During ‘scary time’ for baseball, Blue Jays put together textbook win

Toronto Blue Jays' Lourdes Gurriel Jr. celebrates his home run during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals, Tuesday, July 28, 2020, in Washington. (Nick Wass/AP)

TORONTO – Four days ago, the Toronto Blue Jays were still homeless. Three days from now, they’re slated to play in Philadelphia, where the Marlins are sheltering after 19 players and staff contracted COVID-19 in an outbreak that’s already caused them to reschedule a full week of games.

Under these circumstances, it can be hard to stay focused on the moment at hand. As Blue Jays closer Anthony Bass said Tuesday, “it’s a scary time in the game.” Without a doubt, baseball in 2020 is proving to be bizarre and unsettling. In theory, the games should be a respite from the weirdness — but at times they accentuate it.

Case in point: the Blue Jays vs. Nationals game that took place in Washington on Tuesday. On a beautiful summer night at Nationals Park, the Blue Jays faced the defending champs – yet questions about the Marlins outbreak loomed large before the game, and once it began two of Washington’s key players were nowhere to be seen: Juan Soto, the 21-year-old star who’s sidelined after testing positive for COVID-19, and Ryan Zimmerman, the 15-year veteran who opted out of the season due to concern over the virus.

There’s no escaping it, nor should that be the goal at a time that a pandemic continues spreading. And yet there’s also legitimate intrigue between the lines every night. On Tuesday, the Blue Jays continued to pitch extremely well on their way to a 5-1 win over Washington that gives them a 3-2 record on the season.

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It started with Tanner Roark, who allowed just one run on three hits over five innings of work that manager Charlie Montoyo described as “outstanding.” He topped out at 93.5 mph with his fastball while mixing in plenty of sliders and curves on his way to five strikeouts. That’s exactly the kind of stabilizing start the Blue Jays were hoping for when they signed Roark to a two-year, $24-million deal over the winter.

“For a starter you’re supposed to go out every five days and go as long as you can, as hard as you can,” Roark said afterward. “That’s what I’ve based everything off of when I’m out there. I’m not going to take pitches off, I’m not going to get mad when I give up a home run, since I’ve given up plenty of home runs. It’s not the first time, it’s not the last.”

Once Roark had done his part, the Blue Jays faced the challenge of navigating four high-stress innings without closer Ken Giles, who will get a second opinion on his right elbow after an MRI revealed a strain. The Blue Jays turned to Jacob Waguespack to keep the Nationals at bay and the 26-year-old impressed in his season debut. After walking the first batter he faced, Waguespack recovered to get six critical outs that bridged the gap to Wilmer Font and A.J. Cole.

“He’s nasty. I’d never watched him before until today, but he’s funky,” Roark said. “You can tell that the Nationals were having trouble picking up his stuff.”

Impressive pitching performances have become the norm for the Blue Jays early on, creating a stark and welcome contrast to the 2019 team that allowed 5.1 runs per game. So far this year, they’re allowing just 3.2 runs per game and while some regression is inevitable, there’s already reason to believe this year’s staff has legitimately improved – even as Giles remains sidelined.

“Now we feel a lot better. We try to score some runs early in the game knowing that our pitching staff will hold it,” outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “We feel very good about it.”

With pitching like that, the Blue Jays were able to win their second consecutive game, even without three starting position players. Travis Shaw is away on the family medical leave list, while Bo Bichette (hamstring) and Randal Grichuk (back) are both day-to-day with seemingly minor injuries. With Bichette sidelined, Santiago Espinal got the start at shortstop and made the most of it, collecting his first major-league hit in the top of the ninth.

Earlier in the game, Gurriel Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. did their part at the plate, hitting solo home runs that gave the Blue Jays an early lead (for Guerrero Jr., who also walked out of the DH spot, the home run was his first since August 22). A two-run single for Rowdy Tellez gave the Blue Jays two welcomed insurance runs in the eighth.

It added up to a textbook win for the Blue Jays: strong starting pitching, steady relief work and just enough offence. But really, these first two games against the Nationals have just been an appetizer. The main attraction – top prospect Nate Pearson vs. three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer – is next up on Wednesday. If any game can provide a momentary diversion from the big-picture problems facing baseball, this promises to be it.

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