Kevin Gausman bounces back but Blue Jays squander chance to sweep Yankees

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Kevin Gausman bounces back but Blue Jays squander chance to sweep Yankees

TORONTO — The Toronto Blue Jays were three outs from sweeping the American League East-best New York Yankees, but Toronto’s bullpen melted down in the ninth inning, allowing four runs to flip a 4-2 lead into a 6-4 loss on Wednesday at the Rogers Centre.

After a strong five-inning, one-run effort from Blue Jays starter Kevin Gausman and a two-home-run game from left fielder Daulton Varsho, the Blue Jays led by two to begin the ninth inning. Right-hander Erik Swanson, freshly returned from the 15-day injured list, was tasked with earning the save. But he got into trouble immediately, allowing a 437-foot homer to Yankees designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton that made it a one-run game. Second baseman Gleyber Torres, representing the tying run, followed with a single then left fielder Alex Verdugo doubled to put runners on second and third with no one out.

Swanson got Oswaldo Cabrera to hit a weak ground ball to second base and then was replaced with left-hander Tim Mayza, who gave up a game-tying single to pinch-hitter José Trevino. The lineup flipped, meaning to preserve the tie, Mayza would need to get through the top of the Yankees’ daunting order.

After retiring leadoff man Anthony Volpe on a pop-up, Mayza walked Juan Soto to load the bases. Mayza then worked Aaron Judge into a full count, but the Yankees slugger laced a single down the third base line to score two and put the Yankees ahead 6-4.

The Blue Jays stranded a Kevin Kiermaier single in the ninth inning.

From the outside looking in, it seemed like a tough spot to put Swanson into his first outing of the season. But after the game, Blue Jays manager John Schneider explained right-hander Chad Green was unavailable because of shoulder soreness. He was receiving treatment in hopes that he’ll be ready to pitch when the Blue Jays open a series against the San Diego Padres. Closer Jordan Romano was also unavailable because the Blue Jays were avoiding using him on back-to-back days so soon after his return from the IL. Additionally, Yimi García was down after pitching three times in four days.

“You want to protect guys this time of year,” said Schneider, who was ejected in the ninth after arguing a strike call. “Obviously would have loved to have (Green) in there today, but you got to do what’s right for the players.”

The loss ended the homestand on a “sour taste,” Schneider said, but the manager was still pleased with the club’s 6-3 home-opening record.

“At-bats were really good up and down the lineup against good pitching,” Schneider said. “I thought we played extremely well. And, it’s nice to be home after being on the road for 10 days. It’s nice to be home in front of our fans. It’s just that I wish it ended a little bit differently today.”

Before the day was spoiled, the Blue Jays did get an encouraging bounce-back performance from Gausman.

The Blue Jays right-hander entered Wednesday’s game coming off his worst two-start stretch since joining the Blue Jays. In that time, Gausman allowed 11 earned runs on 14 hits with two walks and only four strikeouts over five innings.

The performances were very un-Gausman-like on the surface. But viewed in the broader context of the last several weeks, his struggles were understandable considering Gausman’s spring training was disrupted by shoulder fatigue that kept him out of game action until the final day of camp.

Even with a severely condensed build-up, the Blue Jays opted to have Gausman start the season with the club — albeit with pitch restrictions for his first few outings — ruling that they were better off with a Gausman on a short leash than no Gausman at all.

In his season debut against Tampa, that logic seemed sound. Gausman held the Rays to one run on two hits over 4 1/3 innings with six strikeouts. But in Gausman’s following two starts, the starter wasn’t able to execute pitches the way he wanted. It was easy to think missing so much of spring training when kinks can be worked out was a factor in Gausman’s slow start.

But given Gausman’s track record over the past three seasons as one of the best pitchers in baseball, it was also easy to trust that soon, the right-hander would find his way. Those preaching patience over panic were rewarded when Gausman took a step in the right direction on Wednesday. Facing an intimidating Yankees lineup, Gausman bore down when he needed to and delivered big pitches in big moments, giving up just one run on four hits with three walks and six strikeouts over five innings.

“I thought Kevin was good,” Schneider said. “I thought his mix was better today. Stuff was there. He made huge pitches towards the end of his outing against the middle of the order there.”

The Yankees battled Gausman, driving up his pitch count. He escaped a first-inning bases-loaded jam when he got Torres to strike out on three pitches.

Then with the Blue Jays leading 2-0 in the fifth thanks to the first of Varsho’s two home runs, Gausman gave up a leadoff double to Cabrera. The Blue Jays starter retired the next two batters but gave up a hard double to Soto, whom he’d already faced twice. The hit gave the Yankees their first run of the day. With Soto as the tying run, Gausman worked Judge into a full count before getting the centre fielder to whiff at a splitter down in the zone. That prompted an emphatic reaction from Gausman.

After the game, Gausman said he had a different mentality Wednesday compared to his previous outing that went south against the Colorado Rockies.

“More attack mode, being more aggressive at guys, obviously throwing more strikes,” Gausman said. “I know I walked three guys, but I was still attacking the zone really the whole game and I thought we did a good job of mixing. Obviously, my last outing against these guys was a little different, so was looking to pitch a little better and was happy.”

Gausman’s outing completed a strong turn through the Blue Jays rotation after the group got off to an unexpectedly wobbly start. Against New York, in particular, starters Chris Bassitt, Yusei Kikuchi and Gausman held the Yankees to only three earned runs on 12 hits over 17 1/3 innings with six walks and 20 strikeouts. It was a stretch that closely resembled how the starters performed last season when they ranked as the third-best rotation in the majors.

“To be honest, I felt great with this group last year and coming into this year. I feel like the sky’s the limit with all these guys,” Gausman said. “Every day we have an ace that’s on the mound that can go out there and throw seven (shutout innings) with 10 punchouts and really dominate a game and so you always feel confident that every given day those guys are going to go out there and give it their all.”

The Blue Jays now depart for a seven-game road trip through San Diego and Kansas City that begins Friday. Although Wednesday’s game didn’t end the way the club wanted, they’re still leaving with confidence.

“We’re playing really good baseball,” Gausman said. “We won these three series at home and so now we’re excited for the off-day tomorrow to regroup, give those guys a break and hit the ground running.”

(Photo of Gausman: Nick Turchiaro / USA Today)