TORONTO – It’s been quite an eventful weekend for Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
On Friday, he got a standing ovation at Rogers Centre before even taking his first major-league at-bat. A national audience watched on MLB Network as Guerrero Jr.’s ninth-inning double contributed to a walk-off Blue Jays win.
On Saturday, after going one for four with a single, he got a standing ovation at the Raptors game. Before leaving, he met Drake and snapped a photo.
By those lofty standards, Sunday wasn’t quite as memorable, even though it did end with another walk-off thanks to a 12th-inning Justin Smoak single. Guerrero Jr. went one for four with a single before Smoak sent Freddy Galvis running home for a 5-4 win that gives the Blue Jays a .500 record on the season.
Guerrero Jr.’s first three plate appearances were rather unremarkable. He grounded to second his first time up, reaching on an error when Chad Pinder bobbled the ball.
His second plate appearance ended with an ill-advised swing at a slow curve off the outer part of the plate. Eventually, that’s the kind of pitch the Blue Jays expect him to ignore.
"That’s going to happen," manager Charlie Montoyo said. "He’s 20 years old and there’s going to be ups and downs, but when he gets hot, he’s going to get (very) hot."
In his third plate appearance of the day, Guerrero Jr. worked a 2-0 count and fouled off two pitches before grounding out to shortstop.
Batting for the fourth and final time, Guerrero Jr. worked a 3-0 count before connecting for a broken-bat single up the middle. At that point manager Charlie Montoyo replaced him with a pinch runner for the second time in three games, preferring the speed of Alen Hanson to the potential of another Guerrero Jr. at-bat later in the game.
"Hanson’s faster, (Socrates) Brito’s faster. If I’ve got those guys on the bench I’m going to do it," Montoyo said. “I figured that ninth inning was our best chance to win the game."
When Guerrero Jr.’s spot came up in the bottom of the 11th, Hanson walked, setting up more heroics from Drury, who hit a game-tying three-run home run.
After one series in the big-leagues, Guerrero Jr. is three for 12 with a double–respectable if relatively ordinary results. To his credit, he continues working counts and hitting the ball hard. He’s averaging 4.25 pitches per plate appearance, an indication that he’s waiting for the one he wants.
And even though he concludes his first home series with just three hits, he has hit balls at 99.8 m.p.h., 104.3 m.p.h. and 106.8 m.p.h. that resulted in outs. Over time, those will land for hits more often than not.
"Everything’s been great," Guerrero Jr. said through interpreter Hector Lebron. "The best moment is that we won all three games."
"I feel good," he added. "I’ve just got to continue to work hard."
On defence, Guerrero Jr. continues making all of the plays. Both manager Charlie Montoyo and third base coach Luis Rivera have been impressed with his calm approach and strong arm. His teammates have been impressed, too.
"He’s a really good player," Smoak said. “This guy’s going to do whatever he wants in the game. At 20 years old I couldn’t imagine it. He can hit. He can just flat out hit. And he showed he can play third base really well, too. The sky’s the limit for him."
Elsewhere on the infield, Eric Sogard has already matched his career high with three home runs less than two weeks after debuting with the Blue Jays. The production comes at an ideal time for the Blue Jays considering that their starting shortstop has been sidelined of late.
Freddy Galvis had been limited to one pinch-hit appearance since leaving last Sunday’s game with hamstring tightness, but he tested his leg before the game and evidently felt strong enough to play, as Montoyo called on him to pinch hit for the struggling Brito in the ninth. While Galvis might not have been moving at top speed as he rounded third on Smoak’s single, he was quick enough to score the winning run.
"He’s always in the middle of our wins," Montoyo said. "It was going to be tough for him to play nine innings, but just to play a couple he was going to be fine."
Before Galvis replaced him, Brito struck out in each of his trips to the plate. He has now whiffed 14 times in his first 30 at-bats with the Blue Jays.
On the mound, Trent Thornton walked five and needed 103 pitches to make it through five innings, but he allowed only one run on two hits. His combination of high fastballs and low curveballs generated seven strikeouts, some of which he punctuated with enthusiastic fist pumps.
"He’s still not commanding his pitches, but he minimized damage today," Montoyo said.
Through six starts, Thornton has justified his spot on the big-league team. While he looks more like a five-inning guy than an innings eater, there’s certainly room for those pitchers in today’s game, especially as the Blue Jays deal with injuries to other starters.
The bullpen was mostly effective, but Thomas Pannone allowed the A’s to rally in the 11th and when Elvis Luciano was called in to help, he hit the first batter he faced to score a run. That’s been a trend for Luciano, who has allowed the first hitter to reach in six of his eight appearances.
Now the Blue Jays head west again for two series against Vladimir Guerrero Sr.’s former teams, the Angels and Rangers. Wherever he goes, the spotlight will find Guerrero Jr., so it’s not as though the pressure or distractions will disappear once the Blue Jays leave Toronto. Simply a different set of challenges for a player mere days into his new life as a big-leaguer.
"Honestly he’s handled it really well," Smoak said. “The big-leagues don’t scare him. He’s been around it since he was a baby … I can’t wait to see him get hot, because it’s going to be pretty impressive.”