The Toronto Blue Jays' season has been an absolute nightmare. They have suffered a barrage of injuries to key players, and yet they had persevered to maintain a winning record up until this week's losing streak. They have an entire starting rotation on the 60-day DL: Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek, Jesse Litsch, Drew Hutchison, and Dustin McGowan. They lost their closer, Sergio Santos, in April, and two more key relievers, Luis Perez and Jason Frasor, in July. In the last few weeks, they also lost their MVP-caliber outfielder (Jose Bautista), their DH (Adam Lind), and their starting catcher (J.P. Arencibia). Last night, they lost Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus in the same game. That list includes 4 of their 5 best hitters. It's gotten a little ridiculous. I heard GM Alex Anthopoulos even got a paper cut on his tongue from licking an envelope. Madness.
It gets worse, though. It turns out that the Blue Jays are also contagious. In the first game of this 4-game series, Seth Smith pulled his hamstring running out a grounder. In the second game, Yoenis Cespedes sprained his wrist stealing a base. I mean, c'mon. That sentence doesn't even make sense. "Lenny stubbed his toe whilst sitting on the toilet." How in the world did he pull that off? Blue Jays, that's how. The Canadian Curse.
In case you hadn't heard, last night's game went 15 innings. The A's used every arm in their bullpen except for middle reliever Jordan Norberto. If there's one thing that you hope for when your bullpen is taxed like that, it's that your starter will give you a lot of innings to give the pen a rest. A seven inning performance would be a really big boost. Getting shellacked and being pulled early would be devastating. There was really no choice; win or lose, starter A.J. Griffin simply needed to pitch deep into this game.
And then, the Canadian Curse struck again. Griffin felt some tightness in his shoulder, and left the game with two outs in the 2nd inning. The nightmare scenario was playing out. In the end, the bullpen did an impressive job of damage control, but the A's ran out of magic and couldn't muster up another walk-off victory. Continue after the jump to read all about it!
Today was a day game following a 15-inning night game which included multiple injuries, so both teams entered a bit more tired than usual. The Blue Jays sported a lineup in which Rajai Davis batted 5th, and Oakland's order included Michael Taylor hitting 2nd and last night's catcher, Derek Norris, DH'ing.
The 1st inning was uneventful. The 2nd inning, though, was full of important events. Griffin retired the first two batters, but as he pitched to Moises Sierra, it became apparent that his velocity had dropped sharply. Catcher George Kottaras came out to check on him, and a moment later Griffin was walking off the mound alongside his manager and trainer. The only word so far is that he felt tightness in his shoulder, but that his MRI was clean. In the meantime, shit had just gotten real. The A's had one fresh reliever, and at least 22 outs yet to go in the game. That one reliever, Jordan Norberto, came in to replace Griffin, and immediately gave up an infield single to Sierra.
The next batter, Anthony Gose, took Norberto deep to left-center field, but the ball mercifully bounced off the very top of the wall and stayed in the park. Josh Reddick hit cut-off man Adam Rosales, whose relay throw beat Sierra to the plate by several steps. Rather than a 2-run homer, Toronto got an inning-ending out on the bases. These teams were already picking up right where they'd left off last night.
In the bottom of the 2nd, the A's got a runner to 2nd with two outs. Derek Norris lined a double into right field, scoring the run and giving the A's a 1-0 lead. Now, it was up to the bullpen to protect the lead.
Norberto did his part. He put down the Jays in the 3rd, got out of a jam in the 4th, and breezed through the 5th. Just when you thought he was done, he came in to strike out the first batter in the 6th. All told, he threw a career-high 64 pitches, posting 3.2 scoreless innings and striking out 4 batters. Had the game ended 1-0, my headline was going to be, "Norberto Leads Bullpen, Makes Headline, As A's Eke Out 1-0 Victory over Toronto." Either way, he was still the player of the game. His extended outing is the only reason that the A's had a prayer in this one, and it went a long way toward saving some of the other arms in the pen.
