Aaron Loup stood near his locker still wearing his jersey when Toronto Blue Jays starter Ricky Romero walked by and pointed to the young reliever.
“Hey Loup, you can take off the uniform,” said Romero. “It’s not going anywhere.”
If Loup’s first major league appearance is any indication, Romero’s probably right.
On a day that saw Toronto outslug the Cleveland Indians 11-9, the bright spot was a two-inning shutout performance by Loup who gave the Jays some hope for their creaky bullpen.
“I try to stay pretty much calm and collected out there as I possibly can, try not to let too much bother me while I’m out there,” said Loup, who said he was surprised the team let him pitch two innings after being recalled from double-A New Hampshire on Friday.
“I just try to maintain a good composure because if I get rattled and shaky that’s usually when things start going bad for me. So I try to keep it as simple as possible out there.”
The post-game celebration Saturday should have been all about the power performance put on by Toronto (44-44), which scored eight runs in the third inning for an early 10-2 lead.
Edwin Encarnacion and Yunel Escobar each had two-run shots during the inning to help chase Cleveland starter Ubaldo Jimenez (8-8) from the game. The inning also featured four doubles and two singles by the Jays, marking only the fourth time in franchise history Toronto has had six extra-base hits, one shy of the record.
Encarnacion, who signed a US$27-million, three-year contract on Thursday, hit his 24th then added his 25th in the fifth inning for his first multi-homer game of the season and the eighth of his career. His fifth-inning shot travelled 448 feet, the longest home run at Rogers Centre this season.
Adam Lind was also dangerous at the plate, going 4-for-5 with three singles and a double.
But the Indians (45-42) slowly chipped away at the substantial lead, putting a scare into the 32,517 fans at Rogers Centre. It started with a two-run homer in the fourth by Cleveland left-fielder Shelley Duncan off Toronto starter Aaron Laffey (1-1) that effectively ended his outing and cut the lead to 10-4.
Loup entered the game and retired all six batters he faced, giving the Jays reason to feel comfortable with their lead.
That comfort eroded in the eighth when the Indians scored five runs, giving them hope for a comeback. Jays reliever Jesse Chavez gave up a pair of two-run homers to Michael Brantley and Casey Kotchman. Casey Janssen entered the game later in the inning and allowed Travis Hafner to single in Asdrubal Cabrera, cutting Toronto’s previously intimidating lead to 11-9.
Janssen held the line in the ninth for his 13th save of the season, helping the Blue Jays move back to a .500 record.
After the game Chavez was optioned to triple-A Las Vegas, and Toronto manager John Farrell was more than happy to point to Loup as the reason the Jays didn’t embarrass themselves with the advantage they had.
“Just the way he carried himself,” said Farrell. “Threw the ball over the plate. He had good tempo. He didn’t back away from a challenge being the first time that he’s at the major league level. And he threw his fastball, his breaking ball for strikes. Just an impressive attack of the strike zone. It was the one thing that really stood out.”
He added the auditioning would continue until the team found relievers they could depend on.
“If guys can’t grab hold of an opportunity to find a job, we’re going to find the next guy.”
The power performance left both team’s starters looking forward to the next outing. Laffey laboured through five innings for Toronto, allowing a home run and four earned runs on eight hits, but still earned his first win of the season. His last win was Sept. 17 at Rogers Centre, when he beat the Jays in a New York Yankees uniform.
“You know, you get in those times where you start to fall behind guys and kind of make over adjustments and kind of over correct, and put pressure on yourself as opposed to just being nice and calm and easy and nice and fluid just like you are if there’s nothing going on,” said Laffey. “So just kind of putting extra pressure on yourself when you really didn’t have to, it just happens sometimes.”
Laffey had to feel better about his day than Jimenez, who spent most of the game watching from the Indians’ dugout. Cleveland’s starter lasted just 2 1/3 innings, giving up eight earned runs on seven hits. His ugly third inning featured two home runs and five consecutive hits.
“Everything was wrong today,” said Jimenez of his shortest start of the season. “I couldn’t get my pitches over the plate. I was falling behind in the count and then once I tried to get in, they took advantage of it. It was a really bad day.”
Jimenez managed to choke back some praise for Encarnacion, who’s homer put Toronto ahead for good in a game where the lead quickly went from being concrete to fragile.
“He always had a lot of power and this year he’s taking advantage when pitchers fall behind in the count,” said Jimenez. “If you make a mistake, he’s making you pay for it.”
What the Blue Jays do with that power remains uncertain. The team is 10.5 games out of the lead in the AL East, but just two games back of a wildcard spot. The race for those spots is heated — Cleveland’s loss dropped them a half-game out of one — and Lind said the team needs to keep capitalizing on their offence. As long as they do, they can keep dreaming of baseball in October.
“That’s the thing. When we can do it on more than any given day then we’ll have a lot of success,” he said. “We got to stay away from the shutouts and things like that, but the potential in this lineup is pretty formidable.”
Notes: Chavez was replaced by RHP Chad Beck, who was recalled from Las Vegas. ... Laffey was drafted by Cleveland in the 16th round of the 2003 draft. He spent his first four seasons with the Indians. ... Carlos Villanueva (3-0, 3.05 earned-run average) takes the mound for Toronto on Sunday against Cleveland’s Derek Lowe (8-6, 4.43 ERA). Villanueva needs three more strikeouts to reach 500 in his career.