Blue Jays implode in ninth, fall to Mariners as gruelling stretch wears on

SEATTLE — With the U.S. border still closed to Canadians for nonessential travel — as if we’re the ones not taking the pandemic seriously enough — this weekend’s annual Toronto Blue Jays trip to T-Mobile Park for a series with the Seattle Mariners won’t feature anywhere near the raucous, full-throated, home-away-from-home environment it has in years past.

There was still a smattering of blue jerseys throughout the stands on Friday, and a decent contingent huddled behind the visitor’s dugout while a couple groups of Blue Jays hitters took optional batting practice late on a hot, hazy afternoon, but nothing even close to what it was. George Springer was heartily booed as he walked to the plate to make the game’s first plate appearance. And Mitch Haniger was resoundingly cheered when he leaped up at the right field wall to steal extra bases from Vladimir Guerrero Jr. two batters later.

Those reactions would have been reversed if not for, well, you know. And someday they will be again. But, for now, it’ll be up to the Blue Jays to bring their own energy to these three games against a team that entered the night trailing them — improbably, maddeningly — by only two games in the American League wild-card race.

On the second leg of a west coast road trip that had the Blue Jays arriving in Seattle from Anaheim close to 4 a.m. PT Friday morning, nearing the end of a gruelling stretch of 25 games in 24 days, and at that dog-days point in the season when legs are heavy, minds are worn out, and just about everyone’s playing through something that aches, restricts, or downright hurts, the Blue Jays really could’ve used the boost from a packed house of rowdy Western Canadians.

But the familiar crowd’s absence doesn’t make these games any less important for a club looking up at three teams in the race for the AL’s two wild-card spots. It will be September in two-and-half weeks, and most Blue Jays fans are already scoreboard watching, hoping the lowly Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers can take a game or two off the Boston Red Sox and Oakland A’s this weekend. The Orioles couldn’t hold up their end of that bargain Friday, but the Rangers did.

The problem was the Blue Jays didn’t do their own part — struggling to string hits together, going 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position, leaving 9 on base, imploding with two out in the bottom of the ninth, walking in a game-winning run that reached third without a ball leaving the infield, and losing a game they could have won, 3-2. It wasn’t pretty. And it let Robbie Ray’s latest strong outing go to waste.

Even with his velocity down a tick or two in a noticeable materialization of Toronto’s collective fatigue, Ray was his usual, overpowering, workhorse self, mixing fastballs and sliders to generate 18 whiffs on his way to eight strikeouts and only one walk over seven solid innings. It was his fourth consecutive outing going at least six innings, his ninth in his last 10, and his 17th in 23 starts this season.

But he was also his usual self in leaving one of those diminished heaters — just 92.5-m.p.h. on a pitch he’s averaged 94.1 with this season — up and over the plate in the third inning, which Mariners catcher Tom Murphy gave a ride into the left field seats for a two-run shot. It was Ray’s lone blemish on a night that lowered his ERA to 2.88, trailing only Lance Lynn among qualified AL starters.

Home runs have been the only thing holding Ray back from a truly extraordinary season, as he entered Friday’s start having allowed 1.59 HR/9, MLB’s fifth-highest rate. A 16.8 per cent HR/FB rate — above Ray’s already-inflated career average and seventh-highest across MLB — certainly contributes to that. But the balls still left the yard. And while Murphy only drove his 366-feet, he hit it on a line at 109-m.p.h. just inside the left field foul pole. It would’ve left all 30 MLB parks. That stuff happens.

But Ray pitched himself out of a jam with two runners on later in the inning, and cruised through seven thanks to the bite on his slider and some exceptional defence played behind him, including a 3-6 double play started by Lourdes Gurriel Jr. from his knees at first, George Springer’s running grab at the centre field wall on a 103-m.p.h. fly ball carrying a .780 xBA, and a 5-3 double play turned by Santiago Espinal while playing to the right side of second base in the shift.

