Blue Jays’ Berrios latest starter unable to pull his weight in loss to Brewers

MILWAUKEE, WIS. — Baseball’s just relentless. Here the Toronto Blue Jays are, not even halfway through the season, with seven pitchers on the injured list, a bullpen half made up of guys that were in triple-A last month, and two-fifths of a rotation struggling to provide innings — let alone put the team in position to win. And what do they get this week? Eight games in seven days.

Not only that, but eight games against the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays, the two teams on either side of the Blue Jays atop the American League wild-card standings. There may be no such thing as a crucial week in late June or early July. But if there is, this is it. Particularly Canada Day weekend’s series against the Rays, in which the two teams will play one another five times in the span of 72 hours.

And what’s looming on the other side of it? A cross-continent flight to begin a week-long west coast trip. It’s a stretch of 18 games in 17 days — amidst 24 in 24 leading into the all-star break — that will test the team’s energy, depth, and resolve. And when it’s all over, they’ll regroup for four days before getting to work on the second half with three more against Boston.

“That is a lot, that is a lot,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said, repeating for effect. “The schedule hasn’t been easy.”

It never stops. That’s the design. You play games upon games upon games until, six months later, they tally up your wins vs. your losses and let you know if you get to play a few more. And within that tally, each game is weighted equally, regardless of when it was played.

Which is why the eight losses the Blue Jays have suffered over their last 12 — including Sunday’s 10-3 defeat at the hands of the Milwaukee Brewers — can’t be written off as inconsequential. And why this week’s stretch of games could be the ones we’re looking back at as critical come October.

Will the Blue Jays continue scuffling as they have been for nearly two weeks and fall well behind their division rivals in the playoff race? Will they rally on home soil and re-establish the wild-card lead those two teams have slowly eroded this month? Will they merely hold serve and extend this conversation into the series in Oakland and Seattle that begin in a week’s time?

We’re about to find out. And the quality of Toronto’s starting pitching will no doubt have a lot to do with it, just as it had everything to do with the club dropping its final two games in Milwaukee this weekend. After Yusei Kikuchi suffered his latest meltdown Saturday, taking the mound without any semblance of fastball command and recording only six outs, Jose Berrios didn’t do much better on Sunday, allowing eight runs on eight hits over 2.2 innings.

“It was just a lot of balls right down the middle. And they took advantage of that,” Montoyo said. “He didn’t really locate and pitched behind in the count. And he paid the price.”

Really, Berrios could have been out of the game after allowing his season-high eight runs in the first two innings. But Kikuchi’s brief outing demanded so much of Toronto’s bullpen a day prior that Montoyo asked Berrios to attempt to get through a third.

But he couldn’t. Berrios earned his first two outs of the frame on eight pitches, but then he clipped Jace Peterson with a curveball and walked No. 9 hitter Jonathan Davis with a full-count fastball well off the plate. With Christian Yelich coming up for his third plate appearance in as many innings, Montoyo finally pulled the chute.

“We’ve got to cover nine innings. That’s why he had to go back out. That’s why we had to leave him in there. We can’t just [put that much stress on the bullpen] every day. There’s no way we can do it,” Montoyo said. “It was tough to do on back-to-back days. And, actually, the whole road trip was taxing on the bullpen.”

Blue Jays relievers entered Sunday’s game having thrown 91 innings this month, MLB’s fifth-highest tally in that span. Meanwhile, Blue Jays starters have thrown only 53.2 innings over the club’s last 12 games — an average of fewer than five per outing — which is second-last to the Texas Rangers across the majors.

It’s simply unsustainable, particularly at a time when Yimi Garcia, Trevor Richards and Julian Merryweather are all on the injured list, thrusting Matt Gage and Trent Thornton into leverage roles. That is, if there was any leverage to face. Of late, Montoyo has been cycling various arms through near-daily bulk mop-up duty. Closer Jordan Romano hasn’t pitched in five days. And set-up man Tim Mayza was forced into action Sunday to cover an inning with a five-run deficit.

“It’s tough. It’s taxing on the bullpen,” Montoyo said. “At the end of the day, it’s pitching. I keep saying that from the beginning. There’s only so much you can hit. For us to make a run and keep playing good, we need pitching. And that hasn’t happened the last couple of days.”

The Blue Jays at least got George Springer back after a four-day absence to let some right elbow discomfort subside. The 32-year-old outfielder’s been battling the ailment off-and-on for a month but didn’t bring it to the Blue Jays attention until recently when it began impacting him at the plate. The issue came to a head Tuesday in Chicago, when Springer was having trouble extending his elbow, causing him to spin out of his swing. That’s when the Blue Jays felt it was best to send him for an MRI.

