TORONTO – Twice they rallied from deficits. R.A. Dickey grinded his way through a solid six innings. Pivotal offensive contributions came from Josh Thole and Ryan Goins. Aaron Sanchez’s big-league debut was electric. Casey Janssen was back on point during a clean ninth.
The Toronto Blue Jays certainly had ample reason to feel good about themselves in Wednesday night’s 6-4 victory over the Boston Red Sox, and they’ll head into Thursday afternoon’s series finale in position to take three of four from their AL East rivals.
They needed something like this.
Still, in terms of big-picture importance, nothing trumps Jose Bautista’s continued awakening from a lengthy down period, a development that is critical for the club’s hopes in the months ahead.
By no means is the all-star slugger in peak form just yet, but following up a solid 2-for-4 performance Tuesday with an RBI double in the first inning and a solo shot in the seventh, his first home run since July 2, certainly bodes well.
Consider that since the Blue Jays reached their high-water mark of 38-24 on June 6, Bautista hit .230/.326/.345 with two homers and 10 RBIs before Wednesday’s action. Prior to that, he was batting .318/.444/.565 with 15 homers and 44 RBIs, and it’s no coincidence that’s when the team was at its best.
Now, blaming the disparity in the club’s performance on him would be ridiculously unfair, but make no mistake, in large measure he’s the straw that stirs the drink.
“Your big boys are the centre of your team,” said manager John Gibbons. “When they’re good, you’re good. They can’t do it every time, you need some other guys to fill in and pick up the slack and complement everything, but they’re the key to your team.”
So what’s been the difference for Bautista?
Is it too simple to blame his cooling off on the absences of Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind and Brett Lawrie?
“Everybody goes through ups and downs throughout the year and this is one of my periods,” Bautista said before the game. “I’ve gotten plenty of pitches to hit, I think actually during this rough time, if you want to call it that, I’ve gotten more pitches to hit than before. It’s just I don’t feel great at the plate, I’m missing my pitch, I’m expanding, swinging at some balls. Everything is under my control, I just don’t feel great right now and I’m working towards feeling better.”
There have been promising signs beyond the hits in recent days.
Besides the two singles Tuesday, he also hit a fly ball to right field that advanced a runner. On Wednesday, he just missed crushing an offering from Clay Buchholz in the second, resulting in a fly out to left instead of another homer on the board.
“What I saw that I liked was that a lot of it was going to the middle of the field, that means he’s staying on the ball,” said Gibbons. “But he’s due to heat up in the home run department.”
Did Bautista figure something out?
“I felt the same, I just locked in some situations or at-bats and was able to square up some balls,” he replied. “I’m not trying to make a big deal out of it, it’s a day-to-day thing in baseball. We’ve just got to figure out a way to win, and I’m just trying to be a part of it.”
Of that there was little doubt Wednesday, his double in the first bringing home the first Blue Jays run after the Red Sox had gone up 3-0 in the top half on David Ortiz’s fourth homer in three games, as Big Papi keeps making good on his proclamation that he’d soon be hotter than Jamaica in August.
Bautista’s homer in the seventh extended the Blue Jays lead to 6-4, providing extra breathing room for Sanchez in his second inning of work in the eighth, and for Janssen, who bounced back from a couple of rough outings with crisp and dominant ninth.
“Hopefully Jose is as hot as the Dominican in July,” quipped Gibbons.
Thole finished 2-for-2 with two walks and his RBI double in the first tied the game up 3-3, and he scored on Goins’ first career triple to again tie the game 4-4 in the sixth. A Xander Bogaerts throwing error on a Jose Reyes grounder allowed Goins to come in with the go-ahead run later in the frame.
Dickey, meanwhile, recovered after falling behind early to make it through six while allowing four runs on nine hits and a walk with five strikeouts. It was far from his best, but he made sure to keep things from getting out of hand.
“I was really changing speeds a lot tonight, because I needed to,” said Dickey. “My harder knuckleball wasn’t moving like it normally does so the change of speeds really helped me fight through some innings. When you start the game, giving up three runs, without recording an out, it can really weigh on you mentally. So it was a very satisfying win for me personally because I kept us in the game long enough for us to scratch it out.”
Sanchez took over from Dickey in the seventh and promptly retired Dustin Pedroia, Ortiz and Mike Napoli in order, twice hitting 99 mph on the radar gun. He was similarly impressive in a clean eighth, when he caught Daniel Nava and Stephen Drew looking at curveballs.
The outing was exactly what the Blue Jays were hoping for from their gilt-edged prospect.
“It’s been a whirlwind these last 48 hours,” said Sanchez, “and to have my start like that is pretty awesome.”
Added Dickey: “He was fantastic, and hopefully that’s a glimpse through the window of what might be.”
The Blue Jays can say the same about the game as a whole, and with the return of Encarnacion, Lind and Lawrie nearing and Bautista rounding back into form, that suddenly feels a lot more realistic.