Blue Jays haunted again by missed opportunities in tough loss against Guardians

TORONTO — The Blue Jays can’t afford many more losses as they try to stay in the thick of a tight American League playoff race. They especially can’t afford losses in games they had the chance to put away multiple times.

But they did exactly that on Sunday. The Blue Jays and Cleveland Guardians played a back-and-forth contest, but it was ultimately the Guardians who held on for a 10-7 victory in 11 innings over an interminable 3 hours and 34 minutes at the Rogers Centre.

As has been the season-long narrative, this loss came down to missed opportunities for an offence that hasn’t been able to produce enough key hits, do the little things right or score when it matters throughout the entirety of the season. If the Blue Jays do make the postseason — and it’s only an if at this point, as they sit 2 1/2 games back of the last wild-card spot — finding a way to capitalize on chances in tight playoff games is going to be necessary.

In a season where there have been regrettable losses, this may have been the worst, both because of how it happened and the timing of it, only days after Blue Jays manager John Schneider called on the team “to go home ready to win” as they began a critical portion of their schedule.

Consider that the Blue Jays had runners at second base with no one out in the seventh, ninth and 10th innings — yet the Blue Jays didn’t score in any of those situations as they went 2-for-9 with runners in scoring position. After the Guardians scored four runs in the top of the 11th inning to pull away in what had been a 6-6 game, a sold-out Rogers Centre fell quiet. The Blue Jays didn’t do nearly enough to raise the noise level in the bottom of the frame.

“(We) had our chances, for sure,” Schneider said. “I think it was kind of later in the game where we didn’t capitalize.”

Making matters worse on this deflating day was concern regarding the statuses of shortstop Bo Bichette and third baseman Matt Chapman, who both left the game early with injuries.

Bichette exited the game after his at-bat in the fifth inning with right quad tightness, something he’s been playing through, according to the manager. Meanwhile, Chapman left the game in the sixth with right middle finger inflammation, an injury he’s been nursing for two weeks after he got the finger caught in between a dumbbell and the rack in the team’s weight room.

The manager said Bichette is considered day to day with the quad tightness, while Chapman was going for an MRI on his finger Sunday night.

It’s only been a little over a week since Bichette returned from the injured list with the right knee patellar tendonitis that sidelined him for 16 games. Asked if the quad tightness could be connected to Bichette’s previous knee injury, Schneider called them “two separate things.”

It was not the only injury news of the day, either. Earlier, the Blue Jays also placed reliever Erik Swanson on the 15-day injured list with thoracic spine inflammation. It’s a blow to the bullpen, in which Swanson has been a key figure, though the good news is the Blue Jays anticipate that with rest and treatment, Swanson won’t require more than the minimum 15 days on the IL.

With only about a month left, the Blue Jays can ill afford to lose any more of their key players to injury, especially as they try to chase down a playoff spot, a task they’re making more difficult on themselves by letting winnable games slip away.

The Blue Jays jumped out to an early lead when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit a two-run home run in the first inning, his team-leading 20th long ball of the year. But Cleveland tied the game in the third when third baseman José Ramírez homered off Blue Jays starter Yusei Kikuchi, the first home run he’s allowed since July 6, a stretch of 44 1/3 innings.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. celebrates after hitting a two-run homer in the first inning. (Dan Hamilton / USA Today)

Cleveland went ahead 4-2 in the fourth inning, but the Blue Jays battled back. George Springer cut the lead to one with a solo home run in the bottom of the fourth. Then for the second day in a row rookie Davis Schneider provided a pivotal hit, launching a two-run home run to left field to put Toronto up 5-4 in the sixth inning.

Up one in the seventh, the Blue Jays had men on second and third with only one out and a chance to plate some precious add-on runs, but they didn’t score.

That opened the door for the Guardians in the eighth. Down by one, they had men on second and third after Blue Jays reliever Tim Mayza had an uncharacteristically messy outing, giving up a walk and a pair of doubles, allowing the Guardians to score twice and go ahead 6-5.

The Blue Jays did well to tie it up immediately. After Springer missed a game-tying home run by a few feet, Schneider again came up big with a double to left field. He was replaced by pinch-runner Kevin Kiermaier, who scored from second after Daulton Varsho bounced a hard ground ball by Guardians first baseman Kole Calhoun.

The Blue Jays could’ve ended it in the ninth inning after Danny Jansen led off the inning with a double. But Cavan Biggio’s sacrifice bunt was hit too hard and toward first base, not third base, allowing Calhoun to throw out Jansen at third. Espinal, who was hitting in Bichette’s spot, then swung at a likely ball four in a 3-0 count before hitting into a double play to end the inning.

Facing Guardians closer Emmanuel Clase, the Blue Jays couldn’t score in the 10th, which allowed the Guardians to tag Jay Jackson, freshly recalled for Swanson, for four runs in the 11th inning. The Blue Jays could only muster a run on a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the frame.

Against the Guardians, the Blue Jays began a stretch of 15 games against sub-.500 teams. The soft part of the schedule represented an opportunity for them to rack up wins in an effort to try to climb back into a playoff spot. But losing two of three to Cleveland has only put them further back.

Kikuchi, who allowed four runs on six hits over six innings with two walks and eight strikeouts, said at this significant juncture of the season, the team relies on the veterans.

“We just got to flip the page and move on to tomorrow,” he said through his interpreter Yusuke Oshima. “We just got to be as a unit and just move forward and just give it our all every day.”

The Blue Jays open a series against the Washington Nationals at home on Monday. As will be the case for the remainder of the season, this series is one the Blue Jays need to win if they want to keep pace in the wild-card race. It means the Blue Jays won’t have much time to dwell on Sunday’s tough loss. Perhaps that’s a good thing.

“It’s a sh— loss,” John Schneider said. “It comes down to little things, but as tough as it is, you got to just regroup and move on and every game is important. It sucks that we came up short today, but guys are in it, guys are grinding, so you got to just keep doing that and flip the page to tomorrow.”

(Photo of George Springer: Dan Hamilton / USA Today)

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