Pat Neshek came on to relieve Norberto with one out in the 6th. I was excited when Oakland picked up Neshek (pronounced: KNEE-shack) yesterday, and it is already apparent why. First off, he is a kick to watch. His herky-jerky side-arm delivery is enough to make him a fan favorite on its own. On top of that, he recorded 5 quick outs on 27 pitches without allowing a hit. Suddenly, the A's were through 7 innings, and the shutout was still intact.
The A's had been batting this whole time, too, but no good had come of it. In the 5th, it looked like they might finally get to Romero. With two outs, George Kottaras grounded sharply toward Kelly Johnson, but the ball deflected off of Johnson's glove into right field. I thought that Johnson should have made the play, but it was ruled a hit. Romero then completely lost his control, as he is wont to do, and walked Adam Rosales and Jemile Weeks to load the bases. It was the biggest moment of the game so far, and rookie Michael Taylor was coming up to bat. Fate wouldn't have it any other way; the A's wanted to get a look at Taylor, and now they were going to get a chance to see what he was made of.
After watching the previous two batters walk on 10 total pitches, Taylor wisely took the first pitch. Romero passed the test, throwing a fastball right down the middle for strike one. He missed on the next pitch to even the count, but Taylor went out of the zone to foul off a low changeup. Romero's 1-2 pitch was a curveball which appeared to be just off the outside corner, but Taylor wisely protected the plate and fouled it off. The next pitch was a high fastball; Taylor offered at it halfway, but couldn't hold up his swing. Strike three, rally over. Taylor's at-bat wasn't terrible, but it wasn't encouraging either. On the day, he went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, and it's tough to find a lot to like about his play in the Majors thus far in his career. Depending on how long Cespedes remains out with his injured wrist, Taylor may get some more chances to figure things out. We'll see how he adjusts in the coming days.
The 8th inning went by quietly, with Grant Balfour and Steve Delabar each spinning 1-2-3 innings. In the 9th, Bob Melvin elected to hand the ball to Ryan Cook to protect the fragile 1-0 lead. Let's discuss this decision for a moment.
Earlier today, Nico wrote a post about Melvin's approach to the closer's role. Cook has struggled mightily lately. He blew a save against the Yankees on July 20th, and then blew another one in his next appearance against the Orioles on July 27. He threw two shutout innings in the marathon Rays game on Monday, then pitched back-to-back games on Wednesday and Thursday. He got the job done on Wednesday, but then served up the game-tying 3-run homer to Jeff Mathis last night. Many observers were not surprised to see Cook struggle, given that he was pitching his second night in a row. Entering today's game, here is how opponents have hit off of Cook based on how many days of rest he's had between appearances:
0 days: .324/.415/.676, 3 homers
1 day: .095/.240/.214, 0 homers
2 days: .050/.174/.050, 0 homers
3-5 days: .094/.216/.125, 0 homers
The sample sizes are tiny, but the pattern is remarkable. Cook has been completely ineffective when pitching for a second consecutive day. He's given up all of his home runs in those situations, and he's been virtually unhittable at all other times.
On top of that, Cook just isn't that much better than the rest of the bullpen. As Nico said, all of Oakland's relievers are solid, and none is necessarily a better choice than any other to close a game. There weren't a whole lot of options in this case, but I don't think that anyone wanted to see Cook come into this one. Balfour could have gone for a second inning. Jerry Blevins was available, and has been very good this year. Melvin went with Cook.
Things started alright. Cook induced a popup by Edwin Encarnacion on one pitch, nullifying Toronto's biggest threat in the lineup. The next batter was some guy named David Cooper. I'd never heard of Cooper, so here is what I learned about him on Baseball Reference: He is a 25-year-old, left-handed 1B/DH who was a 1st round pick by Toronto in 2008. He's collected 166 plate appearances in the Majors, with a 93 OPS+ to show for them. This year, he's got that OPS+ up to 104, but he still didn't represent a big threat. Cook was pitching for the third straight day, though, and that turns every hitter he faces into Mike Trout. Cook hung a changeup, and Cooper smashed it over the wall for a back-breaking, game-tying home run. Huh. So that's what that feels like. The worst part about it was that Cook got beat using his third best pitch. If Cooper had homered off a slider, then you'd have to tip your cap. This way leaves a much worse taste.
