Home-field victim? Blue Jays rally fizzles after young fans run on field

TORONTO — Facing a six-run deficit at the bottom of the sixth inning, the bottom of the Toronto Blue Jays lineup delivered three straight singles to stir the possibility of a big rally.

But once Raimel Tapia crossed on Tyler Heineman’s RBI single, two young fans ran onto the field. One was taken down by security in shallow right field, about 20 feet from the infield dirt. The other got to second base and stood on the bag beside Santiago Espinal before he was tackled to the ground.

Getting them off the field took several minutes, providing Houston Astros reliever Bryan Abreu and his triple-digit velocity a timely chance to reset while arresting the Blue Jays’ momentum. When playing resumed, Abreu struck out George Springer and Bo Bichette and induced a groundout from Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who earlier hit a monster homer, to limit the damage.

Correlation isn’t necessarily causation, of course, but on a Friday night when even the seemingly deadened iteration of the official baseball was jumping at Rogers Centre, the Blue Jays weren’t in a position to give the Astros any breaks before a crowd of 35,066.

Whether there might have been more on the table during that interrupted rally loomed larger when Matt Chapman rocked a two-run shot off the facing of the fifth deck in left field, narrowing the gap to three in what eventually finished as an 11-7 Astros victory.

“I felt it,” manager Charlie Montoyo said of his team’s momentum dying off while the fans were escorted from the field. “I’m not making excuses for why we lost the game. … But that’s almost like a timeout for them and now we’re waiting around. It did feel that way for me.”

Whether or not it made a difference, the primary issue Friday for the Blue Jays was their pitching, of course, starting with Yusei Kikuchi, who lasted just 2.2 innings while introducing a couple of new acne.

First, he dropped the hitch with his drive leg from his delivery, seeking a more fluid motion to better utilize his athleticism. Second, he introduced a new slider, a hybrid of his old breaking ball and a cutter opponents are slugging at a .625 clip thus far.

The sweet spot for Kikuchi is to throw the pitch in the 85-88 mph range, which should give it a sharp strike-to-ball break horizontally and vertically across the zone. He used 15 of them Friday – they registered as cutters on Baseball Savant – among his 66 pitches, surrendering a home run, a double and an RBI single while getting three whiffs with the offering.

“That’s another thing that (pitching coach) Pete Walker and I have actually talked about, increasing the velocity on that slider,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “So just getting a better feel for that, working at it each and every day, just to put me in a better position by gaining more fuel on that pitch.”

The work-in-progress status of his breaking ball and pitching motion led to a short and messy outing – he allowed four runs on four hits and three walks – that dumped two-thirds of the game on the club’s depth relievers, a bad recipe against an Astros team that bangs.

Six relievers followed, including Tayler Saucedo — who left the outing with right hip discomfort — and Trevor Richards, whom the Blue Jays extended to a second inning of work in the sixth where he came undone, surrendering a three-run shot to Jeremy Pena and a two-run drive to Yordan Alvarez that opened up a 10-4 lead.

It was in the bottom half that the Blue Jays tried to rally when the kids ran out on the field. Instead of being able to keep the heat on and have the game speed up on Abreu, everyone had to stand around while the fans were dragged off.

“I think it allowed him to kind of settle down a little bit,” said Springer, who saw two 100.7 mph fastballs to begin his at-bat once play resumed before four straight sliders, swinging through the last one. “Hats off to him. He made some good pitches afterwards and was able to get out of it. But you don’t ever want to see anybody run on the field. That is what it is. It happens. I’d rather it not.”

The Blue Jays at that point were attempting to erase a second deficit in the game, after undoing the early 4-1 hole Kikuchi left them in.

Guerrero – who woke up Thursday morning with his right foot, the one he’d fouled a ball off the previous night, so swollen he could barely get a shoe on – pummeled a three-run shot an estimated 446 feet at 114.4 mph off the bat in the third to knot things up.

Trent Thornton gave the lead back the next inning on a Chas McCormick sacrifice fly and the Blue Jays didn’t get level again.

Signed for $36 million over three years right out of the lockout, Kikuchi only has one outing of five innings in four starts and Friday was his shortest outing yet.

The Astros have been tough on him – he now has an ERA of 6.13 (42 earned runs in 61.2 innings) over 13 starts against them – and Kikuchi’s tweaks left him too inconsistent in the zone, speeding through his delivery at times, which caused his arm to drag and led to arm-side misses.

Still, the Blue Jays liked the way he got after four-seamer, which he threw 39 times, sitting right at his season average of 95 and up to 96.4, which generated five whiffs. The goal is for Kikuchi to complement that with the firmer slider and his change/split.

“He’s got the stuff we all know that,” said Montoyo. “I’ve seen it against us last year, good slider and he just doesn’t have the command right now. You’re playing good teams and if you’re going to walk people you’re going to get in trouble. It’s all about his command. If he gets it, he’s going to be all right.”

Kikuchi didn’t get there during an eventful Friday that included an unusual interruption to a promising rally which had the potential to make the final innings a little more interesting.

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