NEW YORK — A week is a long time in the baseball schedule. A team’s fortunes can change drastically over the course of a few series. The Toronto Blue Jays have demonstrated that expertly over their last seven days.
Only a week ago, they were on their way to being roundly swept by the Texas Rangers in what was billed as the biggest series of the season as both teams fought keep playoff position. The vibes were low afterward, but the Blue Jays have shown their resiliency ever since, sweeping the Boston Red Sox and then winning the first two games of their series against the New York Yankees, including Wednesday’s 6-1 win.
Those five straight wins have put Toronto back into the thick of the American League wild-card race as they hold the second wild-card spot, a game up on the Rangers and Seattle Mariners, who are tied for the third spot.
After the Texas series, the Blue Jays had no choice but to turn their play around quickly lest their season end sooner than they liked. At the time, it was fair to wonder if they could conjure up the momentum needed to climb back into the race. They have, and they deserve credit for doing so.
“It’s been night and day, demeanour-wise, clubhouse energy,” Blue Jays starter Kevin Gausman said. “We had a really bad four days and you could really feel that and then to have three really good days in a row after that was huge and put all that on the back burner.”
“What we did against those teams that we’re chasing or that are chasing us, we have no say in them anymore,” he continued. “All those teams, head-to-head, they beat us, but we still control our own destiny in the sense that, if we just keep winning games, we’re going to be in and so that’s the mentality right now is just keep winning every game and take it one game and one pitch at a time.”
For the second straight night against the Yankees, the Blue Jays combined excellent pitching, timely hits — and walks — and precious add-on runs to earn a comfortable win.
And they had to do so without Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the lineup. Less than an hour before the first pitch, the Blue Jays alerted the media that Guerrero had been scratched with right knee discomfort.
In Tuesday’s win, Guerrero reached on a fielding error in the ninth inning but was moving gingerly. He was removed from the game, which the Blue Jays were leading by six runs, in the bottom of the ninth.
Ahead of Wednesday’s game, Blue Jays manager John Schneider said that Guerrero has been grinding. “His knee is barking a little bit,” he said.
The Blue Jays wanted Guerrero off his feet for the day so he was inserted into the lineup as the designated hitter, but during his pre-game hitting routine, Guerrero didn’t feel right. The first baseman got an MRI during the game and the Blue Jays expect to have an update on Thursday.
It’s been a nervous couple of days on the injury front for the Blue Jays, who also saw starter Yusei Kikuchi exit his start early on Tuesday with what the team termed as a left upper trap muscle cramp. But Kikuchi was feeling fine Wednesday and expects to make his next start, assuming he gets his required 13-14 hours of sleep beforehand.
(As an aside, Kikuchi clarified on Wednesday the extra hours of sleep are only ahead of his start days since sleeping helps quell anxious thoughts, he said through his interpreter Yusuke Oshima. On every other night, he aims for eight to 10 hours.)
Kikuchi also said his teammates were aware of his sleeping habits because he’s always catching some Zzz’s when he can: “Even if there’s loud music at the back of the plane, I’ll be able to sleep,” he said.
— Kaitlyn McGrath (@kaitlyncmcgrath) September 20, 2023
But back to Guerrero, who has been as close to an iron man as the Blue Jays have had over the last several seasons. The first baseman has never been placed on the injured list since he debuted in 2019. This season, only Daulton Varsho (150) has played in more games than Guerrero’s 147. And since 2021, only three players have played more games than Guerrero’s 468. In other words, it takes a lot to push him out of the starting lineup — especially at this time of the season.
“It was just more so the way he felt hitting compared to yesterday,” Schneider said after the game. “Obviously want to be careful with him, so didn’t want to push it today.”
Even without Guerrero, the Blue Jays went ahead 1-0 in the third inning after Bo Bichette hit a comebacker that went in between the legs of Yankees starter Michael King and scored Kevin Kiermaier, who had singled earlier in the inning.
Runs were at a premium against King, who had everything working on the evening. He allowed just one run on five hits over seven innings, during which he also struck out a career-high 13 batters.
“Our plan was to kind of be aggressive on the fastball, and he was just making really good pitches with it, so it was tough,” Schneider said.
His counterpart, Gausman, meanwhile, took some time to settle in but ended up pitching six scoreless innings, allowing just three hits with three walks and 10 strikeouts.
Gausman’s command was a little bit off to start, as he walked two of the first three batters he faced and needed 63 pitches just to get through the first three innings. But as the game went on, Gausman was more efficient, needing just 41 pitches to get through the final three innings of his start. Gausman said early in the outing he was missing some of his spots, but once the Blue Jays got their lead, he was strategic with how he approached the opposing lineup.
“There are certain guys that you pick to nibble around and obviously, I wasn’t going to let Aaron Judge or Gleyber Torres be the reason why they tied it up,” said Gausman, who recorded his 228th strikeout in the fourth inning, a new career high. “Certain games, you’re not going to do that. But I just felt confident with what we’re doing against everybody else that I wasn’t going to let those guys be the difference-maker.”
Holding a 1-0 lead through seven innings, the Blue Jays were performing a high-wire act at Yankee Stadium, where a short right-field porch special is always a swing away from changing the game. But, as we’ve come to expect, the pitching was up for the challenge, with the bullpen following up Gausman’s outing with three one-run innings of their own.
And like one night ago, the Blue Jays lineup — with the help of the Yankees bullpen — did their pitchers a solid via some precious add-on runs. In the eighth inning, Yankees relievers Tommy Kahnle and Ian Hamilton combined to walk five, including four in a row, that resulted in two runs.
“You got to make people get in the zone and if they are in the zone, the hope is to do damage, but first and foremost, they have to get in the zone,” Schneider said. “I love the fact that everyone kind of understood that and didn’t try to do too much.”
The Blue Jays scored three more runs in the ninth inning — this time by stringing hits together — and for the second straight night, closer Jordan Romano warmed up in the bullpen but was able to sit down, preserving him for another night. Instead, Erik Swanson worked around a solo home run from rookie Austin Wells to close it out.
With 10 games left in the season — six against the Tampa Bay Rays, who are still chasing a division title — the Blue Jays still have their work cut out for them to hold onto the playoff spot they earned back with their five-game winning streak. But with the pitching, defence and, most importantly, offence clicking lately, Whit Merrifield said he likes where the team is at.
“We’ve got to continue to do that against teams that are more engaged in what the end of the season holds, if I can say that as politely as I could,” Merrifield said, before adding the Blue Jays have to first focus on facing Yankees ace Gerrit Cole on Thursday. “We need to do all we can to score some runs early for our pitchers and it’s a big game for us tomorrow and then we’ll take it into Tampa.”
(Top photo of Gausman: Noah K. Murray / Associated Press)