TORONTO – The pitcher who rakes did no raking at the plate, while the hitter who pitched actually did some hitting, a juxtaposition Tuesday night that was a very, very good thing for the Toronto Blue Jays. Right from the outset against the Los Angeles Angels, they change the vibe from a weekend of misery, riding a five-run first inning highlighted by Kendrys Morales’ first home run since May 1.
With J.A. Happ dominant over seven innings for the second straight start and Shohei Ohtani contained to batting practice awe only, the end result was a 5-3 victory that ended a four-game losing streak and came against one of the teams likely to contend for at least a wild card.
A second win in nine outings is certainly nothing to cartwheel about. But after an extended period of struggle amid injuries, roster shuffling (Devon Travis is back, and for now, Giovanny Urshela is the shortstop for a team not carrying a natural shortstop) and underperformance, it’s a starting point after the Blue Jays (23-25) had hit a season-worst three games under .500 Sunday.
“We know you’ve got to do it one game at a time and it was nice to put a crooked number up there early and good to get this first one,” said Happ, adding later: “We know it’s a grind, we talked about that as a group a couple of days ago. We’ve got to come to play that day, if we win, great and if we don’t, we’ve got to flush it and move on.”
Ohtani’s first visit to Rogers Centre since he signed with the Angels over the winter was certainly a focal point of the day, and the two-way star’s pre-game power show included one drive into the second row of seats in the upper deck that was beyond impressive.
And though he was coming off 7.2 innings of two-run ball with nine strikeouts Sunday against Tampa Bay, he wasn’t the only DH Tuesday to have pitched Sunday.
Morales, who’s been mired in an extended and worrisome slump, threw a scoreless ninth against the Oakland Athletics, but first career appearance came with the bullpen used up at the end of a 9-2 loss that capped a dispiriting four-game sweep.
Though his arm was “a little stiff” after the outing, Morales bounced back Tuesday to drop the hammer on a hanging 2-1 slider from Garrett Richards in the first for a two-run homer that capped the pivotal five-run outburst.
Morales later added a single for his second consecutive multi-hit game, outperforming Ohtani, who went 0-for-3 with a walk.
“I think he’s from another world. I don’t think you can compare anyone to him,” Morales said through interpreter Josue Peley in praise of his counterpart. “What he does is amazing.”
The Blue Jays were among the teams that thought so and had Dan Evans, the scout who heads their Pacific Rim operations, working on Ohtani long before the formalized bidding for him began this off-season.
None of that ended up mattering when they weren’t among the teams Ohtani selected for formal presentations, a disappointment at the time after they invested lots of front office hours gearing up for the bid.
“It’s unbelievable that somebody can pitch and hit and he’s doing both of them very well,” manager John Gibbons said before the game. “I’m looking forward to seeing him. I know we had a lot of interest in him. Of course it didn’t work but he would have looked good here, I know that.”
The Angels instead drew that benefit and are 26-22 so far, with Ohtani worth nearly 1.0 WAR with each of his bat and pitching arm, per Fangraphs. Each new city he visits stirs at his arrival and marvels at his ability, although Angels manager Mike Scioscia bristled at the description of him as a phenomenon.
“First of all, he’s a human being, a good baseball player and a great person, not a phenomenon,” he said. “This guy works very hard at what he does, there’s no fluke as to why his talent is playing so well, he’s an extraordinary talent that works as hard on what he has to do on the mound as he does in the batter’s box. What you’re seeing is a special player get an opportunity to help a team in a variety of ways. He’s off to a terrific start.”
The opposite holds true for Morales, who’s supposed to hit and for the most part this season, hasn’t, although his two hits Sunday and two more Tuesday will give the Blue Jays hope their faith in him is about to be rewarded with an extended rebound.
Morales hadn’t homered since he went deep twice during a 7-4 win in 10 innings at Minnesota. Between that game and Sunday’s 2-for-4 effort, he went 4-for-47 with three walks, 11 strikeouts and what seemed like 100 groundouts.
“I was hoping for a day like this to come,” Morales said. “Everything goes around and it’s how you get prepared. I’ve been doing the same thing, getting prepared for every day, I knew the season was still early for me and I knew it was going to turn around sooner or later.”
Over the past week or so he’d started hitting the ball harder more consistently, although it often seemed like it would be right to a defender. Over the weekend he dropped the corrective glasses he started wearing toward the end of spring training, went with high socks and alternated between using and not using batting gloves to try and change his fortune.
“I know Kendrys on a different level, you’re not going to find a better guy, a harder worker, really a guy that cares about his teammates and all he wants to do is win,” said Gibbons. “So you feel extra for a guy like that. But he keeps showing up, maintains a great attitude and you’re holding out hope it will turn. He’s hit his whole career and hopefully tonight is the start of something good for him.”
Josh Donaldson, who’d been riding an 0-for-13, helped start the rally in the first with a double and after a Justin Smoak walk, he scored on a Teoscar Hernandez single. One batter later, a Russell Martin smash to right field nicked off Chris Young’s glove (it was scored an error) which allowed two runs to count.
Three pitches later, Morales made it a really big inning.
“Scoring five runs your confidence goes up from the get-go,” he said.
The Blue Jays hadn’t won since Happ’s last start, when he threw seven shutout innings against the Mets on May 16, and he didn’t let the Angels off the mat.
He allowed two runs on three hits and three walks over seven frames and now has four of the Blue Jays’ eight starts of at least seven innings.
“He’s good ole reliable,” said Gibbons. “It’s been a battle for our rotation this year and he’s been really the most consistent guy. He’s coming off that game in New York in the crap weather when it’s really tough to pitch in and he bounces back against a good hitting team.”
Even better is that the one DH in the game that isn’t supposed to ever pitch didn’t have to, not that Happ wasn’t impressed with Morales’ form.
“He looked in control out there, honestly,” said Happ, grinning. “One walk, but he was throwing strikes and it’s hard to do. You might take that for granted, guys who aren’t used to having all the attention on them out there. I know he did it years ago [in Cuba] but that was impressive.”