NEW YORK – Up until Friday’s rainout in Cleveland, the Toronto Blue Jays had been kicking around the possibility of shuffling their rotation. The thought was to use Monday’s off-day to keep Jose Berrios and Kevin Gausman rolling on normal rest while pushing Yusei Kikuchi to the weekend, keeping the left-hander from facing the New York Yankees for a second straight start and third time in six outings.
Saturday’s doubleheader took the possibility off the table, so they instead stayed on turn and through five hitless innings Tuesday, Kikuchi showed that his ongoing refinements will play, no matter how recently an opponent had seen him.
Yet no Blue Jays story of late ends that cleanly and chaos struck quickly in the bottom of the sixth inning, turning a cruise-control night into an emotion-charged, ejection-filled affair that ended in a 6-5 Yankees victory on Aaron Judge’s walk-off homer.
The blast off Jordan Romano – whose velocity was down 1.9 m.p.h. on his fastball and 4.3 m.p.h. on his slider, perhaps tied to unusually slick baseballs – came after the Blue Jays blew a 3-0 lead on Giancarlo Stanton’s game-tying, three-run shot off Yimi Garcia in the sixth. That homer – a prototypical Yankee-Stadium cheapie – preceded the reliever’s ejection two pitches later for hitting Josh Donaldson.
A Lourdes Gurriel Jr. RBI double and Alejandro Kirk sacrifice fly in the eighth appeared set to provide a cathartic response until the Blue Jays lost in their opponent’s final at-bat for the second straight game, this one leaving raw feelings all around.
“I’m proud of my team for coming back after all of that shit,” said manager Charlie Montoyo, who was ejected in the seventh. “Believe me, we could have said, 'Oh the umpires are against us' and all of that stuff. No, we battled back and we had the best closer in baseball there in the ninth inning. It’s actually the other way around. I’m proud of my team for coming back in a game like this after Kikuchi pitched an outstanding game facing the same team again. He was really good. We gave up the lead and we still battled back to take the lead.”
Things got wild after D.J. LeMahieu opened the sixth inning with a double, Judge laced a 104.2 infield single to third that Matt Chapman snared but bobbled on the transfer and Anthony Rizzo flew out to deep centre on a hanging slider left up in the zone for the inning’s first out.
Montoyo then brought in Garcia to face Stanton, who lofted a lazy fly ball to right field that drifted 335 feet just over the wall, a homer at Yankee Stadium alone, that tied the game.
Two pitches later, Garcia hit Donaldson on the upper arm with an 0-1 fastball, the umpires gathered for a lengthy conference and then threw the reliever out.
Garcia was incensed since there seemed to be no intent and hitting Donaldson made no sense in that situation, and the Blue Jays were similarly livid. Montoyo charged out, followed by bench coach John Schneider, pitching coach Pete Walker and third base coach Luis Rivera, each taking turns yelling at an umpire and then restraining one another.
Total Gong Show.
“Earlier in the game there were some words exchanged between Donaldson and Toronto's catcher (Tyler Heineman), so that definitely played into it. There were pretty strong words,” crew chief Alfonso Marquez told a pool reporter. “Then you have a game-tying home run and the second pitch, which we deemed intentional, which was the reason for the ejection. All that really played into it. It had nothing to do with (Donaldson's) reaction. It had everything to do with the game situations that led up to that specific incident.”
Donaldson told reporters in the Yankees clubhouse that he had indeed exchanged words with Heineman and added that, “I didn’t even know the guy. I didn’t even know that was his name. Never heard of him.”
The umps tossed Walker, too, and Montoyo joined them an inning later, when Jonathan Loaisiga threw a pitch up and in to Bo Bichette, infuriating the Blue Jays dugout. Home plate umpire Lance Barrett, who drew several complaints while ringing up four Toronto hitters through the first six innings, gave the ejection signal and then pointed to Montoyo when the dugout tried to figure out who got banged.
Bichette didn’t think Loaisiga was throwing at him in seventh and when asked if Garcia’s ejection and the chain of events around it made sense to him, he replied: “No. None of it.”
“There's no reason why anybody would try to hit anybody in a 3-3 game,” he continued. “There was just as much reason for us to hit him as there would have been for them to hit me, which is none. I mean, the umpires are doing their best. They did what they thought was right. But it was surprising.”
A seemingly redemptive rally followed in the eighth when Vladimir Guerrero Jr., led off with a walk and then hit a sprint speed of 27.2 feet per second as he scored on Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s double into the left-field corner. Gurriel attentively took third on the throw home and scored on Alejandro Kirk’s shallow fly to centre for a 5-3 edge.
But after the Blue Jays bullpen effectively nursed the lead to the ninth, with Trevor Richards coming in to strikeout Gleyber Torres and snuff out a two-on, two-out rally in the eighth, Romano issued two one-out walks before Judge ripped a three-run shot to left, sending a crowd of 41,522 into a frenzy.
All that came after the Blue Jays seemingly had things under control.
George Springer led off the game with a solo shot off Luis Severino, holding his hand up in what looked like a stop-talking gesture as he rounded the bases, while Santiago Espinal ripped a two-run double in the second that opened up a 3-0 lead, on a drive initially ruled a home run.
The replay reversal led to a Home Run Jacket first – its post-celebration removal for the batter to return to the bases.
Still, the 3-0 lead looked like it would be plenty for Kikuchi, who continued to use his new slider – a hybrid of his old softer slider and harder cutter – to great effect, tunnelling out of the same slot as his four-seam fastball. He got nine swinging strikes with his heater and four more with the slider, repeating his effectiveness from a week ago, when he allowed one run over six innings against the Yankees.
“When I execute my pitches where I want, especially low and below the zone, I like the way the hitters are reacting, they’re swinging a lot,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “I’m going after that low pitch and I feel comfortable with where I’m at and I think we’re going to keep getting better and better from here on out.”
Given the proximity of the outings, his work Tuesday is perhaps more meaningful given how Walker before said the Yankees “were caught a little bit off guard probably, with the action on the (slider) a little different” in the last outing.
“Now they're prepping for that, I'm sure, and we've got to be a little bit better with it,” he added. “But I think we're finding out the best version of Yusei with this pitch mix. And I think once he gets even more comfortable with it, he'll be able to execute even better and it'll make a big difference in his season.”
There were signs of that for Kikuchi amid the chaos that followed him.