BOSTON — The last time Ross Stripling was on the hill, the Toronto Blue Jays were in shock. They had lost three in a row; six out of seven; nine of 12. They had fallen to third in the American League wild card standings, only half a game ahead of the opponent of the day – the Baltimore Orioles. Waking up that morning, hours before taking to the mound for a rare midweek Rogers Center matinee to try and stop the bleeding, Stripling was nervous.
“I kinda felt the weight of the world on my shoulders,” Stripling said. “Like, ‘Man, this start has to be good. The team needs it. I need it coming from IL.’ …I felt nervous, anxious and pressured at first.”
Those emotions escalated when Stripling started warming up on the bullpen mound and saw the pitches coming out of his hand. His change was cutting, flowing over the plate – where the damage is done – rather than fading below the zone, where it’s most effective. It’s not good. As he made his way to dugout before the first pitch, Stripling mentally braced himself for the possibility of pitching without his best weapon.
And then a funny thing happened. He ran away, figured out his business, and started rolling the Baltimore batters. His change was phenomenal, getting six puffs out of 10 swings. Stripling had a perfect game in the seventh. Thanks to a long overdue offensive breakout late in the game, the Blue Jays had the laughs. And, as if Stripling had sparked something, the rest of Toronto’s rotation fell in lockstep behind him, stringing together their own deep and effective starts. The Blue Jays have won four straight. They held their opponents to nine points in five games. The ship righted.
Which brought Stripling to his next start, Tuesday, at Boston’s Fenway Park. As has happened to Stripling a few times this season, circumstances have conspired against him. The threat of rain delayed the first pitch by an hour. As he warmed up in right field, the Fenway Park field crew pushed him into the bullpen as they removed the infield tarp. He gave up an early run on a single light in the second.
But then another funny thing happened. Stripling did what he always does. Six efficient and controlled single-point ball runs. His change was a weapon, but this time in a setup ability, as he played his four-puff fastball (five of his 10 puffs) and slider (three puffs) out of it. He went at least five innings and allowed fewer than three runs for the eighth time in 12 starts since joining Toronto’s rotation in early June.
“I feel good about Arsenal tonight. It seemed like the right-handers were watching, so I started doing more inside stuff. Probably cast the most shots I’ve cast in n’ any output,” Stripling said. “It’s the fourth time I’ve faced these guys – second time here at Fenway since the All-Star break. So obviously they’re pretty aware of what I do and like doing to them. So that was a bit a bit of a different ride – both seams and the mid-switch combo trying to get early contact and get the ball in play.”
And that the Blue Jays won, 9-3, tells you the Toronto bats showed up for him again. This time it was a third inning in which the club chained five hits and three walks with two outs, ultimately getting 12 batters to the plate and scoring eight of them. The Blue Jays kicked Red Sox starter Josh Winckowski out of the game in the process, before pitching his replacement, Austin Davis. Incredibly, the only Blue Jays starter not to reach base in the inning was the club’s leading hitter, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who doubled twice on the night.
“Don’t get too big, stay in midfield and work the other way,” Blue Jays interim manager John Schneider said of his club’s approach in the inning. “It was a quick eight runs with two outs, which is really, really impressive. Up and down the lineup. It’s not common to see eight runs and two outs from Vladdy in the same inning.
“Just let the game come to them, trust their abilities, stick to a really good approach and pass the baton to the next one.”
That Toronto’s offense played so collectively and relentlessly with two outs, passing the baton from batter to batter with demanding plate appearance after demanding plate appearance, was an encouraging sign for a team. who struggles to stand out in similar places against what appears on paper to be over-leveled competition – Winckowski, a former Blue Jays prospect, entered the night with a 5.19 ERA in 12 major league starts – in the past.
Not to mention a formation that often went out of their way in these situations, trying too hard to impact the game rather than, as Schneider said, letting the game come to them. It sounds a lot like the nervousness and anxiety that Stripling felt before his last departure. Ball players call this “pressing”. Your team is bad. He needs someone to do something big, something impactful, to get him off the mat. In the batter’s box, on the mound, on the field, players sit with that pressure and look for their chance to be that someone.
But not all opportunities are created equal. And often players will try to force the issue and overdo it at a time that doesn’t require it. That’s when things go wrong. If you’ve watched Blue Jays baseball this season, it probably sounds familiar.
“We’re not going to show up and put out talented teams anymore. I think we’ve proven that. We have to work and be prepared and be ready to play good baseball to win games at this level,” Stripling said. “We know that. And we’re probably pressing a little.”
It’s impossible to say for sure if the Blue Jays have self-sabotaged themselves at times due to baseball’s inherent and extreme mental strain. There is little empirical or data on this. Poor performance is not proof in itself. This is often the result of pressing. But pressure is not always the cause.
The best barometer we have is player decision-making. Decisions to try to take an extra base or not risk running into an out; decisions to prepare for a flyball or to relax and approach it tactically; and, perhaps most crucially, swing decisions at home plate. The locations you offer and the ones you don’t. This is where pressing often materializes. And, wouldn’t you know, Guerrero is swinging at 32.5% of the shots he’s thrown out of the zone this season, a 4% increase from 2021 and a 5% increase from 2020. .
You probably remember his appearance at the plate late in Sunday’s loss to the New York Yankees. Seventh inning, bases loaded, tie, two out, Lou Trivino on the hill. In a three-pitch game, Trivino didn’t throw a shot at Guerrero. But the Blue Jays first baseman offered two of them, one of which he grounded to end the inning:
Is it urgent? It looks a lot like it. At his best, Guerrero demonstrated an ability to recognize balls and strikes at an elite level. With a more disciplined approach, he could have been in a 3-0 tally. Maybe 2-1 if he got watered on a call. But the pressure to perform at that time is immense. And sometimes young players try to do too much.
Stripling has been there. In his own way, on the mound. And he felt he was going there before the start of last week when his team was in shock. It was an eye-opening experience.
“I started thinking, ‘Man, I bet Vladdy feels that every time he’s in the box. Or (Jordan) Romano when he saves games. I bet they’re just feeling the weight,” Stripling said. “And I think you can see our team is trying to play hero baseball a bit, rather than relying on the other 25 guys to pick themselves up. I feel like we’re all trying to hit the five-run homer or get the perfect out. And I feel like we’re pushing.
“I try to make it a priority to go around and say to them, ‘Hey, everybody meet here. It’s not up to you. We have a whole team – a really talented and deep roster here that can rival anyone. So just remember that. It doesn’t take a hero every night. ‘”
Stripling remembers the Los Angeles Dodgers team he played for in 2017. Kershaw, Wood, Jansen, Turner, Bellinger, Seager. He thinks it was the most talented roster he’s ever been on. This team entered September with a 16-game lead in the NL West and quickly lost 11 games in a row. It was as if the sky was falling. Everyone was trying to do too much to get by.
It wasn’t until those Dodgers stopped pressing and found their footing that they turned the tide and went on to a World Series they lost in seven games. Have the Blue Jays pressed at times this season? Stripling thinks so. And he thinks the Blue Jays could go as far as those Dodgers if they fix the problem.
“This team can win a ring. They’re as talented as anybody in baseball. We really are,” Stripling said. “We’ve been streaked and we can play better. But I think the narrative – even what we would say in the locker room – is that at some point everything is going to click. At some point throwing, hitting, defending, it’s We are too good for it not to be.
“Well, we’re here in the middle of August, and it really hasn’t clicked all three at once all year. So, I think we’re done saying that. We’re not saying that anymore. Now we’re saying, ‘Alright, we’re going to have to go do it ourselves.'”
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