Cook got the next hitter, and then Blue Jays manager John Farrell inserted last night's hero, Jeff Mathis, as a pinch-hitter, just to be a dick. Mathis took Cook deep to center again, but this time the ball stayed in the yard and the inning was over. Oakland failed to score in the bottom of the 9th, because what's the fun in that? For the second day in a row and the third time this week, the game was headed to extra innings!
Jerry Blevins got the call to pitch the 10th, because apparently it's ok to put him in a high-leverage situation as long it's not a save situation. He got himself in a jam, but escaped unscathed. Would have been nice to have had that scoreless inning when the team still had the lead, eh? The bottom of the 10th was like a replay of last night: Bases loaded for Josh Reddick, who strikes out looking on a pitch that he totally should have swung at. Last night, it was a tough curve. Today, it was a knee-high fastball that he could have destroyed. I honestly don't understand what he was thinking, letting that pitch go by. That's his wheelhouse.
Blevins came back out in the 11th, because who else was going to? Toronto got runners to 1st and 2nd with one out, and Mathis came up again. Blevins got him to strike out swinging, but the runners were moving on the third strike. Kottaras threw to third, but the throw was a bit high and Brandon Inge took his eye off of it a bit too early, allowing it to sail into left field and score the go-ahead run. If you're looking to assign blame, this one probably goes equally to both players. Kottaras's throw was off target, but not so far that Inge couldn't get it. If Inge had forfeited the out to ensure catching the ball, he would have easily pulled it down. He got greedy, though, and tried to swipe a tag before he had the ball. Either way, it was a heartbreaking way to allow the go-ahead run in the 11th. The next batter, Sierra, would double off the wall in left to plate an insurance run, making it 3-1. Darren Oliver entered to close the game for the Blue Jays, and retired Moss, Gomes and Inge in order. Game over.
Realistically, when your starting pitcher leaves in the 2nd inning, you expect to lose that game. At that point, you're thinking about limiting the damage to your bullpen and praying that the injury isn't severe. That said, when the team fights that hard to stay in the game and then lets it slip away at the last minute, you can't help but feel disappointed. This is the type of game that the A's have been winning lately, and it's sobering to see that they can in fact be defeated in a close contest, especially at home. When folks talk about run differentials, and unsustainable records in close games, this is what they're talking about. If you let enough games go down to the wire like this, if you consistently fail to put teams away when you have the chance and give them opportunities late in games, sometimes the magic will run out. Oakland could have tacked another run or two onto their lead, and then a solo homer in the 9th would just be a blip on the radar. But between the inability to score runners from third, and the struggle to quietly record that last out in the 9th, this team needs to cut down on the drama. If the A's hope to continue to contend in this Wild Card race, then they're going to need to win some games by more than 1 or 2 or 3 runs.
That said, there was margin for error. Even if the Angels win tonight, Oakland still holds a Wild Card spot. A victory tomorrow would give them 3 out of 4 from Toronto, which would still be a very successful series. If Tommy Milone can go deep into tomorrow's game, it would go a long way toward resting the bullpen for what is sure to be a tough series against the Angels next week.
Toronto stole one today, and losses like this one sting. Losing Griffin is rough, but Brandon McCarthy is due to return from the DL soon, so someone was going to need to step aside for him anyway. If the injury is as minor as it appears, he may be resuming his season in Sacramento anyway. I'm not assuming anything, though. All I know is, there is one more game left against the cursed Blue Jays. Cross your fingers, everyone. Oakland can't afford to lose any more players.
Tommy Milone faces Aaron Laffey in the series finale tomorrow. Game time is 1:05pm. Someone bring a 1st aid kit.