BALTIMORE – There is achievement in baseball by simply completing the grind, showing up day in and day out, putting in the work, getting after it on the field and fighting through the cumulative toll. The relentlessness of the schedule makes finding and sustaining success all the more difficult, so to be among the last teams standing at the end really means something.
“You know, 162 is tough,” interim manager John Schneider said after a 5-1 win by his Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday, securing a final-day, doubleheader split with the Baltimore Orioles and a 92-70 finish.
“People that do it every day, they realize that and it’s something they don’t take for granted. So it’s a collective effort, from start to finish, today being the exclamation point. But 162 games, winning 92 of them, very, very proud of the guys, everyone that is here, everyone that has been here. Really looking forward to the post-season.”
That was universal around the Blue Jays clubhouse, as was a sigh of relief that they had emerged unscathed from the unexpected – and unwanted – twin-bill. With Game 1 of the wild-card series against the Seattle Mariners set for Friday at Rogers Centre – and yes, Alek Manoah is starting, official and announced – covering 18 innings could easily have upended their plans, especially after clinching home-field on Monday.
Instead, everything unfolded as they had mapped out, with relievers Trevor Richards, Adam Cimber, Yimi Garcia and Jordan Romano each throwing a shutout inning ahead of Mitch White in a 5-4 loss in the opener, while David Phelps, Anthony Bass and Tim Mayza getting an inning each in front of Casey Lawrence, Yusei Kikuchi and Trent Thornton in the nightcap.
Some, if not most of their primary bullpen arms would likely have been used Wednesday to stay sharp even if Tuesday’s contest hadn’t been rained out, but the key is that no one sure to be on the wild-card roster Friday was overextended.
The same applied on the position player front, as only bench players started both contests with Otto Lopez, with a combined five hits and three RBIs, and Gabriel Moreno, with four hits including his first major-league home run, leading the way.
“The pitchers were pretty efficient with their pitch count,” said Schneider. “Guys got the at-bats they needed. We’ve been talking and it’s such a different animal come Friday night, whether you haven’t played in four or five days or if you played 18 innings today, you’re going to be ready to go. But all things considered, we wanted to get guys in, stay sharp, get guys at-bats. That worked out well.”
As did the ability to put players in different spots for a quick look, from Moreno playing catcher, left field, second and third, to Lopez getting reps at both second and shortstop, to Whit Merrifield at first. With Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (hamstring) and Santiago Espinal (oblique) flying back to Toronto early in order to get their work in at Rogers Centre on Wednesday, the Blue Jays still have to figure out which position players will be on their roster come Friday, which will impact how many pitchers are selected.
Moreno is one of those calls, and while there are merits to carrying a third catcher, particularly with how Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk are used, a display of his versatility and offensive skill-set adds to the considerations.
“I had the feeling that could happen at some point during those two games and it happened and I was ready for that,” Moreno said of playing around the diamond through interpreter Hector Lebron. “Grateful to have the opportunity to play all of these positions. I can say I have the ability to play different positions and I worked for that. Just having fun, I’m full of emotions. But I did have fun.”
White, who allowed five runs in four innings, was optioned between games for Thornton, meaning he’ll be ineligible for the next 15 days, barring an injury. The same applies to Nate Pearson, who was reinstated from the 60-day injured list after his rehab assignment expired and optioned back to triple-A.
Intriguingly, Kikuchi has put himself back into consideration for the post-season roster with four straight scoreless appearances, including 1.2 clean innings with two strikeouts in the second game versus the Orioles. Since moving to the bullpen in mid-August, he’s struck out 33 batters in 18.1 innings over 12 outings, although he’s also had a few rough ones in there as he’s adjusted to a new role.
The swing and miss stuff is tempting though, and “I feel like I’m able to attack and get in that attack mindset” as a reliever, Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando.
“We’ve all talked about it from the beginning of the year, but I just wasn’t quite able to do it,” he continued. “But now I really do feel like I’m able to focus on one pitch at a time, focus on that moment and that moment only, and just go out and attack.”
Kikcuhi isn’t sure yet about his status for the post-season and Schneider was careful not to tip his hand, although his comments left things open to speculation.
“Love how he’s looked against left-handed hitters out of the bullpen. He’s throwing strikes, striking guys out. Today was just another example of it,” he said. “What he’s proven down the stretch is, we’re not afraid to put him in spots that matter, spots that are big. He also provides length, too.”
The Blue Jays, barring a surprise, shouldn’t need that bulk from him in the post-season if their rotation pitches to expectation. Schneider didn’t divulge whether it would be Kevin Gausman, who left his last start with a cut on his right middle finger but was said to be fine, or Ross Stripling in Game 2, but either is a fine complement to Manoah, the obvious choice for Game 1.
“Seeing him in those really big moments and obviously the month of September that he’s had,” said Schneider, “like the way he matches up against anybody but confident in him just embracing the atmosphere and doing what he’s been doing all year.”
The same goes for the rest of the Blue Jays, who completed one grind and are now set for another.