TORONTO – For this rebuild to work, the Blue Jays will need stars to make an impact, supporting players to contribute and answers to emerge on the pitching staff.
It’s a lot to ask, and more often than not, the 2019 edition of this team has struggled on some or all of those fronts. That’ll continue to be the case for the rest of the year–and maybe longer, who knows. Yet there’s still the occasional game where everything comes together, and Tuesday was one of those nights.
First, you have the stars: Bo Bichette showed his defensive skills in the fifth inning by back-handing a hard-hit one-hopper by Shin-Soo Choo and throwing to first for the out. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. later capped off a hustle double by evading a tag at second base and cheering his own success enthusiastically.
Then you have the supporting cast: Randal Grichuk, Teoscar Hernandez and Billy McKinney all homered for the Blue Jays in Tuesday’s 3-0 win over the visiting Rangers. All three outfielders are hitting far better after dismal starts to the season offensively.
And lastly you have the pitchers: Wilmer Font pitched two scoreless innings as an opener before Thomas Pannone followed with four shutout innings of his own. Tim Mayza, Derek Law and Ken Giles did the rest, setting up the possibility of a series sweep Wednesday.
Big picture, this is still just one win in August. Grichuk, Hernandez and McKinney have all been below-average hitters on the season. And shutout aside, this club has nowhere near enough answers on the pitching staff. But we’ve been seeing games like this more often of late. Wins, yes, but more importantly wins in which developing players show signs of progress.
For example, that grab by Bichette.
“Just a sick play,” Pannone said. “I got jacked up. I might not have showed it emotionally, but inside I was pretty fired up. He’s playing great shortstop. He’s obviously hitting, but he’s (also) made some great plays over there.”
At the plate, Blue Jays hitters didn’t get much going against Lance Lynn, who has bounced back from a tough 2018 season to pitch like an all-star again. The right-hander lowered his ERA to 3.54 Tuesday, striking out six Blue Jays over five innings. His three-year, $30 million contract now looks like a great deal for Texas.
As Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said, “Pretty nasty. He’s got good stuff. That’s why he’s got good numbers.”
Last off-season the Blue Jays checked on Lynn before he signed in Texas, though talks never appeared to get serious. As the Blue Jays approach another off-season search for pitching, that’s the kind of contract they should be looking to replicate (the Rangers’ three-year, $28 million deal with Mike Minor looks just as good).
More immediately, the Blue Jays were pleased with their pitching from start to finish Tuesday. Font now has a 2.20 ERA as a Blue Jay with 21 strikeouts compared to three walks in 16.1 innings. After nearly a week on the sidelines, Giles worked through some rust to pitch a scoreless inning while touching 98 m.p.h.
“He hasn’t been out there for a while now, but he was throwing harder and he felt really good, so that’s a good sign,” Montoyo said.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays are finally back to a three-man bench after optioning reliever Brock Stewart to triple-A and recalling Rowdy Tellez, who earned his way back to Toronto by hitting seven homers during his month in Buffalo. Tellez worked on chasing fewer pitches outside of the zone in the minors and his 1.138 OPS with the Bisons suggests the adjustment worked.
Now that Tellez is back in the majors, he’ll play regularly – more often than Justin Smoak, according to Montoyo. While Tellez has a chance to be a long-term piece in Toronto, Smoak’s a free agent at year’s end. Under those circumstances, it makes sense to give Tellez a long look (though the Blue Jays haven’t ruled out the possibility of re-signing Smoak).
Still, Smoak will continue playing regularly. He remains a productive player with steady defence at first base, 19 home runs and a .351 on-base percentage. And he’s not a one-year rental, either. After five seasons and one all-star appearance in Toronto, Smoak ranks 15th on the franchise’s all-time home run list. The Blue Jays will be mindful of those contributions as they move ahead.
It’s conceivable that a contending team like the New York Yankees would have interest in acquiring Smoak on waivers, just as the Cincinnati Reds did with Freddy Galvis. At this point, however, that scenario doesn’t seem likely. Instead, Montoyo will work both Smoak and Tellez in regularly for the remainder of the season.
Along the way, the Blue Jays will surely have their share of disappointing nights. All the more reason to enjoy games like Tuesday that play out just the way you’d hope.