winning,” Dubas said.
What were they doing before when, you know, they were losing? Was that about winning, too? When I’m in my car, is everything I’m doing about driving, even when I’m wrapping it around a phone pole?
‘Leafs disease’ – that’s what they used to call losing on the steady with no hint of an intention to change. The virus has mutated. Leafs disease is now a condition whereby rampant verbosity replaces results.
The miserable teams of Leafs yore knew enough to hang their heads when things were going sideways. This team believes the answer to every disaster is to schedule a TED Talk called Losing Your Way to Victory.
The sentences are a problem, but the presentation may be worse.
Has there ever been a more mirthless pro sports organization? When it gets dark for other teams in other sports, a few of them are able to triangulate the ridiculousness of treating who wins this or that game like a real-world problem.
Not the Leafs.
No jokes. No little asides. Absolutely zero capacity to laugh at themselves, from any member of the organization.
To be fair, this isn’t just a Toronto problem – it’s a hockey problem. But it’s still a shame. Canadians are supposed to be funny and hockey is meant to be a retreat from real life. A little gallows humour might put this team’s situation into perspective. It might even win you some credit for having your priorities straight.
Instead, the Leafs have confused solemnity for seriousness. That doesn’t leave them any room to say, “Listen, I didn’t blow that play. I was trying to wave at my mom in the crowd as the puck drifted between my skates” when things go wrong.
They have figured out one thing – that no one is going to believe this team is for real until the second after it proves it is.
That moment cannot arrive until the third or fourth week of April (though it can certainly be disproven before then).
That leaves the Leafs with seven months of sound bites to fill. When you lose three in a row, “four rounds,” “proved we are elite” and “been right there” is not going to work. You’ve set yourself a standard both so high and so hard to credit that you have no rhetorical wiggle room. All you can do is repeat the same affirmations while your audience turns into 20,000 hecklers. That’s a lot of pressure.
So forget about the playoffs. If the Leafs can make it to December without at least one of them cracking it’ll be a Christmas miracle.
The obvious solution – from here until April, don’t say anything. If you feel you must, hire Rick Mercer or Ali Hassan as your next assistant GM. I’m not sure how big they are on hockey, but they will vastly improve the entertainment value of your excuses.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — There was no panic in the Blue Jays heading into what sure felt like a significant Saturday date at trippy Tropicana Field.
There was growing frustrating, however, as the twists and turns of the American League wild-card race were headed in a direction they would have preferred to avoid.
Enter the beast that is Alek Manoah, whose competitiveness is surpassed only by his talent and continuing emergence as one of the best pitchers in the AL.
The burly right-hander delivered seven-innings of shutout ball — dominating at times and grinding when needed in others — as the Jays delivered a 3-1 win over their pesky nemesis, the Tampa Bay Rays.
“He’s a bulldog, man,” said second baseman Whit Merrifield, whose three-run homer in the seventh inning provided all the Jays offence. “He gets the ball when the team needs him. This was a big game for us. This place has given us trouble this year.
“Big Puma threw a big game for us.”
Just as it has been throughout the season — a campaign that has now reached 30 starts — Manoah is the man the team leans on to restore order when needed most.
And in a contest that felt like a playoff preview, Manoah was money.
“I think every game right now is of huge importance,” Manoah said of how much the post-season scent is firing him up. “Every game right now kind of feels like a playoff game. There’s a lot to look forward to in the next couple of weeks.”
The prospects of Manoah pitching games of heightened importance has to be tantalizing for the Jays, especially given how his teammates seem to feed off his efforts. On Saturday, he was dealing through an outing in which he tossed a season-high 113 pitches and striking out eight Rays batters while limiting the Rays to four hits.
In his last seven starts, Manoah has allowed just six earned runs over a span of 48 innings. He has now lowered his ERA to 2.31 while improving his record to 15-7.
The 2022 all-star served up just the type of effort the Jays needed against a Rays team that had taken the first two games of this four-game set. The victory snapped a three-game losing streak and with 10 games remaining in the season, allowed the Jays to reclaim top spot in the wild-card spot, a game up on the Rays.
“He’s putting together a really special year for a young guy and tonight was just another example of one of the premiere pitchers in the game right now,” manager John Schneider said.
“I think he’s proven it to where he’s up for the big games. He’s up for bit spots and challenges like this.”
While offence was at a premium in a stellar pitching duel between Manoah and the Rays Drew Rasmussen, a suddenly heating up Merrifield broke through for the Jays in the seventh inning.
As for Manoah, he’s now thrown seven consecutive quality starts and 24 overall, the most by a Jay since Ricky Romero dealt 25 in 2011. In those last seven starts, his ERA is a skimpy 1.13.
And as we’ve seen throughout his young career, he’s clutch when he needs to be, holding the Rays to 0-5 with runners in scoring position on Saturday.
“These guys have been battling all year, picking me up,” Manoah said. “It’s my job to go out there and pick them up when I can.”
As the Jays remain locked in a game-at-a-time approach, there’s no denying the urgency Saturday’s game carried — and it starts with the crazy things that happen so regularly at the Trop.
The Jays are just 3-5 at the quirky indoor stadium and have grown frustrated at the ways they’ve let games get away from them here over the years.
“I don’t think we’re the only team walking in here or going out of here going ‘WTF,’” Schneider said. “It’s something you’ve got to work around as best you can.”
The Jays, of course, have had trouble doing that against a Rays team that clinched the season series with wins here on Thursday and Friday, and thus hold the tiebreak should the teams be locked at the end of the regular season.
Earning home-field advantage is always a thing worth pursuing, but especially when it eliminates a return here for a best-of-three wild-card clash two weeks down the road.
