McKinney walks it off for Blue Jays but Kawhi steals the show

After Kawhi Leonard made an appearance, Billy McKinney gave the Toronto Blue Jays the win over the Los Angeles Angels with a home run in the tenth.

TORONTO – Somehow, in a game that featured Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., a spectator managed to steal the show.

From his seat near the Toronto Blue Jays’ third-base dugout, this fan chatted up the batboy, joked around with Luke Maile and filmed Trout’s at bats on his phone. The crowd watched, applauded and analyzed his every move.

Of course this was no ordinary fan. It was Kawhi Leonard, the 27-year-old star who recently led the Toronto Raptors to their first-ever NBA Championship. Days removed from an epic NBA Finals performance and mere weeks away from deciding on his long-term home, Leonard has the full attention of Toronto sports fans. They track his every move from Niagara Falls to Cactus Club to Home Depot.

So of course the crowd of 24,291 greeted Leonard with a loud ovation when he arrived during the game’s early innings. How else would you greet the player who helped bring home the city’s first title since 1993?

From the mound, Clayton Richard wondered for a moment if the applause was for him.

“I got 0-2 on (Kole) Calhoun and I was like ‘man, I know I haven’t gone 0-2 on a lot of hitters, but they got excited for that one,’” he said.

As the game progressed, MVP chants filled Rogers Centre and the Blue Jays recognized the soon-to-be free agent on the scoreboard. The crowd even cheered when Leonard left in the seventh inning.

So will he stay? Maybe the batboy knows. Until NBA free agency begins, it’s back to baseball.

The Blue Jays didn’t disappoint Thursday, beating the Angels 7-5 thanks to four homers, including a Billy McKinney walk-off shot in the 10th inning. Facing big-league pitching for the first time since May 23, McKinney took Ty Buttrey deep over the right-centre field wall.

“It feels great,” McKinney said. “I needed to work on (using the whole field and working counts at triple-A), but being back here is nice.”

Entering play Thursday the Blue Jays ranked 26th in baseball in runs scored, but they’ve been getting some welcome power lately. This time it came from four players. Eric Sogard continued his unexpectedly strong offensive season with a three-hit night that gives him a .303 average and .874 OPS on the year.

Perhaps more significantly, three potential long-term Blue Jays homered, too. To go along with McKinney’s walk-off shot, Teoscar Hernandez hit an opposite-field homer for his seventh of the year and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. sent one over the left-field wall in the fifth. While runs of any kind are welcome, contributions from players on the rise are especially significant for a rebuilding team like the Blue Jays.

“I’m loving it,” manager Charlie Montoyo said recently. “We are doing better at the plate and that’s good. Even more when it’s guys who we think could be our future.”

The Blue Jays are understandably impressed with Gurriel Jr.’s offence. After a three-hit day, he’s batting .282/.340/.580, even including his early season struggles.

As for Gurriel Jr.’s defence, the Blue Jays are still open to the idea of using him on the infield, even though he has played exclusively in left field since returning from triple-A on May 24. Don’t expect to see him at second base any time soon, but some reps at short or third are a possibility later in the year. In the meantime, the Blue Jays like how his defence plays in left field.

Earlier in the season, Gurriel Jr., Hernandez and McKinney all spent time in triple-A working on their game away from the pressures of the majors. In each case, the results have improved.

“They all look a lot more comfortable,” Montoyo said.

Asked if Brandon Drury (six homers, .606 OPS) could benefit from a similar reset, Montoyo acknowledged before the game that a demotion could help.

Really, there’s no avoiding these ups and downs during a rebuild. The Blue Jays need to see what they have in these players, and that means enduring some tough stretches. Even Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has slowed down, with a hitless night at the plate and an error at third base.

Still, the Blue Jays didn’t expect to struggle quite this much.

“We don’t wake up (and plan) to have a 100-loss season, that’s for sure,” GM Ross Atkins said. “It’s more just there are some guys that offensively aren’t at their projection and the pitching injuries we haven’t sustained well.”

Asked to pinpoint the source of the Blue Jays’ struggles, Atkins said “really, it’s just been our overall ability to prevent runs and score them.” In other words, everything.

At least the Blue Jays’ bullpen got some reinforcements Thursday. Hours after being activated from the injured list, Ken Giles pitched for the first time since June 5, striking out the first two hitters he faced before inducing an Albert Pujols ground-out.

One inning later, the Blue Jays had their 27th win of the year thanks to McKinney. Too bad Kawhi wasn’t there to see it.

“I wish,” McKinney said, “But he’s got things to do. He’s a busy man.”

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