ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Toronto Blue Jays aren’t being picky about how they score runs at this time of the season, where every win is precious.
That approach — to take what the game gives you — is how the Blue Jays came back to beat the Tampa Bay Rays 6-2 at Tropicana Field on Friday. It was thanks in part to a four-run sixth inning powered by patience at the plate and another magnificent performance from starter Chris Bassitt, who pitched into the seventh.
For the second time in three games, walks played a key role in Toronto’s offensive fortunes. Two nights earlier in a win against the New York Yankees, the Blue Jays used a five-walk inning to build a two-run cushion. Against the Rays, the Blue Jays used three walks and a hit-by-pitch in a bat-around sixth in which they scored four runs despite recording only three hits in the frame.
Rays right-hander Tyler Glasnow, who made his first start against the Blue Jays since May 2021, cruised early by spotting all his pitches. He held the Blue Jays hitless through 3 2/3 innings and scoreless through five.
But things unraveled in the sixth. George Springer singled and stole second base, his 20th swiped bag of his season. Bo Bichette followed with an RBI single that tied the score 1-1. Then Glasnow lost the zone completely, issuing three straight walks, including a bases-loaded walk to Alejandro Kirk that put the Blue Jays up 2-1.
The Rays starter, who allowed four runs on three hits over 5 1/3 innings with four walks and seven strikeouts, was replaced by right-hander Kevin Kelly, who hit Matt Chapman with a pitch and then gave up a single to Daulton Varsho that drove in two more runs to put the Blue Jays up 4-1.
“We’ve been saying it all along, the group that can do those things has been here all year and I think that when you’re not in a hurry, you make better decisions of what you’re going to swing at and I think that’s what we’ve done,” Blue Jays manager John Schneider said. “When you’re facing really good pitchers, I think there’s a little bit of a heightened sense of awareness of what’s going on. But I think it’s that time of year, too, and we’ll take a couple of walks and hit-by-pitch and a couple of big knocks.”
Because of this year’s balanced schedule, it had been four months since the Blue Jays and Rays had last met. In that mid-May series at Tropicana Field, Toronto memorably scored 20 runs in its only win of the four games. If these teams have missed each other since, they’ll have plenty of time for catching up over the next week. Of the remaining nine games on the Blue Jays schedule coming into Friday, six are against the Rays — three here and three more at the Rogers Centre during the final weekend of the regular season.
There is a lot riding on these series for both teams. While the Rays have sewn up a playoff berth for the fifth consecutive season, they’re still trying to chase the Baltimore Orioles for the American League East division title. They’re 1 1/2 games back, but the Orioles hold the all-important head-to-head tiebreaker so the Rays have to finish at least a win better to overtake them. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, are trying to hold on to their playoff spot. Their win Friday means they’ll remain in the second wild-card spot with a one-game lead over the Houston Astros.
Both the Rays and Blue Jays look a bit different than the last time they had met. The Blue Jays are without designated hitter Brandon Belt, who hit off the machine Friday and is nearing a return from the injured list with back spasms, and catcher Danny Jansen. Toronto also has additions to the pitching staff, including reliever Jordan Hicks, who pitched one scoreless inning Friday, and Hyun Jin Ryu, who will start Saturday.
The Rays, meanwhile, lost starter Shane McClanahan for the season, but Glasnow returned since Toronto had last faced them. Shortstop Wander Franco is on administrative leave, while outfielders José Siri and Luke Raley are on the injured list. Midway through Friday’s game, left fielder Randy Arozarena exited the game with right quad tightness.
“Different people, same game,” Schneider said. “From a pitching staff that’s really good, a bullpen that’s really good, power at the top of the order, some different guys at the bottom of the order with (Jonathan) Aranda, (René) Pinto. It’s no (José) Siri, no (Luke) Raley, it’s similar at the top, and I think we know who they are on the bases, we know how they play defence. It’s amazing that it’s different people and it’s kind of the same skill set.”
Bassitt, meanwhile, relied on his familiar skill set of mixing his pitches. The right-hander gave up a run on a single to Rays right-fielder Harold Ramirez during the first inning but said afterward, “I just had to stay calm in that moment and just give our team a chance to win.”
The only other blemish on Bassitt’s line was a solo home run to Curtis Mead in the seventh inning. Otherwise, he finished with just two earned runs on six hits over 6 2/3 innings with eight strikeouts. It was Bassitt’s 15th win this season, tying with Zach Eflin for the most in the AL. With 192 1/3 innings pitched, Bassitt will have a chance to reach the 200-inning threshold for the first time in his career during his next start.
“He’s been so valuable, games like this, there’s been so many of them where he just steps up and says, ‘OK, enough is enough and I got you guys,’ so it was a really, really good start by him,” Schneider said.
Hicks took over for Bassitt in the seventh and struck out Pinto to end the inning. He returned for the eighth and worked around a single from Manuel Margot, who replaced Arozarena, to strike out two. But Hicks gave up a weak base hit to Ramirez that kicked off a strange sequence in which Bichette and Chapman miscommunicated on the grounder. Margot took a wide turn around second but scrambled back to the bag when second baseman Santiago Espinal fielded the ball and threw to Chapman, who was trying to cover second base.
Closer Jordan Romano, who was well-rested, relieved Hicks and, after walking Isaac Paredes to load the bases, got Mead to ground out into a forceout.
After the Blue Jays added a pair of insurance runs in the ninth, including a solo home run from Varsho, Romano returned for the bottom of the inning and retired the side in order for his 36th save of the season.
It was yet another gritty, grimy win for the Blue Jays, who aren’t concerned with how pretty they look with just over a week to go and their postseason hopes hanging in the balance.
“This is how we need to win ballgames,” Bassitt said. “I think a lot of people thought our identity was our hitting coming into the year and now it’s kind of like an awkward panic. But I think our identity is just pitching and defence.”
“I think that’s what wins World Series is pitching and defence,” he continued. “Our hitting has been sporadic at times. But if our pitching is keeping us in games, games like this can happen where we’re just going to try to outlast you.”
(Photo of Chris Bassitt: Jonathan Dyer / USA Today)