TORONTO – Ross Stripling found himself in “a weird mental space” on the mound against the Boston Red Sox, and it wasn’t just because the sharpness he’d felt during warmups wasn’t translating. The Toronto Blue Jays right-hander had a lot on his mind with the club in the midst of its final series at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field before a July 30 homecoming to Rogers Centre and once his outing began to unravel, he couldn’t find a way to stop the night from spinning away.
“On Wednesday, I’m going to have to say bye to my family for two months, which is actually weighing on me much harder than I want it to be,” Stripling said candidly after getting blitzed for six runs in a third of an inning during a 13-4 thumping Monday night. “When, for one, you don’t have your good stuff and you’re not 100-per-cent mentally focused, that lineup can punish you and that’s what they did. They did that to me in Dunedin (during a May 19 start) and they did it to me today. They’ve proven that they see me well so it’s a matter of definitely having to be locked in when I’m facing these guys.”
That he wasn’t is one example of the often unseen and underappreciated toll the Blue Jays’ nomadic existence this season has taken on players, coaches, management and staff. Their third relocation of the season is nigh. Uprooting families and disrupting lives isn’t easy. Stripling and his wife Shelby became parents for the first time just before spring training when Jaxon was born amid the series of severe winter storms that struck Texas in February, just before spring training started.
The family was separated briefly right after as Stripling headed to camp in Dunedin first, before Shelby and Jaxon joined him, and they’ve been together since. Initially, the Striplings planned to move north to Toronto and perhaps they still might come up for the start of an Aug. 20 homestand. But though the Blue Jays “have done an amazing job of trying to get our families over the border and to be with us in Toronto,” the family made “a personal decision” that it would be best for Shelby and Jaxon to return home to Texas.
For any parent, especially a new one, that’s a real emotional whirlpool.
“We’re a young team,” he said. “Most guys just close the door on a hotel room here in Buffalo, drive an hour north and it’s perfect. There are a couple of us that have families and I believe almost all of us, our families are not coming. So that’s been tough for the few of us. Baseball-wise, couldn’t be more excited. Obviously, we want to go to Toronto. We want to play in the Rogers Centre. I feel like we’re going to play really well there. But personally, my son turned five months old today and there’s a very good chance I don’t see him again until he’s seven months old. That’s weighing on me really hard, no doubt about it. But basically get packed up, get these next few days over with, and then once I’m in Toronto, everything will be better.”
The relentless churn of the baseball season demands such difficult compartmentalization.
Stripling’s struggles in that regard interrupted their momentum from a strong weekend spent beating up on the Texas Rangers, when the Blue Jays outscored the American League bottom-feeders 25-2 across three games. The starters delivered both quantity and quality, leaving only 4.1 innings of mop-up duty for the bullpen, which came in handy Monday.
Still, a one-sided loss wasn’t an ideal way to open a period of opportunity that features 10 games against the AL East leading Red Sox over the next three weeks. Compounding matters is that Alek Manoah hit the injured list before the game with a bruised back suffered in a spill on rain-soaked dugout steps, with Thomas Hatch called up to start in his place Tuesday.
Mitigating the impact of a seven-reliever night was that many of them actually needed the work and while Stripling’s woes buried the Blue Jays early, manager Charlie Montoyo found solace in the way his team grinded out the rest of the evening.
“This will be a third move and every move has created a unique situation,” said Montoyo. “But I’m proud of how we’ve played throughout all this. Like today, we’re one swing away from being back in this game when we gave up eight in the first inning. …. A lot of teams would have called it, we’re done, we’re done. I don’t know how many times I went to the mound, but one of the times I went to the mound, Bo Bichette’s telling me, ‘Hey, Charlie, we’re going to be all right, buddy.’ That made my night because that’s the kind of team that we have. Again, every situation is unique. But that’s the first time I heard about (players being troubled about being separated from their families). The mindset on this team is great, and I’m proud of that.”
To that end, the Blue Jays kept the heat on Nick Pivetta throughout his 6.2 innings, grinding him out for 11 hits and two walks. But the impact strikes that came so regularly against the Rangers weren’t there Monday, the Canadian right-hander managed to avoid any game-changing rallies despite constantly traipsing through traffic.
It was 11-0 for the Red Sox before the Blue Jays broke through with a four-run fourth, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., just missed crushing a high fastball at the end of the inning, flying out to centre with the bases loaded.
Regardless, expecting the offence to outhit this type of mess is unfair and Stripling looked bewildered as his outing came undone.
Kike Hernandez doubled on his fifth pitch of the game and three offerings later, rookie Jarren Duran opened the scoring with his first career home run. After a Xander Bogaerts groundout, Rafael Devers walked, J.D. Martinez doubled, Alex Verdugo walked and Hunter Renfroe turned on an 0-2 fastball and hammered it over the left-centre wall.
Stripling, who altered his motion to avoid tipping pitches after a similar pounding from the Red Sox on May 19, was done after 36 pitches. Next man up Anthony Kay didn’t fare much better, retiring Denny Santana before a Kevin Plawecki single was followed by a Hernandez homer that made it 8-0.
Just like that the Red Sox did to the Blue Jays what the Blue Jays had done to the Rangers.
The decisive at-bat came against Renfroe, who fell behind 0-2 but then turned around a fastball at the top of the zone. A groundball there and he’s out of the inning down 2-0 with a chance to correct, but that’s not how it played out.
“My first pitch of the game was like in the other batter’s box against Kike, when I felt like I was really locked in,” said Stripling. “The first pitches during the second at-bat to Duran were terrible so I throw him a 2-0 cookie and it’s a homer. I was kind of battling myself with feeling the baseball, feeling the rubber, finding command. The mental battle of that is like, man, take an extra breath, take a second, really dial in because you don’t have a really good idea where the ball’s going right now. Every pitch has a little bit more conviction behind it in a different way than throwing it as hard as I can, more conviction of trying to pinpoint this. And then it turns into aiming more than pitching with confidence, like the 0-2 pitch to Renfroe. That ball was just up with not a whole lot of bite to it. I wanted that heater to be up, it wasn’t up that far, obviously he hammers it.”
There were little plays that the Blue Jays could point to as examples of their determination, such as George Springer aggressively fielding a Plawecki single in the fourth to prevent him from taking second, to Guerrero going first to third on a Springer blooper in the bottom half to set up a Teoscar Hernandez RBI groundout.
But the Blue Jays are now 4-6 against the Red Sox this year and during this stretch in which they have an opportunity to upend the AL East standings, what the Blue Jays need are actual victories, not moral ones.
And as they try to make that happen, the upcoming move north is another reminder of how they must deal with things that are very much one of 30 in the majors.
“Making three moves in a season is crazy, especially for any of us that have families, or anyone in general,” said Stripling. “We don’t expect people to blow sunshine up our bums about it. We really don’t. We knew what we had ahead of us and we knew the adversity that was going to be in this season and we took it head on. We don’t need people giving us the benefit of the doubt. We accepted that that’s what it is. We’re playing good baseball and now we’re going home and expect to play even better baseball there. But it’s been very difficult and very challenging. It’s something nobody else has had to go through, no other families have had to go through, staffs, anything like that. It’s been more difficult for me in the last couple of days than I thought it was going to be.”