ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Forced into a spectator’s role when lumbar-spine muscle spasms landed him on the injured list a couple weeks back, Brandon Belt rode along through the Toronto Blue Jays’ messy series against the Texas Rangers and their subsequent revival since.
“I’ve loved watching every second of it,” said the veteran first baseman. “There’s no quit in this team right now and (this stretch) has been simulating a lot of playoff games for us. You get into the playoffs and it’s really which team can outlast the other team. We’ve been doing that really well right now. And my hope is, when I come back, I can just fit right in and help the team even more with that.”
Belt feels “ready to get back out there” now and there was discussion about activating him before Sunday’s series finale against the Tampa Bay Rays. The Blue Jays opted to give him a bit more time and then tightened their grip on a wild-card berth with a 9-5 victory, keyed by George Springer’s three-run, inside-the-park home run and a pair of brilliant defensive plays from the right-fielder.
Whit Merrifield’s two-run single preceded Springer’s blow in a five-run second, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. added solo shot in the sixth and ninth innings, the second one right after Bo Bichette went deep, while Daulton Varsho added a run-scoring triple in the eighth.
The offence all came after Yusei Kikuchi gave up a two-spot in the first, when he suspects he may have been tipping pitches, and didn’t last into the fifth for the first time this year, despite seven strikeouts in four frames.
Trevor Richards followed with two scoreless innings, Yimi Garcia gave up a two-run shot to Isaac Paredes in the seventh, Erik Swanson worked around a single and a walk in the eighth, and Jordan Hicks locked it down in the ninth before a Tropicana Field crowd of 22,472.
The Blue Jays (87-69), having finished a tough road trip through Yankee Stadium and the dreaded Trop at 4-2, head into the final week holding the second wild-card spot, two games up on the Houston Astros (85-71), who lost 6-5 to Kansas City, and 2.5 up on the Seattle Mariners (84-71), who lost 9-8 to AL-West leading Texas (87-68).
“Awesome road trip,” said manager John Schneider. “Coming off a sweep at home and then two division teams that are really tough, guys played their asses off. (Saturday’s 7-6, walk-off loss) was a tough one, but this was about as good of an outcome other than 6-0, you know what I mean? I just love the way they’re going about it, everything from offence, defence to pitching. It was a really, really good road trip.”
Added Springer: “We’re doing what we need to do. We’re slowing the game down a little bit. You’re seeing guys walk, you’re seeing guys have a good quality at-bat when it has to happen. You’re seeing guys get moved over. You’re seeing what it takes to win in September. It’s not always about stats. It’s not always about the scoreboard. And I just think us as an offence right now, we’re doing a lot of things that don’t necessarily show up in a box score. For us that’s huge.”
Kikuchi, who left his last start with a cramp in his left upper trap muscle, allowed four hits, including RBI singles by Paredes and Junior Caminero, during an odd top of the first in which he also struck out the side.
Three of the four hits were on curveballs, with the other on a splitter, which led the lefty to “make a little bit of an adjustment.”
“I haven’t checked the video yet exactly for myself, but talking to Pete (Walker, the pitching coach), some of my teammates and other coaches, they might have picked up on something,” Kikuchi added through interpreter Yusuke Oshima. “That helped.”
The deficit didn’t last long as, with two out in the second, Alejandro Kirk worked a two-out walk off Taj Bradley, took third on Daulton Varsho’s double and scored on Merrifield’s two-run single. After a Kevin Kiermaier base hit, Springer launched a drive to centre that hit off the wall beyond Manuel Margot’s reach and deflected away, allowing him to race around the bases in 16.6 seconds.
“I knew I could get to third. I wasn’t really thinking about anything else and then I’m kind of getting closer, just watching Luis (Rivera, the third base coach) and he said to go, so I figured I had to go,” relayed Springer. “As I’m getting closer, I’m watching Whit and Kiermaier, they’re both screaming get down, I figured the ball was getting closer, so I just dove and was safe.”
Springer then went to work in the field during a dominant defensive third, first fielding Curtis Mead’s smash off the wall in right and easily throwing him out at second base while also preventing Harold Ramirez, who opened the inning with a double, from scoring.
One batter later, Springer covered 55 feet to make a diving catch on a Paredes liner and immediately popped up to make the throw home. Ramirez misread the play and wasn’t able to get back to third in time to tag, which proved costly when Kikuchi struck out Caminero to end the threat.
“He kind of took the game over there for about 25 minutes,” Schneider said. “George, this time of year, is a good guy to have on your team.”
Kikuchi allowed an RBI single in the fourth that cut the Blue Jays lead to 5-3, and that turned out to be his final inning. That frame pushed his season total to 162.2, a new personal best, surpassing the 161.2 he logged with Seattle in 2019 after first coming over from Japan.
“The whole team, everyone’s banged up a little bit, I’m a little bit tired, but you’ve got to grind through the last homestand and I’ve got one more start left,” said Kikuchi. “Being able to be healthy this whole year and able to keep my spot in the rotation is a big thing for me. Looking forward to my last start.”
The Blue Jays return home looking to lock down their ticket to the post-season during return engagements against the Yankees and Rays. Adding intrigue is the growing possibility that the Blue Jays and Rays, who have clinched the first wild card if they can’t catch Baltimore for the AL East title, will face off in the wild-card round.
Belt is looking forward to being a part of it all and this time he feels much more ready to return than when he suited up Sept. 11 against Texas, but lasted just two at-bats. That was his first game back since Sept. 2, after which his back locked up and a stomach bug sapped his energy, the latter compounding the effect of the former.
As a result, “When I came back last time, I felt like I was swinging it under water,” said Belt. “My body was not loose and ready to go just because my body was not ready to go back out and play games. (This time) I’ve been hitting in the cage, hitting velo, I’ve had coaches simulate at-bats to me, different pitches. It’s not perfect, but it’s something for me. That’s what I’ve been doing. But as far as like my swing and feeling loose and ready to go, I feel like I’m there.”
The same can be said about the Blue Jays over the past week and a half.
“In my opinion, pitching and defence is what wins you games in the playoffs, with time timely hitting,” said Belt. “We’ve been doing that really well. A lot of times it’s who can make the least amount of mistakes in the playoffs. That’s where we’ve been excelling and that’s going to bode well for when we get in the playoffs.”
When Belt first went on the injured list that wasn’t a certainty. Now, it’s looking less like a matter of if, and more like a matter of when.