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ARLINGTON, TEXAS — Things are looking Darko for Marco.
From a 17.20 ERA in first innings — 12 earned runs through 15 starts, including his third opening frame home run of the season surrendered Monday — to literally falling off the mound in a startling follow-through stumble, warning lights are flashing red and ding-ding-dinging for Marco Estrada.
If not the staff ace, then certainly the changeup maestro has been the stuff of starter sinew and ballast for the Blue Jays these last few years.
But in four starts through June — inclusive of Monday night’s fiasco — the veteran right-hander has given up 34 hits and 23 runs in 14 2/3 innings.
Estrada’s accumulating wobbles are hugely concerning, even as manager John Gibbons professed not to be worried a whit, and solaced by a ninth-inning, come-from-behind 7-6 win for Toronto over the rival and tempestuous Rangers.
“He’s been struggling lately, no doubt about that,” the skipper had observed.
“I don’t think that will continue. He’s too good.”
Not lately, and not again, picked up by a valiant bullpen that retired the last 11 Rangers in a row, and that was after Aaron Loup pitched out of a fifth-inning bases-loaded jam.
So, bright spots, back within one game of that .500 chimera, with Estrada not the ultimate factor when this interminably long affair — three hours and 48 minutes — was finally in the books as Toronto’s 34th W, if only by their chinny-chin-chins.
After all the bells and whistles and long-ball cacophony, to say nothing of a stupid-healthy lead gone up in smoke, it was a bunch of sharp but itty-bitty balls that turned the tide for Toronto in the top of the ninth.
Ryan Goins led off with a nervy double and head-first slide on the throw, with a bump to the noggin by second baseman Rougned Odor that left the Jay wincing and shaking his brainpan.
After Kevin Pillar popped up, Josh Donaldson shortened up and stroked a savvy single off closer Matt Bush that brought Goins home with the 6-6 run.
And then Donaldson hustled across the plate on a Kendrys Morales long single to left-centre.
Roberto Osuna slammed the door shut with a 1-2-3 ninth.
SUCK-SUCK-SUCK BUT . . . NO WORRIES
“Obviously I’m not happy with myself the way things went down,” Estrada said afterwards. “I’m mad at myself for diving at a ball that I had no business diving after.’’
That would be a fourth inning Shin-Soo Choo single that Estrada tried to grab with a full-frontal assault.
“If I would have just covered first base, I probably would have got the out and the inning’s over with and who knows, it’s a whole different story.’’
Hot out there, maybe that contributed to the manner in which Estrada clearly ran out of gas.
“That last inning was long, obviously, and maybe I was a little tired. Maybe I started trying too hard. I really did feel real good today. I made a lot of decent pitches. I’m in a little bit of a pitcher’s slump, I guess. And it sucks.
“The only thing I’m upset about is the bullpen had to pick up all those innings. I feel terrible for that. But we won and it’s a lot easier to clear my head right now. I don’t care, I’m really happy we won. We needed that.”
BOOS FOR BATS
The heads-up side of the big swing coin rattled Texas starter Austin Bibens-Dirkx his second time through the Toronto order. Which happens to rookie pitchers, even 32-year-old rookie pitchers.
Public Enemy No. 1 (hereabouts) Jose Bautista, who hadn’t gone yard since June 9, pounced on a 3-and-2 changeup, rocketing the offering deep into left field in the fourth inning, which gave Toronto a 2-1 lead. Which turned into 3-1, 4-1, 5-1 before the four-run frame was mercifully over for Bibens-Dirkx: a Morales lugubrious double, Justin Smoak single, Russell Martin walk, and three-run crack of the bat on a Steve Pearce double lined to left. Thinking a lead safe as houses? Ha.
Immediately thereafter, Estrada got himself into a heap o’ trouble by walking leadoff hitter Carlos Gomez, ditto Jonathan Lucroy. Dived full-length to knock down the Choo chopper but couldn’t get there; Smoak, backing up, got the ball but that left nobody covering first.
From bad to worse for the suddenly luckless Estrada, who twice loaded the bases and twice saw them quasi-cleared on a two-run single and three-run double as his pitches became increasing errant and erratic, goofy high or square over the plate. On each occasion, Estrada was one out away from scrambling for safety but never finished the inning, replaced after a quite shocking 3 2/3 innings of work by Dominic Leone.
Intimations of the hot mess that lay ahead for Estrada were possibly evident in the opening frame first-pitch fastball cookie to Nomar Mazara — arrivederci, 435 feet into the second deck.
Didn’t take long for Smoak to negate the early Texas 1-0 lead. First pitch he saw he banged, a 91-m.p.h. fastball launched into right-centre orbit for HR No. 20, matching his career high. Naturally, because this is how Smoak’s dingers roll, there was nobody on base to hitch a jack-ride home.
On the night, Smoak was 3-for-4 with a homer and a walk. Three-for-four with two homers against Bibens-Dirkx this season, bit of a Ranger-slayer, for the one-time Texas first-round draft pick.
“I know for the couple of months I was here, and even when I was with Seattle, I’ve always loved playing in this ballpark. It’s just one of those things.
“We were able to get to Bush tonight. Guys were just grinding out at-bats and getting on base, couple of key hits right there.”
UPON FURTHER REVIEW
Donaldson appeared to have slid nifty and safely into first, outrunning a poor throw from third baseman Adrian Beltre that took Joey Gallo high off the bag in the opening frame. But video review — 1:20 — reversed the call on the field, determining Gallo had applied the tag with a brush against Donaldson’s shoulder.
More anal was the Texas challenge on a fourth-inning double by Morales, poorly played at the wall by Choo. Morales’ lead right foot reached the bag just fine but, with the play apparently finito, wincingly lifted his left foot up to dust-off, providing Odor a nano-second for a sly tag. The tall foreheads in New York weren’t buying it.
JAYS EXES WHO LIVE IN TEXAS
Bibens-Dirkx, he of the exotically-spelled surname, is former Blue Jays property, having played in the club’s system from 2013-15, from Dunedin High-A to New Hampshire (Double-A) to Buffalo (Triple-A), before electing to go the minor-league free agent route and last season toiling for the Lancaster Barnstormers in the Atlantic League.
A terrific feel-good story, the right-hander endured 13 years in the minors before getting his big-league chance with the Rangers this season, earning his third start. Last time out, Bibens-Dirkx retired 19 consecutive batters, breaking a franchise rookie record that dated back to ’74.
“His name used to come up all the time and he never showed up,” recalled Gibbons at his pre-game jaw session with media, meaning Bibens-Dirkx never made an impression with the Toronto talent judges. “But he’s done all right.”
Cracking: “That’s another one we let get away.”
Yup, Noah Syndergaard and Austin Bibens-Dirkx.
But of course the Jays deposited another player on the DL Monday. This time the highly useful and quite reliable reliever Joe Smith, merely Toronto’s busiest arm out of the bullpen, with a club-leading 34 appearances. Smith assumed the key eighth-inning role when Joe Biagini was matriculated into the starting rotation because of a slew of injuries — Aaron Sanchez, Francisco Liriano, J.A.Happ.
Maybe too much of a go-to burden, as Smith steps aside for 10 days with shoulder inflammation.
“If it is, I will take credit for that one,” said Gibbons of Smith’s workload stress, “or the blame.”
Smith was replaced in the ’pen by Leonel Campos, summoned from the minors for the fourth time this season.