TORONTO — Only yesterday, Blue Jays manager John Schneider joked about some of the team’s tough luck with runners in scoring position this year after a ground-rule double from Santiago Espinal limited them to one run rather than two, which proved pivotal in Saturday’s 5-4 loss.
“Welcome to 2023,” Schneider said on Saturday. “That rule sucks, he works a 3-2 count, hits the ball on the nose and (Cavan Biggio’s) going to score easily, so such is life with runners in scoring position for us it seems right now, but you just keep doing that, things will be all right.”
Indeed, things were all right on Sunday when the Blue Jays’ offence finally awoke after their seemingly week-long slumber, scoring more runs in their 11-4 win over the Chicago Cubs in the series finale than they scored in the first two games combined.
The victory helped the Blue Jays avoid their first sweep at the Rogers Centre since Canada Day weekend against the Boston Red Sox. The Blue Jays are 66-54 and hanging onto the third Wild Card in the American League, up at least a half-game on the Seattle Mariners.
After a week of frustrating sequences, missed opportunities and bad luck for Toronto’s offence, it was a welcome sight to see the hits start falling. The Blue Jays chased Cubs starter Jameson Taillon out of the game after he allowed eight runs on eight hits in three innings. The Blue Jays went 8-for-17 with runners in scoring position. Daulton Varsho got a couple of key knocks for them, going 2-for-5 with a home run and a career-high five RBIs. Meanwhile, four Blue Jays had multiple hits, including Whit Merrifield, who went 4-for-6.
Asked what was different in this game compared to the last few, Schneider quipped, “11 runs,” before elaborating.
“We’ve seen Taillon a bunch when he was in New York and I think a three-run homer is huge, a good approach, patient, grinded them out and got big hits when we needed to. It’s kind of everything we’ve been talking about for a while was what we did today.”
The Blue Jays fell behind 2-0 in the first inning after Cubs shortstop Dansby Swanson hit a two-run double, making the Blue Jays pay for an earlier error from Brandon Belt on a groundball from left fielder Ian Happ.
But the Blue Jays jumped on Taillon in the second inning, scoring five runs in a bat-around inning. Varsho got the scoring going with a three-run home run to right field to put the Blue Jays ahead. It was Varsho’s first home run at the Rogers Centre since June 6.
Varsho, who has been manning centre field with Kevin Kiermaier on the injured list, came up big again in the fourth inning, hitting a two-run single that stretched the Blue Jays lead to 8-2. After reliever Jay Jackson gave up a two-run home run to Patrick Wisdom in the seventh — his first runs allowed since May 15 — to make it 8-4, the Blue Jays scored three runs in the eighth to effectively put the game out of reach.
Meanwhile, on the mound, Hyun Jin Ryu looked like his vintage self, limiting a hot-swinging Cubs team to two runs — both unearned — on two hits with three strikeouts and two walks over five innings.
After he took a comebacker to his right leg and crumpled to the ground in his last outing in Cleveland, Ryu said he had some initial doubts about whether he would be able to make this start, but after he was moving around with less pain the next day, he was confident that he would be able to start. Ryu earned his first win of the year Sunday. In his three starts since returning from Tommy John surgery, he has a 2.57 ERA and his command has been sharp, which is key to his success considering he’s topping out at 91 mph on his fastball.
“Honestly, I’m very happy about it,” he said through his interpreter J.S. Park. “This is pretty much what I’ve been looking for ever since the surgery and honestly, aside from my personal win, as long as I’m able to help the team win and try to provide a platform for our team to win, I think that’s what I’m going to be really happy about.”
Sunday’s win wraps up a run of 17 games in 17 days for the Blue Jays, who finished 9-8 during the stretch, playing the majority of it without Bo Bichette in the lineup after he suffered a knee injury two weeks ago. Asked for his assessment of the team’s play during the last two and a half weeks, Schneider said he thought the team did fine.
“It was winning baseball, it was above .500 and when you really take a step back and say you lose your best hitter, the guy that’s leading the league in hitting, it’s tough,” the Blue Jays manager said. “There’s some ups and downs, you sweep Boston and you play OK in Cleveland and you come here and you get one out of three, but I thought we did fine. The pitching and defence have been as consistent as anyone all year, and I think that the guys are going to be coming back at the right time, but 17 in a row at this point is tough for the guys and I thought they handled it really well.”
Varsho echoed his manager, calling the stretch of games tough, but said the three off days in the next eight days will be crucial for rest and recovery at an important juncture.
“It’s probably definitely needed for our team to be healthy and be able to finish out the season strong and be able to make a playoff push,” Varsho said.
After a fairly fortunate season on the injury front, the Blue Jays have battled the bug lately, but there is good news coming. Closer Jordan Romano (lower back inflammation) pitched a scoreless inning in Triple-A Buffalo on Saturday and he’s on track to be activated Tuesday. Trevor Richards (neck inflammation) won’t be far behind him with the target to be activated by Friday.
Kiermaier (right elbow laceration) is hitting and is on track to be activated as soon as he’s eligible to come off the IL on Friday. Bichette (right patellar tendonitis) continued to run the bases and take ground balls on Sunday and while the club is still classifying his timeline as day-to-day, he’s been checking the necessary boxes in his recovery.
Meanwhile, Matt Chapman was scratched from the lineup on Sunday with right middle finger inflammation after he got it caught between a dumbbell and the rack in the weight room, but Schneider was optimistic that he wouldn’t need an IL stint.
And, finally, Danny Jansen continues to be a magnet for pitches lately. Of the eight times he’s been hit by a pitch this season, five have come in his last seven games played. But after getting plunked twice on Sunday, he remained in the game and appeared to be fine physically, if not just frustrated mentally after wearing so many lately.
“He’s sick of getting hit,” Schneider said. “He’s kind of on top of the plate and his hands hang over there, too, but it’s scary. That position, catcher, you’re getting beat up and it’s usually behind the plate, not at the plate. Hopefully, it stops for him and for us.”
Jansen said he knows teams are looking to attack him inside and that “maybe I’ll just back off the plate a little bit more for the time being.”
“I’m just glad I turned away from the other ones and just got to start doing that a little bit more efficiently,” he said. “But it’s part of the game and, unfortunately, I’ve been wearing a couple off the hand and forearm.”
At least after a convincing win, it’s a welcome off-day for Jansen and the Blue Jays before another important series against the Philadelphia Phillies.
(Top photo of Daulton Varsho and Cavan Biggio: Mark Blinch / Getty Images)