Blue Jays’ Berrios continues head-scratching season in drubbing vs. Guardians

TORONTO – That Yusei Kikuchi is an unstable element in the Toronto Blue Jays starting rotation shouldn’t be a total surprise. Sure, more was expected from the left-hander when he was signed for $36 million over three years out of the lockout, but it was a high-risk, high-upside play and the type of season he’s slogging through was very much on the spectrum of possibility.

The Blue Jays, barring a surprise, will need him to make a start next week against the Baltimore Orioles and then, with Ross Stripling likely set for a return after throwing five shutout innings for triple-A Buffalo during a rehab start Friday at Syracuse, they’ll have a decision to make.

Far more jarring for the Blue Jays is the head-scratching season of Jose Berrios, who for the second time in 2022 allowed eight earned runs, this time over four innings of a dispiriting 8-0 drubbing from the Cleveland Guardians on Friday night.

The latest drubbing for the ace right-hander signed to a $131-million, seven-year extension over the winter came exactly one week after a rough outing at Minnesota, where he allowed five runs in 3.2 innings. In six July starts preceding that one, Berrios had seemingly turned the corner, pitching to a 3.00 ERA with 42 strikeouts in 36 innings.

But while the wide divergence between his home/road splits are often raised as a talking point, a more troubling split is that in 15 outings against teams better than .500, his ERA is 6.61 while in eight starts versus sub-.500 clubs it’s 3.77.

Now, worth noting is that mixed in there are strong performances against Houston, St. Louis, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia. Clearly, though, he isn’t getting away with as much against better lineups.

Take Friday, for example.

Berrios cruised through the first two innings before hitting No. 8 hitter Austin Hedges with one out in the third. Will Benson followed with a single and then Steven Kwan laid down a perfect bunt that just stayed fair down the third base line to load the bases.

Amed Rosario then roped a curveball just under the zone up the middle for a two-run single and after a Jose Ramirez sacrifice fly to centre brought home a third run, Josh Naylor of Mississauga, Ont., sent this 94.3 m.p.h. fastball over the wall in left to make it 5-0.

Really, it wasn’t a bad pitch.

The next inning, a three-run shot by Ramirez that made it 8-0 was even more audacious, the star third baseman golfing this Berrios changeup over the wall in right-centre.

It’s obscene and while both homers count against his pitching line, it’s reason to believe that Berrios isn’t necessarily in crisis, even though he’s far from being at his best.

Regardless, the Blue Jays, at 60-51 in the rapidly clustering wild-card standings, are facing their first real period of challenge under interim manager John Schneider having lost five times in their past six outings, each against a team above .500.

They’re now 29-39 against teams with winning records, worse than Seattle, Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Minnesota, the four teams closest around them.

Complicating matters is that their offence, in the ongoing absence of George Springer, hasn’t been able to overcome some of the pitching staff’s recent blips.

Cal Quantrill of Port Hope, Ont., primarily riding a sinker-cutter mix, matched a season-high with seven strikeouts and allowed just one hit, a one-out double to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., in the fourth that extended the all-star first baseman’s hit streak to 21 games.

Digging out of early five-run holes isn’t easy, but seizing a game early at the plate could help ease the burden on the staff at times, too.

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