The rest has obviously done Springer some good, as he was able to turn around the third pitch he saw Sunday for a 103-mph single through the six-hole. But his situation will bear monitoring going forward, as the elbow issue sounds like one he’ll be dealing with for some time. What’s been frustrating for Springer has been the unpredictable nature of it. On some days he’ll feel like himself. On others, he’ll aggravate it opening a bottle of water.

Toronto at least dodged a bullet this weekend with catcher Alejandro Kirk, who’s no worse for wear after getting clipped on the left hand by a Jonathan Davis backswing on Friday. Kirk launched a 410-foot, three-run homer over the centre-field wall off Chi Chi Gonzalez Sunday, his fourth long ball in five games.

Runs like Kirk’s are what’s particularly agonizing about Toronto’s recent stretch. The team entered Sunday’s game with eight regulars boasting a wRC+ of 104 or above over the last 14 days. Kirk, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Teoscar Hernandez are all up over 170. The team’s hitting. But a rotation that carried it through the season’s first two months has suddenly come undone.

And while Hyun Jin Ryu’s physical ailments and Kikuchi’s mercurialness were to be expected, Berrios’ struggles have been a substantial surprise coming off a half-decade as one of the most consistent, durable pitchers in the majors. From literally the season’s first inning — which Berrios began but could not finish — the 28-year-old has fluctuated between lost-at-sea stretches and tantalizing, three-game runs in which he looks like himself again. And currently, it’s the latter.

“Today, I didn’t throw quality strikes,” Berrios said. “I feel strong and healthy. Things just aren’t going the way we want them to.”

Sunday, Berrios did not have his prime curveball for a second straight outing, failing to generate a whiff with the pitch while throwing it 17 times. He missed only four bats total on the afternoon — two with his fastball and two with his changeup — his sixth outing this season with four swinging strikes or fewer. Berrios had only two such outings last season, none in 2020, two in 2019, and two in 2018 — a span of 108 starts.

And that’s your problem right there. Berrios’ stuff isn’t fooling hitters, either off the plate or on. His whiff rate’s in the bottom fifth of the league, and his quality of contact numbers are among MLB’s worst. Sunday, he allowed five balls in play with exit velocities over 100-mph, including a pair of Rowdy Tellez homers off elevated fastballs.

The majority of the damage Berrios surrendered came off heaters like those, including doubles by Omar Narvaez and Tyrone Taylor from the bottom-half of Milwaukee’s lineup. That’s the puzzle the Blue Jays and Berrios need to solve — how to regain effectiveness with his breaking ball and get hitters off his four- and two-seamers.

“Today, I threw better breaking balls. But I think with the fastball they’ve been aggressive early at the beginning of the at-bat and I’ve been throwing fastballs right in the middle,” Berrios said. “I think the hitters have made a good adjustment. But I want to keep competing. I know I’ve got great stuff to compete at this level.”

The issue does not seem to be strength related, as Berrios was sitting 94-mph with his fastball Sunday and touched 96 twice. His curveball velocity’s remained consistent year-over-year, too. But his spin rates have declined slightly, as has the horizontal and vertical break of his curveball. For one reason or another, he’s throwing the pitch with a little less life than he has in the past.

But could such a slight decline in stuff be producing the substantial downtown in results we’re seeing? It’s possible. The issue could also be mechanical, and it’s worth noting that the Blue Jays have moved Berrios on the rubber this season and adjusted his arm slot.

His last time out against the White Sox, Berrios was missing consistently arm-side, an issue he felt was created by being too closed off in his delivery. A point of emphasis entering Sunday’s start was keeping his shoulders directional toward the plate, which was meant to improve the timing of his release.

“I’ve been trying. I’ve been working. We are making some adjustments,” Berrios said. “I’m competitive. I don’t want to be in the position I am right now. But one thing I know is I’ve got another opportunity in five days. So, I want to get myself ready for the next outing.”

The Blue Jays can only hope that he does. Because the schedule isn’t relenting — it’s accelerating. With eight games in the next seven days, the club will need Berrios just as it’ll need Kikuchi, just as it’ll need Thomas Hatch, who’s lined up to pitch in Saturday’s doubleheader. There are innings to cover and few alternatives. The Ross Stripling card was played long ago; Max Castillo is already filling a bulk role in Toronto’s bullpen; soft-tossing veteran Casey Lawrence is the club’s best option beyond that.

It’s just relentless, baseball. Sunday, the New York Yankees earned their 10th walk-off of the season; the Red Sox won their seventh in a row; and the Rays moved into a tie with the Blue Jays for third the AL East. We can’t say right now just how crucial this week’s stretch of games will be to the Blue Jays season. But when we’re looking back come October, it could be one that sticks out.

“It’s our division. It’s always our division,” Montoyo said. “There’s way too many games left to make it like this is going to be it. But, of course, they’re right there with us. And it’s the American League East. It’s never easy. But we have a good team, so we’re going to battle. We’ve got [Kevin] Gausman tomorrow. And here we go.”

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