Opposite dugout: Injuries, altercations and now a suspension haunt Blue Jays

blue-jays-logo.jpgManager: John Gibbons (10th season)

Record: 18-24

Last 10 games: 6-4

Who to watch: RF José Bautista (6 HR, 19 RBIs), 1B Justin Smoak (9 HR, 27 RBIs), CF Kevin Pillar (.305/.357/.497, 5 stolen bases), RHP Aaron Sanchez (2.95 ERA), RHP Roberto Osuna (3.52 ERA, 0.913 WHIP, 5 saves)

Season series vs. Orioles: 1-5

Pitching probables:

May 19: RHP Aaron Sanchez vs. RHP Chris Tillman, 7:05 p.m., MASN
May 20: RHP Mike Bolsinger vs. RHP Kevin Gausman, 7:35 p.m., MASN2
May 21: RHP Marco Estrada vs. LHP Wade Miley, 1:35 p.m., MASN

Inside the Blue Jays:

Don’t look now, but the Blue Jays are actually showing signs that they are still alive in the American League East. But they’ll have to get past not just the Orioles and the rest of the division, but their own injuries and self-inflicted wounds. Before they dropped three of four in a home-and-home series that shifted from Toronto to Atlanta this week, the Jays had won their previous five games, and eight of their previous 10, as they work their way back from a 1-9 start to the 2017 season. And even amid this most recent setback, the Jays star that O’s fans love to hate, José Bautista, is back to his bat-flipping ways, having homered four times in his last eight games while driving in 10 runs and going 10-for-28.

Entering this important weekend series with the Orioles, however, the Jays will have to try to fight their way out of the division cellar with multiple players on the disabled list, including left-handed starters J.A. Happ (elbow) and Francisco Liriano (shoulder), third baseman Josh Donaldson (calf), shortstop Troy Tulowitski (hamstring) and catcher Russell Martin (shoulder). Outfielder-first baseman and former Oriole fan fave Steve Pearce, recovering from a calf strain, is also doing time on the DL. As if all that weren’t enough, the Jays have suspended center fielder Kevin Pillar for two games, including tonight’s series opener in Baltimore, for using a homophobic slur, caught by television cameras and microphones, against Braves pitcher Jason Motte in the seventh inning of Wednesday’s game in Atlanta. It was an ugly moment in a game with several of them. The benches cleared a second time when the Braves took exception to Bautista’s trademarked bat flip after he homered in the eighth inning.

Switch-hitting first baseman Justin Smoak leads the Jays in RBIs with 27 and home runs with nine, but has driven in just three runs and had one homer in his seven-year career against the Oriole starters he’ll face this weekend. Designated hitter Kendrys Morales (.255/.302/.443) also produces runs for the Blue Jays, registering seven homers and 23 RBIs this season. Then there’s Joey Bats. The dismal totals for the Jays’ right fielder have taken a turn for the better in May, particularly in the past week and a half. Since May 10, Bautista has 10 RBIs, in contrast to the nine he’d put up all season to that point. Just as important for the Jays, perhaps, is that he seems to have regained the swagger that gets his team up and gets under the skin of opponents.

Friday starter Aaron Sanchez is back from his latest of two terms on the disabled list this season, both owing to problems with the middle finger on his throwing hand. Sanchez took the loss against the Orioles at Rogers Centre April 14 for his only decision thus far in limited duty. In that outing, Sanchez gave up three homers and five runs in 5 1/3 innings. The O’s will have their hands full if Sanchez can match the form he showed against them in 2016, when he went 4-0 with a 3.00 ERA in five starts. Sanchez could go a long way toward that goal by pitching around Chris Davis, who has homered four times off him and walked 10 times in just 28 plate appearances. Saturday’s starter, Mike Bolsinger, is new to the American League, coming up with the Diamondbacks in 2014 and working the past two seasons for the Dodgers. Filling in twice so far as the Jays rotation recovers from its injuries, Bolsinger has taken a loss both times. In his Monday start against the Braves, he gave up six runs in just 4 2/3 innings. Marco Estrada has notched six quality starts in nine attempts this season, while going fewer than six innings only once. Estrada, who starts Sunday, had hard luck in his previous starts against the Orioles this season. He gave up just two runs over six innings but got a no-decision in the Jays’ loss on opening day. The Jays won April 15 in Toronto, but Estrada again didn’t factor in the decision, despite giving up no runs over seven innings. His most recent start came May 16 in Atlanta, when he surrendered five earned runs in six innings of work. In 22 at-bats against Estrada, Davis has homered twice, but has posted an average of just .136. Estrada has also kept Adam Jones, Mark Trumbo, Manny Machado and J.J. Hardy below the Mendoza line.

Jays closer Roberto Osuna endured early-season struggles, blowing three saves and recording just one in his first six appearances of 2017. Over his next nine, however, he got four saves without a blemish. The injuries to the Jays’ starters have forced some adjustments in the middle relief corps. The Orioles likely won’t see Joe Biagini, initially the Jays’ seventh-inning guy. He’s got four holds, but has been pressed into rotation service. Jason Grilli (1-3, 6.75 ERA), the right-hander who served up Trumbo’s opening day homer, is headed in the right direction. He’s lowered his ERA by better than three runs and has given up just one run on four hits in five appearances since May 6.

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