WASHINGTON – Tensions were high among the Toronto Blue Jays, as they should have been given how the losses have piled up in winnable games of late. In the split doubleheader opener against the Washington Nationals, a 2-0 loss was their 15th in 22 games, the past 10 setbacks by either one or two runs, getting shut out for the first time this season, and Max Scherzer loomed in the nightcap.
Bad scene, and through the first five innings Tuesday night things were on the verge of getting worse, too, down 3-1, Scherzer in control, frustration mounting.
Then Danny Valencia poked a 1-2 fastball into the gap in right-centre for a two-out double in the sixth that gave his team a pulse. Manager John Gibbons, sensing opportunity, sent Justin Smoak in to pinch-hit for Munenori Kawasaki and he walked. And Kevin Pillar, in a 12-for-81 slide coming in, hit his second homer of the game, a three-run shot that gave the Blue Jays a lead and propelled them to a 7-3 victory.
For a team in desperate need of something to feel good about, rallying to beating Scherzer and salvage a twin-bill split sure offered just that.
“This is where you’ve got to be mentally tough and our guys were,” said Gibbons. “Going into that game after dropping the first one against a good pitcher, facing Scherzer, you’ve got to stay on top of it. It’s not an easy assignment but they did, like they always do.
“They go out there and compete every night and that’s all we can ask for.”
One win, no matter how big, is never a panacea in baseball — see what followed Josh Donaldson’s dramatic walk-off three-run homer against the Chicago White Sox last week for proof of that — but the Blue Jays now have a chance to take a series from the NL East leaders and split their six-game road trip with a victory in Thursday’s finale.
That’s a pretty significant emotional swing from where they would have been with another loss. The key is to build on it.
“We’re well aware of our record in one-run games, and [when] not scoring a lot of runs and when you have a pitcher like Max Scherzer out there, it’s tough to score runs,” said Pillar. “We did a good job chipping away, got some guys on base and the dugout was definitely pretty excited, not only for me but for our team to be up in a game.”
To that end, the Blue Jays saw some positive signs in the nightcap starting with the first multi-homer game of Pillar’s career at any level.
The centre-fielder has been hard at work making adjustments to his swing in recent days, aiming to cut down his leg so he can track pitches longer, and saw his first real dividends.
“May was a long month,” said Pillar. “I missed a lot of opportunities that could have changed some games, and that’s the hardest part about struggling, when you’re put in a situation and you’ve got runners on, and you’re not your best self and you can’t contribute and the losses keep adding up. It weighs on you. To be in a situation like that and to come through to help us win a game is huge for me and huge for the team.”
Marco Estrada, who pitched six solid innings to pick up his first win as a starter, delivered a pivotal shutdown bottom of the sixth to preserve the 4-3 lead just handed him, helped by Valencia snagging Dan Uggla’s liner to left to end the frame.
The offence pounced on reliever Blake Treinen for three runs in the seventh on Chris Colabello’s RBI single, extending his hitting streak to 13 games, Valencia’s sacrifice fly and Russell Martin scoring on a delayed double steal.
Liam Hendriks delivered two innings of shutdown relief work — he even worked a six-pitch walk — before Brett Cecil wrapped things up. And there was some nice defence all around, save for the Estrada error at first base while taking a relay from Colabello on a Bryce Harper grounder that led to a run that made it 3-1 Nationals.
“I was mad at myself,” said Estrada. “It was an easy out, I don’t know what happened, I don’t know if I’ve ever done that. I did it and it sucks that it ended up costing me a run. Thankfully we pulled through, we swung the bats really well today and scored a lot of runs.”
A concern is the status of Edwin Encarnacion, who didn’t start in either game because of tightness in his left hamstring. He’s hoping to play Wednesday but may wait until Friday in Toronto, although he did pinch-hit in the first game and was on deck in the second game before being pulled back following the Pillar homer.
In the opener, Jordan Zimmermann, who apart from starting the pivotal two-run rally in the fifth with a single, found himself in trouble just once over eight outstanding innings.
The Blue Jays loaded the bases with one out in the seventh and Martin came on to hit for R.A. Dickey, beating an 0-1 fastball into the ground for an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play. They went down quietly in the eighth and ninth, when Drew Storen earned his 17th save.
Like so many of their recent losses, the game was close but out of reach, and their past 10 setbacks have come by a total margin of 13 runs.
“That’s remarkable really,” said Dickey, who allowed two runs in six strong innings with one walk and six strikeouts. “I don’t know if it takes any more of a toll or not than losing games by five or six runs, but one thing I feel like it does do, it’s going to even out.
“You’re not going to lose every one-run game, it’s going to start turning, but we’ve got to be proactive in making it turn around. Today we ran into a guy that threw a great ball game, that’s all there is to it, but we’ll find a way to put it together. We’ve just got to start soon.”
Jose Bautista’s first game in right field since April 21 came in the opener and he did prevent the Nationals from striking big in the first inning, when with two on and one out, he chased Ryan Zimmerman’s smash to the base of the wall in deep right and made the catch.
He relayed the ball in with no issue, as well, a reminder of what proper corner outfield defence looks like for a team that hasn’t seen much of it lately.
“We still have plenty of time,” said backup catcher Dioner Navarro, activated from the DL before the second game. “We’ve just got to calm down, do our thing, everybody knows what we’re capable of doing here, and just start to win games.”