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As the Toronto Blue Jays sit 5.5 games out of a wild-card spot with 8.1 percent playoff odds, there’s been a great deal of finger-pointing in recent weeks.
Following an excellent first 9-2 homestand in Toronto, the team is just 5-9 and its continued inability to win close games is a wound that’s being continually salted. The club’s Pythagorean Winning Percentage sits at .591, the fourth-best in franchise history, but when things get tight the Blue Jays seem to fall apart.
Their 9-14 record in one-run games is rough, and their 2-9 mark in extra innings is even worse. Dropping two extra-innings matchups against the plucky, but ultimately less talented, Detroit Tigers last weekend brought the situation to a boil.
Fairly or unfairly, when a team is continually losing tight contests, scrutiny falls on the manager — and Charlie Montoyo is taking some strays right now. To see if Montoyo deserves the criticism, we’ll take a look at the Blue Jays' nine extra-inning losses and see if there’s evidence of the Toronto skipper pulling the wrong levers:
Loss 1 - LAA: 7, TOR: 5 (April 8)
What went wrong?: The Blue Jays traded blows with the Angels early in the game, but Ross Stripling gave them just five innings and eventually their parade of high-leverage relievers faltered in the 11th.
Did managing play a role?: Not really.
Trent Thornton was the first guy out of the bullpen, but it wasn’t clear that he was going to bust as a reliever yet. Montoyo lifted Ryan Borucki for Rafael Dolis in the 11th with David Fletcher at the dish. Now Borucki is in the minors and Dolis is DFA’d but they were both trusted with big spots at the time and Dolis had been significantly better against right-handed hitters in 2020:
On the offensive side there wasn’t much for Montoyo to do in extras as he’d already used his top pinch-hitter, Rowdy Tellez, and the Blue Jays struck out in five of their six plate appearances.
Loss 2 - TB: 9, TOR: 7 (May 21)
What went wrong?: Anthony Kay pitched just four innings, which meant the club needed seven relievers to get through the game. Eventually Jeremy Beasley unraveled in the 12th, but the club had already blown a number of opportunities to score in extras, and the two runs it scored in the bottom of the 12th didn’t matter.
Did managing play a role?: Yes.
Bullpen management wasn’t really an issue in this one as Montoyo simply had to use whoever was available by the end of the game.
However, the Blue Jays skipper did make a hard-to-defend decision in the 11th inning with runners on first and second and no outs. Montoyo asked for Santiago Espinal to bunt — a reasonable move considering he was playing for one run and wanted to avoid the double play — and kept the bunt call on even when the infielder reached two strikes, leading to a foul bunt strikeout. That derailed the Blue Jays' offensive momentum, although a hit by Cavan Biggio or Marcus Semien could have bailed them out.
Loss 3: TB: 14, TOR: 8 (May 24)
What went wrong?: The combination of Joel Payamps and Tim Mayza got absolutely shelled in the 11th after the Blue Jays had fought back from a 5-0 deficit.
Did managing play a role?: Not really.
By the time extras rolled around, Montoyo had already used Romano and Dolis, Tyler Chatwood, and Travis Bergen had logged significant pitch counts the previous day. That meant he was forced to expose the underside of his bullpen, and it didn’t go well. Now the idea of bringing in Payamps and Anthony Castro before Mayza seems laughable, but at the time Mayza was struggling hard and Payamps and Castro had been piling up scoreless innings.
The only managing move Montoyo made on offence was bringing in Tellez as a pinch-hitter and he delivered the only triple of his career.
Loss 4: BAL: 6, TOR: 5 (June 25)
What went wrong?: The Blue Jays had a 5-1 lead heading into the eighth inning but the combination of Chatwood and Tayler Saucedo melted down, leading to a tie game. Thornton gave up a run in extras to lose it.
Did managing play a role?: Definitely.
