TORONTO – All the ingredients for another game to unravel and end in heartbreak for the Toronto Blue Jays were there in the seventh inning. Cedric Mullins ended Ross Stripling’s run of six perfect innings by lining his first pitch to centre for a base hit. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. then bobbled Anthony Santander’s chopper, preventing him from getting the lead runner. Stripling, at 72 pitches in his return from the injured list, was done, leaving a man in scoring position for Yimi Garcia, the afternoon’s outcome very much hanging in the balance.
This time, the Blue Jays didn’t wilt at the moment of truth.
Bo Bichette, crucially, made a tremendous barehanded grab and throw on a Ryan Mountcastle chopper that immediately shifted control of the inning. Garcia followed by striking out Austin Hays and positive momentum followed into the bottom of the frame, when Teoscar Hernandez blooped in a one-out single, Bichette moved him to third with a perfectly executed hit-and-run and catharsis arrived when pinch-hitter George Springer lined a go-ahead RBI single.
That they poured it on from there – starting with a two-run double by Santiago Espinal, plating Springer, who first-pumped after sliding safely into home, and capped by Alejandro Kirk’s two-run double – made it feel all the more like a cleansing of two weeks’ worth of frustration.
“Against a hitter that’s done obviously pretty well against us, it was a hell of a play by Bo,” interim manager John Schneider said of the barehanded throw after his Blue Jays completed a 6-1 victory over the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday afternoon. “He had an awesome game all around between that and his at-bats. To keep that right there instead of it being first and third and Yimi having to work in some real traffic, to me that was the play of the game right there.”
Factoring in Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s bases-loaded walk during the ensuing rally, the six-run frame nearly matched the Blue Jays’ total output of seven runs over the previous three games. The victory before a crowd of 40,141, just their fourth in 13 outings, featured their most productive day at the plate since a 9-3 win at the Minnesota Twins on Aug. 4.
In avoiding a sweep by the Orioles (61-56), the Blue Jays (62-54) also secured their hold on a wild-card spot and gave themselves some positive vibes to carry into a four-game series against the struggling New York Yankees beginning Thursday in the Bronx. A three-game set in Boston against the Red Sox follows right after.
“Hopefully it kind of lets guys just breathe and understand that you can do it because at times when you don’t do it, you start to think that you can’t do it – and then all of a sudden it happens,” Springer said of the relief provided by the offensive outburst. “Hopefully it can spiral into a lot more individual moments like that. It’s a big seven games coming up this week. We’ll see what happens.”
Jose Berrios gets the ball in the opener in New York with a chance to ensure the victory becomes a turning point rather than a respite. Kevin Gausman is set to follow on Friday and Mitch White will get the ball Saturday instead of Yusei Kikcuhi, who was moved into a relief role and sat in the bullpen Wednesday.
Such a move is representative of the urgency of the moment for a Blue Jays team that’s acting like it understands its runway is running out.
“It could be against left-handed hitting, it could be for some length,” Schneider said of what Kikuchi’s bullpen roles could be. “We’re talking about a guy with an electric arm and the improvements – although you can’t really see them on paper, I get that part of it – but incrementally he’s been a lot better. So we’re excited about it. He strikes a lot of guys out and has electric stuff. When put in the right position, I think he can really help us.”
Stripling’s return, of course, is the linchpin on that front and he couldn’t possibly have been more impactful.
From a dominant six-pitch first inning onwards, he kept the Orioles off balance by effectively locating his four-seamer and then discombobulating them with a changeup that generated six whiffs on 10 swings. A handful of sliders, sinkers and curveballs only added to the impressive mix and as the perfect innings piled up, it looked like he might leave interim manager John Schneider with a dilemma.
Stripling was at 67 pitches through six frames, the same number of pitches he’d thrown in a rehab outing for triple-A Buffalo last week, but between the right hip/glute strain that sidelined him and the all-star break, it had been July 13 since he’d last exceeded that mark.
How long to let him chase perfection, especially in a 0-0 game for an unsteady team, would have been a gut-wrenching call to make. But Mullins eliminated that from the mix with his single and it was all matching up in leverage from that point forward.
“I would have fought to stay in there all the way because I felt great physically,” said Stripling, who was pulled from a no-hit bid during his big-league debut after 7.1 innings and 100 pitches. “I feel great physically now a couple of hours removed, and felt strong through the outing. I’m built up, right? … I know what it takes to go 90/100 pitches in a big-league game. So I would have fought that tooth and nail to stay in there for sure. Might have been taken out of my hands. But now 32 years old, who knows if I’ll ever get an opportunity like that ever again? You would have had to drag me off the mound.”
Schneider conceded that he would have let Stripling run with it – “I’m glad I didn’t have to have (that conversation). But he was going to keep going,” he said. And demonstrating the amount of trust the right-hander has earned, the manager asked him if he wanted to remain in the game to face Mountcastle during a mound visit.
Thinking for sure his day was done, Stripling was stunned at the question – “I was like, uhhh,” he admitted – and said he’d geared down mentally and that it would be better to bring in Garcia.
Schneider did precisely that, the result broke the Blue Jays’ way with Bichette’s help and counter to their recent fortunes, they opened things up with a pivotal rally.
“We all knew that it’s going to happen eventually. It’s just the process,” said Bichette. “That inning definitely was big for all of us. Obviously we need to score runs to win. So it was a big deal, a lot of big hits. Maybe a little bit of relief, but I think just everybody’s excited to get the job done.”
An excitement borne out of ensuring that in a coin-flip game, they found a way to win.