“It’s definitely an interesting place to play,” Jays third baseman Matt Chapman said. “It’s just different in every way and takes some adjusting and getting used to.”
ROMANO TO THE RESCUE
Closer Jordan Romano was called upon for a four-out save and got the job for number 35 on the season, moving him into solo possession if the eighth most in a season by a Jays reliever.
It was an important bounce back for Romano, who had suffered blown saves in each of his two previous appearances. The Markham, Ont. native got back on track in style as well, striking out three to secure the win.
After anchoring the NHL’s hottest line last season, the Swedish star watched from overseas this summer as both his linemates took turns departing the organization.
And while Flames fans rejoiced when Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk were replaced by the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar and Nazem Kadri, the orphaned centre knew he’d return to Calgary with plenty of unknowns surrounding his new wingers.
While the hockey world is expecting the man on his left will be Huberdeau, coach Darryl Sutter said a few weeks ago the first piece of the puzzle will be determining if the longtime Panthers playmaker fits better with Lindholm or Kadri.
Huberdeau, Lindholm and Tyler Toffoli have spent the first three days of camp together, and while all three are optimistic they’ll find chemistry together, Lindholm shrugged when asked if he’s felt it yet.
“Honestly, the drills we’re doing out there, it’s tough to create the chemistry, ” he said.
“But he’s a good player and good players are easy to play with. It’ll be kind of fun to get games going soon. And we’ll see from there.”
The trio didn’t get much going in Saturday’s scrimmage and is hoping to start the process Sunday night when the Flames host Vancouver to open the pre-season with a split-squad game.
So, what’s the key to trying to find some semblance of the magic Lindholm had with his previous pals?
“Just have fun out there, get it going and get Johnny used to the new system and stuff like that,” said Lindholm, who had a career-high 42 goals and 82 points last season.
“You can tell he’s a top player in the league, with that extra poise with the puck and making plays. He seems like a real nice guy, too. I’m excited to start with him.”
Sutter believes part of building that chemistry involves getting to know one another off the ice as well.
“It’s no different than having your friends at school – same idea,” said the coach.
Speaking to reporters for the first time since the club’s summertime calamity, Lindholm was asked what he thought of losing both his wingers.
“It was a rollercoaster for sure,” he laughed.
“Obviously Johnny had an opportunity to go somewhere else and Chucky wanted a new challenge and to try something else. That’s the NHL, that’s the business part of it.
“I thought the management did a really good job to put us in a good position and have a really good team this year again.”
BIG FIRST IMPRESSIONS
The Flames have their first standout of training camp, and not just because he’s six-foot-eight and 245 pounds.
Adam Klapka picked up from where he left off at the team’s prospect camp by opening Saturday’s first red and white scrimmage with a snipe that had the dozens in attendance murmuring.
Entering the offensive zone with plenty of speed, the towering right winger stuttered the defenceman with a sweet move before roofing a snapper short side on Dustin Wolf, a netminder he has 75 pounds on.
The sequence had everyone on Team White’s bench buzzing.
“He was pretty awesome out in Penticton too — he was the best player in that camp for our group,” said Sutter of the 22-year-old Czech winger, who was signed to a two-year entry level deal this summer.
“For a big man he moves really well. Usually big guys like that, when you think of NHLers that size, a lot of times it takes two or three years for their skating to catch up with their body, and vice versa. Right now that doesn’t appear to be an issue.”
Shockingly high praise from the boss.
Klapka was signed in May after scoring six goals and adding 12 assists in 44 games for Bili Tygri Liberec of the Czech Republic League.
Prior to that, the undrafted Prague native spent two seasons with the Tri-City Storm of the USHL.
As green as he is, no one is expecting him to challenge for an NHL roster spot this season, but his size and right shot make him an intriguing add for the AHL’s Calgary Wranglers this year.
The game ended 2-1, with Clark Bishop and Sonny Milano scoring for Team Red, with Cody Eakin making a nice play behind the net to set up Milano, his fellow PTO participant. Klapka’s goal was the lone marker for Team White … Goalies Dan Vladar, Oscar Dansk and Wolf rotated at both ends of the ice throughout the scrimmage, including several changes on the fly … After a full period of 5-on-5 play the two teams played a shorter second period of 4-on-4 before returning to 5-on-5 for an abbreviated third … Nikita Zadorov drew plenty of attention with his physicality, while Klapka’s goal and hands stood out in the skill department … Matthew Phillips, who is still listed at an unfathomable 140 pounds, still has the silkiest of mitts, and is a pleasure to watch with the puck … Notables who didn’t dress included Chris Tanev and Kadri, who will be used sparingly throughout camp, as well as injured Andrew Mangiapane and Oliver Kylington (absent from camp due to personal reasons). Jacob Markstrom was also given the day off … Only a smattering of fans were in the building, as the organization held a seat purchasing event for Wranglers tickets.
SATURDAY’S LINE COMBINATIONS
NASA’s DART spacecraft is about to smash into an asteroid – Freethink
Artists of the past captured historical events: Renfrew Art Guild – Ottawa Valley News
Bill Blaikie, longtime Manitoba politician who served federally and provincially, dead at 71 – CBC.ca
Storm Fiona knocks out power as it hits eastern Canada – Al Jazeera English
Alek Manoah the man as Blue Jays score big bounce back win over Rays – Toronto Sun
Q&A With Javier Peres, Founder Of Peres Projects Art Gallery – Forbes
Canada unlikely to declare COVID victory as travel restrictions loosen – Global News
Flames’ Elias Lindholm adjusting to life without old linemates – Sportsnet.ca