A large cardboard packing box sat in the stall normally occupied by Jason Grilli in the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse on Tuesday afternoon. Several of the reliever’s dress shirts were hanging from a rung.
Three pairs of his cleats, each bearing his No. 37 on the back, were neatly lined up on a shelf, as if patiently awaiting the return of the owner.
It was not to be.
The lankly right-hander was informed earlier in the day by the middling American League outfit that his services were no longer required, his 6.97 earned-run-average just too bulky for the Blue Jays to continue to try to absorb.
In typically classy Grilli fashion, he left a parting note for his teammates to ponder, handwritten above his locker in the space normally occupied by his nameplate.
“Stay in the fight!!!” read Grilli’s rally cry to a team in desperate need of one.
Later, in a message sent out to his close to 130,000 Twitter followers, Grilli said: “Playing 4 a championship team w/a bunch of gr8 players was an honor! Thank U 2 the @BlueJays fans 4 such a warm embrace!”
The message included a fist hand sign, the #stayinthefight hashtag and a headshot of a jacked-up Grilli in behind the Toronto skyline.
The last-placed Blue Jays are embarking on what is viewed by some as a crucial stage of their schedule – nine straight games against AL East division rivals, beginning Tuesday night with the Baltimore Orioles at Rogers Centre.
Grilli’s optimistic parting comment did little to inspire the Blue Jays in the opener of a three-game series, as the Orioles jumped on starter Joe Biagini for two runs in the first inning, and then cruised to a rather uneventful 3-1 victory.
The bats of the Blue Jays – now four games under .500 at 36-40 – remained mostly quiet in this one, totalling just six hits over the course of the evening; four of them against Baltimore starter Kevin Gausman, who was solid over 5.1 innings of work.
Troy Tulowitzki homered off Baltimore reliever Darren O’Day in the bottom of the ninth to spoil the Orioles’ shutout bid.
Toronto manager John Gibbons said it is never easy have to cut a popular veteran such as Grilli loose, even if he had become an anchor in an overworked Blue Jays bullpen this season.
“He understood, he told me it wasn’t the first time [getting cut],” Gibbons said of Grilli’s reaction to the news. “He’s really done a lot for us. He’s one of the good guys and it always makes it doubly tough.
“But he plans on keeping it going. Maybe someone will grab him, see what happens.”
Officially, the 40-year-old, 15-year MLB veteran was designated for assignment by the baseball club, which means he can be traded or claimed by any other MLB team within seven days.
If that does not occur, Grilli would likely be given his outright release, which is the likely scenario that will play out here.
Relief pitcher Chris Smith was recalled to take his place on the roster, while the club also activated outfielder Ezequiel Carrera from the disabled list. Dwight Smith Jr. was optioned to Buffalo.
Grilli was considered somewhat of a saviour when he came over to the Blue Jays at the end of May last season in a trade with the Atlanta Braves for a minor-league player.
Considered washed up by the Braves, Grilli established himself as an invaluable asset in the Toronto bullpen, eventually landing as the eighth-inning setup man for closer Roberto Osuna.
Although he faltered over the last month of the season, Grilli still went 6-4 for the Blue Jays with a 3.64 ERA in 46 appearances.
But his late-season struggles in 2016 carried into the start of 2017, with his ERA ballooning to 6.97 in 26 appearances.
In 42 innings pitched for Toronto a year ago he surrendered eight home runs. In just 20.2 innings of work this year he has already coughed up nine, including four in one inglorious inning back on June 3 against the New York Yankees.
Since then, Grilli was utilized primarily for mop-up duty in one-sided contests, which wasn’t doing either him or the baseball club any good.
And on Tuesday, the decision was made to cut Grilli loose in advance of the Baltimore series.
He ducked out early from the clubhouse without speaking with reporters.
“He had a lot of outs, getting a lot of strikeouts,” Gibbons said, when asked what was going so right with Grilli a year ago, compared to this season. “And this year was a battle for him, giving up the home runs.
“It got to the point where he wasn’t getting steady work. I control all that, but the other guys were pitching better, so we were using those guys. It was really tough finding him some work.”