And it was Gurriel who helped claw back the two early runs Ray allowed with a two-out, two-run single in the fourth off Mariners starter Chris Flexen, continuing a mini-tear that’s seen him hitting .344 since the beginning of the month, raising his wRC+ up to just a couple ticks beneath league average at 98.

The Blue Jays had a chance to take the lead with the game tied at two in the top of the ninth, as Alejandro Kirk and Corey Dickerson — pinch-hitting for Randal Grichuk — led off with consecutive singles, before moving into scoring position on Santiago Espinal’s sacrifice bunt.

George Springer was intentionally walked to set up a double play, but Marcus Semien didn’t cooperate, sending a fly ball into shallow right field foul territory that Mariners first baseman Ty France went scrambling after to make an over-his-head catch running away from the plate. Seeing France so poorly positioned, Breyvic Valera — pinch-running for Kirk — took off for home, and appeared to slide in under Murphy’s tag as umpire Jim Reynolds called him safe.

But the call was reversed upon replay review, maybe because Murphy just caught him with the laces of his glove, maybe because Valera never touched the plate. These things aren’t announced. Regardless, Adam Cimber came on for the bottom of the ninth, walked a pair with two out — he’d walked one in 17 innings prior since the Blue Jays acquired him – and then deflected a Torrens chopper that likely would’ve gotten him out of the inning if he’d let his infield handle it.

That brought up Jarred Kelenic, brought out Charlie Montoyo, and brought in Brad Hand to try to exploit the platoon advantage and get the Blue Jays out of the bases-loaded jam. But none of the four pitches Hand threw were even close to the zone, particularly his final one which ended up more than a foot off the plate. That brought Seager home as the Mariners walked it off without the ball ever leaving the infield.

They do this, the Mariners. They win improbably and against all odds. They’ve been the anti-Blue Jays this season, hanging around in the wild card race despite a -49 run differential and MLB-best 24-14 record in one-run games that suggests they’re more a product of fortunate outcomes than a team with enough true talent to contend. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, boast a +129 run differential with an 8-13 record in one-run contests. If you ignored that context of how the two teams got to their current placement, brushing up against one another in the wild card standings, you’d assume they were similarly skilled clubs.

But it’s not hard to spot the differences, especially on a night like Friday when Ray and Flexen — each leading their respective teams in starts this season — are matching up on the mound. In Ray, the Blue Jays have a huge-armed strikeout machine who’s leading AL starters with 4.4 bWAR and pitching his way to a considerable, multi-year free agent contract this winter. In Flexen, the Mariners have a fourth-percentile whiff rate soft-tosser who’s outperforming his career HR/FB rate by two points and spent last season pitching in Korea after being released by the New York Mets.

Or when you look over each pitcher’s right shoulder out to left field. That’s where the Mariners stationed Dylan Moore, an all-glove utility player with a sixth-percentile average exit velocity and 91st percentile chase rate. It’s also where the Blue Jays played Teoscar Hernandez, an all-star who hits the ball as hard as anyone in the game, has cut his strikeout rate eight points over the last two seasons, and is batting .298/.346/.536 with 39 homers and a 136 wRC+ over his last 162 games.

Or when you see who’s pencilled in as each team’s designated hitter, the Mariners opting for Luis Torrens, a busted catching prospect with a .697 OPS who was playing out a triple-A demotion two months ago, while the Blue Jays went with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., one of the game’s best hitters and still MLB’s OPS leader in spite of an ongoing, two-week slump.

On paper, on balance, on the authority of anyone who can objectively assess an MLB roster, the Blue Jays are a better team than the Mariners. Full stop. And this weekend presents an opportunity for the Blue Jays to not only prove that, but help bury Seattle behind them in the wild card race, creating a clear, four-team tier competing for the two spots in October’s coin flip game.

But the game isn’t played on paper. There are no run differential standings. You either win or you lose. And Friday night, legs weary beneath them as an unrelenting schedule persists, the Blue Jays lost a game they certainly could have won in dispiriting, torturous fashion. There will only be so many more times this season they can afford to do it.

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