TORONTO – The road to success against the Houston Astros goes through Jose Altuve. Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons wasn’t lying when he said navigating through the Astros lineup was easier when you keep the guys in front of Altuve and Carlos Correa off base. Every manager says that about every good offensive team.
But make no mistake, solve Altuve and you have gone a long way to solving the Astros and the Blue Jays did just that Sunday, holding maybe the leading candidate for the American League’s most valuable player award hitless for the first time in 43 road games and belting three home runs en route to a 9-2 win in front of the 28th sell-out crowd at Rogers Centre this season.
The win moves the Jays 10 games over .500 at home for the first time this season – and it was a collection of this team at its best.
Outstanding defence, power – including Troy Tulowitzki’s three-run homer in the fifth that broke open the game – and strong starting pitching from Marcus Stroman (9-5), who gave up an earned run in five hits over 6.1 innings, striking out eight and walking none for only the second time this season.
Altuve’s streak was snapped by an 0-for-4 afternoon that included two notable defensive plays by Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson. The second of those came on a dipping liner just after catcher Russell Martin had pulled off one of those catches you’ll see in year-end videos: Reaching into the Astros dugout with one out and pulling back the ball, his torso treating the railing in front of the dugout like a balance beam.
“My body does what it needs to keep itself safe,” said Martin, whose homer was the difference in a win Saturday and who followed up Tulowitzki’s blast with an opposite-field solo shot of his own Sunday. “It’s just reflexes.”
Stroman did what he needed to do to keep the win safe, in a game in which Devon Travis doubled on the first pitch he saw from Mike Fiers (8-6) and scored on a Tulowitzki single. Altuve came up twice with men on base, flying out to centre field and lining out to Donaldson.
“Just try and stay away from the barrel,” Martin said when he was asked what the Jays game plan was against Altuve, who was 3-for-12 in the three-game series and whose .362 average leads the AL. “He’s got great hand-eye coordination, unbelievably quick hands. He’s as good as anybody in game and the key was make him feel the ball inside. To see if he was going to swing, maybe expand [the strike zone] in on there.
“And then … keep him from diving. He gets a lot of base hits diving and leaning out over the plate and when you work him up inside it keeps him from doing it. I thought we did it just enough to keep him out of his comfort zone.”
The Blue Jays had 12 hits as they scored nine runs for the first time since scoring the same total against the Baltimore Orioles on July 30, winning a battle of the Majors’ two best teams since May 31. There was a scary moment in the third when Edwin Encarnacion was hit on the hand by a fastball that Fiers delivered from a lower arm angle after setting him up with two outside breaking balls. But a one-out double two innings later and his 33rd homer of the season in the seventh suggested the hand was just fine.
The Blue Jays tacked on three more runs in the eighth on an RBI single by Melvin Upton Jr., a bases-loaded walk to Donaldson and a sacrifice fly by Encarnacion.
The Astros runs came on an infield hit by Teoscar Hernandez in the second and a solo homer by Jason Castro to lead off the seventh. Stroman was replaced by Joaquin Benoit one batter later, and it was Benoit who was rescued by Martin’s defence after giving up two singles.
Martin received a standing ovation as he jogged back to his defensive position after his play, with several of his teammates on the top step to show their appreciation. Stroman, whom Martin credited with having “good action on his fastball … when he’s sharp and everything is on he’s a really tough at bat,” was the first person to greet the catcher at the foot of the dugout when the inning ended.
Martin has had a tough year, but he and Tulowitzki are grinding, and his 44 runs batted in are second among AL catchers behind Salvador Perez, who has recorded 46 of his 49 RBI as a catcher.
“He pulls out the big plays at the right time,” Gibbons said later of his catcher. “They were hitting Benoit around … no telling what he might do.”
Gibbons’ team is a season-high 16 games over .500. They’ve kept body and soul together through a period of limited offensive returns.
“We hit some home runs,” Gibbons said, when asked what the difference was between this win and other recent games. “That’s what we do best – get some guys on base, and pop one here or there. It’s just a matter of time with this offence and sometimes that’s the way baseball is. Sometimes you hate it.”
The Blue Jays continued celebrations surrounding their 40th season with a pre-game ceremony honoring the franchise’s great pitchers. Dave Stieb, Pat Hentgen, Roy Halladay, Juan Guzman, Tom Henke and Duane Ward were all in attendance. Roger Clemens – yes, Roger Clemens – Jack Morris and David Cone sent along video messages.
Martin saw the timing as being perfect.
“All those guys were unbelievable and this year’s story is the story of our pitching,” he said, knowing full well that when the story of the 2016 Blue Jays season is finally written, he’d just provided a signature moment.