TORONTO – Back on May 24, when the Blue Jays recalled Lourdes Gurriel Jr. from triple-A, he had zero home runs on the season.
Few would have predicted what has happened in the six weeks since: no player in baseball has hit more homers during that time and in the American League only Mike Trout has generated more wins above replacement.
The latest pitcher to see Gurriel Jr.’s power first-hand: Chris Sale, who watched from the mound in the third inning as Gurriel Jr.’s 15th home run of the season flew 406 feet over the centre-field wall. It was the first of three homers the Blue Jays would hit against Sale in an unlikely 6-3 win over the Red Sox on Wednesday.
The home run gives Gurriel Jr. a share of the team lead despite the fact that he has played just 50 games. More importantly, it’s yet another indication that he can be an impact player at this level.
“He’s been awesome,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “Fun to watch … he’s locked in.”
Clearly, the pace Gurriel Jr. set in June wasn’t completely sustainable. Nobody hits 10 home runs a month or sustains a batting average on balls in play close to .400. But the longer he keeps this up, the more he looks like a potential star.
“I’ve been working very hard offensively,” Gurriel Jr. said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “I’m not surprised, but I’m very happy with what’s going on with me right now.”
At this point, he’s easily the most encouraging development of the season for the Blue Jays, who improve to 33-54 with the win. Even bigger picture, he’s looking like the best signing that Ross Atkins has made as GM.
That’s a question for another day, though. Back on the field, Danny Jansen continued breaking out of his first-half slump with his fourth homer in his last six games. Sale tried to overpower Jansen with a 95-m.p.h. fastball at the top of the zone in the fourth inning only to see it land 421 feet away in the second deck in left field.
“Now it seems like everyone in the lineup has a good approach at the plate,” Montoyo said, pointing specifically to his catcher. “That’s why we’re scoring so many runs now. There’s no [easy] outs in the lineup now.”
While Jansen’s still hitting just .197/.273/.328 on the season, he has raised his season OPS by more than 100 points in a week. That’s welcome production from another player whose offensive potential contributed to his status as a top prospect.
Of course, the Blue Jays don’t have nearly as much young pitching as they do position players and that was evident Wednesday afternoon as the club scrambled to find answers in the starting rotation.
After hearing of his upcoming assignment from triple-A manager Bobby Meacham Tuesday evening, Jacob Waguespack got “some jitters” at the prospect of facing the defending World Series winners. Then, with “about an hour” remaining before first pitch, the Blue Jays told Waguespack that David Phelps would instead open as a way to limit the rookie’s exposure to the top of Boston’s lineup.
But despite the late switch and apparent mismatch of Sale vs. Phelps, the Blue Jays’ plan worked. Homers from Gurriel Jr., Jansen and Brandon Drury generated all of the offence the Blue Jays would need and five Blue Jays pitchers combined to shut down Boston’s stacked offence.
It started with Phelps, who did his job with a scoreless first, yet most of the credit goes to Waguespack whose performance should put him in consideration for more opportunity after the all-star break. In just his second career appearance, he went five innings while striking out four and allowing three earned runs for his first big-league win.
“You work your whole life to get to this point and to go out there and give your team a chance to win is awesome,” he said.
“He’s making good hitters look bad,” Montoyo said. “That’s a good sign.”
After Waguespack left the game, relievers Tim Mayza, Daniel Hudson and Ken Giles kept Boston off the board, allowing the Blue Jays to make the most of the hot streaks that Gurriel Jr. and Jansen are now enjoying.
On Thursday more juggling awaits the Blue Jays’ pitching staff, as Marcus Stroman’s scheduled start remains in legitimate doubt. If Stroman’s left chest soreness requires any additional rest, Thomas Pannone would join the Blue Jays and the search for answers in the rotation would continue.