TORONTO — Shout out to everyone involved in getting Sahlen Field ready for the Toronto Blue Jays. The transformation completed over two-and-a-half frantic weeks is nothing short of remarkable, and given the circumstances, they’ve done a pretty good job of wringing out lemonade from the pile of lemons COVID-19-driven circumstances handed them.
Manager Charlie Montoyo admitted he “was actually concerned about everything” before seeing things for himself, but upon arrival, he was awed. “I’m happy to have a home,” he said.
“Of course, it’s not a big-league ballpark, but the job they did here is amazing,” Montoyo added later. “It feels like a big-league ballpark right now. Everything looks great, Toronto Blue Jays everywhere, players are happy and pleased. That means a lot to me. I really appreciate that.”
Even more appreciated was Travis Shaw delivering a walk-off single in the 10th inning for a 5-4 win over the Miami Marlins on Tuesday, rescuing the night after an erratic Anthony Bass surrendered a game-tying, two-out, three-run homer to Francisco Cervelli in the ninth.
The Blue Jays set up a socially-distanced celebration on the redone infield after A.J. Cole put up a zero in the top half, when Logan Forsythe missed a two-run homer by mere inches.
Montoyo immediately ratcheted up the heat on Stephen Tarpley by having leadoff batter Danny Jansen, who in the sixth inning ended an 0-for-19 slide with a double, bunt pinch-runner Anthony Alford over to third. The hotly debated strategy under the new extra-inning rules gave Cavan Biggio a chance to end the game.
“Any time you can put pressure on someone in the bottom of the inning, you should do it, and we did,” explained Montoyo. “But it could go either way. If Danny was swinging the bat well, I probably wouldn’t do it.”
Biggio ended up working a walk and the Marlins put Bo Bichette on to load the bases for Shaw, who lined a 2-2 curveball to right field for the win.
“I wasn’t necessarily selling out on a breaking ball, but in the back of my mind, I was making sure that I was not going to be early on the breaking ball,” Shaw said of his approach. “After the one sinker down and in, I knew that was going to be a tough pitch to get to the outfield. So I was sitting breaking ball pretty much the whole at-bat until there were two strikes.”
Shaw held his arms up high after rounding first, delivering a few mock air fives alone before a few tentative hand slaps with teammates.
“First instinct was to go grab him and hug him and all that, but halfway in my jog towards him, I was like, ‘Oh wait, I’ve got to stay away from him,’” said Bichette. “It was alright, it didn’t take away any of the excitement.
Bichette put the Blue Jays in position to win earlier when he delivered the type of game-changing blow they have so often lacked, unloading on a fat, 91 m.p.h. fastball from Elieser Hernandez for his own three-run shot in the sixth inning.
His third homer of the season was his team’s 16th, and just the second – SECOND! – with men on base. Consecutive doubles by Jansen and Biggio to open the sixth set the table for Bichette after Hernandez had limited the Blue Jays to one hit over the first five innings.
“We needed that,” said Shaw. “We’ve hit some balls really well, right at some people, and we haven’t been able to come up with that big hit with guys in scoring position, so for Bo to get three runs on one swing was a jump-start for us. We weren’t able to get much more after that, but we still found a way to get it done.”
The homer made for a happy opener at the Blue Jays’ temporary home, after a 21-day road trip that included two “home” games at Washington, the cancellation of another series in Philadelphia in which they would have been the “hosts,” and a disappointing 5-8 record.
Bichette said he “expected to be underwhelmed” when he arrived at Buffalo, but instead praised the Blue Jays for “making this feel like a big-league atmosphere, more so in the clubhouse and everything.”
Finally having a place to call home, “was definitely a little bit of relief,” he added. “We’re still staying in a hotel, most of us, so we’ve still got that. But it almost felt like the first game of the year, to be honest, to go out there and be, ‘Alright, this is our spot.’ I think we competed well and good thing we got the win.”
Previous opportunities to pull out similar victories escaped them and the Blue Jays could have easily arrived in Buffalo at 8-5. Still, in recent days there’s been too much moral-victory like talk about staying competitive amid trying circumstances. Real progress, however, will only come when they start collecting actual victories.
The pitching has largely done its part — with ace Hyun-Jin Ryu delivering another gem with six innings of two-hit, one-run ball with seven strikeouts Tuesday — but the offence went into the game as the least productive unit in the majors.
“Pitching staff has been great all year, can’t say enough about how good they’ve pitched,” said Shaw. “As an offence, we need to do a better job with guys in scoring position, try to find a way to get those guys home.”
Earlier in the day, general manager Ross Atkins explained those struggles by saying, “you’re seeing over the last 13 games that the pitchers have executed pretty well on us. We’ve faced some good pitching and our hitters will adjust, and they recognize that we’ve been a little bit too aggressive.”
That’s fair, to a degree, but they’ve also been held down by the Ryan Webers and Zack Godleys of the world, too. Being contained by Hernandez would have been another drop in that bucket, but Bichette broke through in the sixth and they added on against former teammate Justin Shafer in the seventh, when Biggio’s two-out single cashed in a Randal Grichuk walk.
The Marlins, who lost three-fifths of their roster to a COVID-19 outbreak, were one of baseball’s best stories after returning to action with five straight wins. But the realities of fielding a makeshift crew to cover for its original group are beginning to strike, as they’ve now lost three straight.
They are exactly the type of team the Blue Jays must take advantage of, especially with a stretch of 28 games in 27 days looming after Thursday’s off-day. The offence will need to come around for that to happen consistently.
“Youth is what we’re seeing. And we knew that. We expected that there would be bumps,” said Atkins. “There were times last year where we saw our youth, and one of the biggest differences in the major-leagues, obviously talent is a big difference, but it’s also game-planning and the ability to really prepare for lineups and prepare for hitters, and then hitters needing to make adjustments to that. That will happen. Our hitters are talented and they’re going to make adjustments. …
“I do think there is a little bit of guys, just because they believe so much in one another and themselves, of trying to do too much. They’ll settle in. These guys have all done it in the minor leagues. Some of them have done it in the major leagues. We’re confident in the talent level.”
After a lengthy and trying three-week odyssey, that ability showed in a decisive flash in their temporary home. To continue piling up victories, they’ll need more sustained bursts of that thunder in a ballpark they’re trying to quickly make their own.