Even a four-run lead might’ve been too much for Chatwood at that point in the season, and bringing Saucedo in to clean up the jam he got into was exceedingly questionable. It was just the lefty’s third MLB outing, and he was pitching on no rest. Romano ultimately came in to finish the eighth and having him a batter or two earlier may have saved the game. There wasn’t a great alternative for Thornton (maybe veteran Jacob Barnes on a back-to-back), but Montoyo's trust in him was as unfounded then as it is now.
Loss 5: SEA: 9, TOR: 7 (June 30)
What went wrong?: Steven Matz couldn’t even get through three, which led to a game largely pitched by Thornton and Kay. Patrick Murphy was called on in extras and got in a jam Saucedo couldn’t get him out of.
Did managing play a role?: Not really.
There were no offensive shenanigans, and there wasn’t an obvious pitcher to come in instead of Murphy considering Mayza and Barnes had pitched the previous night. This game took place in the dark ages prior to the additions of Adam Cimber and Trevor Richards. Romano had already been used in the ninth, and the Blue Jays were still hoping the interesting stuff Murphy flashed in 2020 would result in some quality innings. It didn’t.
Loss 6: CLE: 5, TOR: 2 (August 2)
What went wrong?: A Brad Hand meltdown wasted a quality start from Robbie Ray — as well as scoreless frames of relief from Cimber, Joakim Soria and Romano. The offence certainly didn’t help.
Did managing play a role?: Can’t blame Montoyo for this one.
Viable alternatives to Hand, like Richards and Mayza, had recorded more than three outs each the previous game and this was the southpaw’s first rough outing as a Blue Jay. The team had just traded for Hand to pitch in big spots, and Montoyo can’t be faulted for giving him this one.
Loss 7: BOS: 2, TOR: 1 (August 7)
What went wrong?: José Berríos gave the team six one-run innings in a seven-inning game and the lineup couldn’t back him up. In extras, Cimber gave up a run and the Blue Jays couldn’t answer.
Did managing play a role?: Nope.
Montoyo stuck with Berríos for the right amount of time (bringing him into a tied seventh inning on 95 pitches would’ve been reckless) and went to trustworthy pitchers from there, it just didn’t work out.
Loss 8: DET: 4, TOR: 1 (August 20)
What went wrong?: The offence couldn’t produce anything and the combination of Cimber and Richards faltered in the 10th. Ray gave the team eight innings of one-run ball, but it wasn’t enough.
Did managing play a role?: Sort of.
Calling on Richards (and Cimber) was justified, but arguably the biggest issue for Montoyo in this one was keeping Ray in too long. Because of the team’s lacklustre bullpen, that’s often seemed like the right option, but the left-hander is vulnerable when he pitches deep into games, in part because he’s basically a two-pitch pitcher. Here are his splits by time through the order in 2021:
Even when he’s rolling, Ray is a guy you need to push deep into games with caution. It wasn’t a shock to see him give up a run in the eighth, which is what pushed this game to extras.
Loss 9: DET: 5, TOR: 3 (August 22)
What went wrong?: Matz pitched well, and the two teams traded single-run innings throughout the game. An extremely untimely error by Marcus Semien took the game to extras, where Kirby Snead allowed the losing runs.
Did managing play a role?: Probably not.
You could argue that Montoyo played this right and his most controversial move — lifting Cimber for Saucedo against left-handed catcher Harold Castro — paid off as it led to a soft grounder to second that should have ended the game. Even though Cimber is a better pitcher than Saucedo, perhaps even against lefties, Castro has eye-opening career splits with a .210/.233/.220 line in 105 appearances against MLB southpaws.
Snead being the pitcher of record isn’t ideal, but Montoyo was on his sixth reliever and Romano and Mayza were presumably unavailable after pitching the previous day. Having Espinal pinch hit for Corey Dickerson in extras feels dubious, but the utility infielder has hit .325/.363/.385 against southpaws in his young career while Dickerson has been employed almost exclusively as a righty masher.
At the end of the day, Montoyo has made some notable missteps in some of the Blue Jays’ most heartbreaking losses, but it seems unfair to hang all of their troubles in close games on him, even if it’s always comforting to find a scapegoat.
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