PITTSBURGH -- Even the Blue Jays never thought they were going to miss Casey Janssen quite this much.
Toronto's bullpen has been without its closer for the past month, but the expectation was that a deep group would come together and help fill the void. That was the case until about two weeks ago, but since then the supposed strength of this team has fallen into disarray.
The well-documented struggles continued on Friday night as right-hander Sergio Santos surrendered a pair of home runs in the bottom of the ninth inning as the Blue Jays gave one away late with a 6-5 loss to the Pirates.
"It's just one of those stretches, probably the toughest one I've been through in my career," said Santos, who has three blown saves and two losses with nine earned runs in his past six games. "It just seems like everything I throw they hit and they barrel up. It's just frustrating as heck, we played such a great game today and it stinks to blow it."
The first real signs of trouble for Toronto's bullpen came on the back end of a doubleheader in Minnesota on April 17. Santos, Steve Delabar and J.A. Happ combined to walk a franchise-record eight batters during one inning, and a tone was set for the rest of the month.
Aaron Loup walked the bases loaded and gave up a three-run double on April 20, Brett Cecil gave up four runs vs. Boston on April 24, Cecil and Santos then combined to allow six runs on April 29. It was a different culprit almost every night, but the story remained relatively the same and now Santos finds himself as the repeat offender.
Santos was expected to be a more than admirable fill-in for Janssen, who has yet to pitch this year because of a strained oblique. Santos was borderline unhittable during the second half of 2013, as he allowed just one run and four hits over his final 15 2/3 innings.
The start of this season, though, has been much different. Santos has struggled to locate his fastball down in the zone and has picked a couple of inopportune times to throw a wild pitch with his notoriously tough slider. He was handed a 5-3 lead on Friday night, but Pedro Alvarez sent a 1-0 fastball over the wall to tie the game at 5, and then Starling Marte won it two batters later with a solo shot. Just like that, the ballgame was over.
"I can't figure it out, just seems like everything I'm throwing they're hitting hard," Santos said when asked if he noticed anything wrong with his mechanics. "But I have to make an adjustment somehow, if not, I won't be here long. I just have to get out and pitch better."
Now the Blue Jays must decide what steps can be taken to help solve this pressing issue. Manager John Gibbons hinted after the game that changes are on their way. One adjustment likely would see either Delabar or Cecil at least temporarily take over the closer's role until Janssen returns within a couple of weeks from his injury.
Another change could potentially see the return of right-hander Dustin McGowan to the bullpen. He spent last season in that role, but began the 2014 campaign in the starting rotation. McGowan is coming off a strong start vs. Kansas City, but top prospect Marcus Stroman is waiting in the wings at Triple-A Buffalo and could be ready to enter the starting five.
Whatever decisions the club decides to make, it became pretty clear after Friday's frustrating loss that it will no longer be status quo for Toronto.
"There's no question, it's a different look down there," Gibbons said. "With Janssen being out and McGowan not being down there. It's a totally different look and I think we're suffering for it ... We've coughed up way too many this early in the season to make any progress. We definitely have to get better and if that means adjusting some things then that's what we need to do."
While the bullpen struggles, the Blue Jays offense continues to deliver. Toronto posted at least five runs for the fifth time in its past six games. Dating back 11 games, the Blue Jays are just 3-8, but over that same span the offense is hitting .281 (36-for-128) with 22 doubles and 17 home runs.
On Friday night it was more of the same. Jose Bautista had a pair of doubles to extend his hitting streak to 12 games, and he has now reached base in all of Toronto's 29 games this season. Colby Rasmus hit a go-ahead two-run homer in the fourth, his second in as many days. Edwin Encarnacion had an RBI double and even pinch-hitter Steve Tolleson got into the act with an RBI triple in the sixth.
It was an overall strong day as Toronto knocked right-hander Gerrit Cole out of the game after five innings, but in the end it still added up to another loss. Blue Jays starter Brandon Morrow once again failed to record six innings -- something he has done just once this season -- but the focus will be on the bullpen, which has five blown saves in its past 14 games and has allowed 35 runs, 48 hits and 30 walks over its past 46 1/3 innings dating back to April 17.
"It's too bad, we played a hell of a game," Gibbons said. "We've been playing some good games and we've been struggling down there in the 'pen. So maybe we rearrange some things down there. But you have to fight, can't let it demoralize you. You have to show up again tomorrow but we definitely have to get better down there."