Berrios continues return to form and all-stars shine as Blue Jays top Royals

Alejandro Kirk crushed a clutch two-run shot in bottom of the 8th inning to break the tie for the Toronto Blue Jays, as they defeated Kansas City Royals 4-2 heading to the All-Star break.

TORONTO — On the last day before sending nearly 20 per cent of its roster to Los Angeles for the All-Star Game, the Toronto Blue Jays needed vital contributions from some of those players to prevent a series split against the lowly Kansas City Royals.

All-star catcher Alejandro Kirk hit a tie-breaking, two-run homer in the eighth inning and freshly minted all-star Jordan Romano earned the save as the Blue Jays defeated the Royals 4-2 in front of 36,681 at Rogers Centre on Sunday. 

The win allowed the Blue Jays to close out their first half at 50-43, which is an improvement over last season’s 45-42 record at this time. While things haven’t gone that smoothly over the past four months — including a recent 1-9 stretch that ultimately spelled the end of Charlie Montoyo’s tenure as manager — 50 does represent a nice number. 

How much does it mean?

“A lot,” said manager John Schneider, who now sports a 4-1 record since taking the reins. “You look at it and it looks better than 40-something, right? So, 50 is a good number. When you look at the expectations of our team, you can say, OK, we’re getting to where we need to go a little bit as we hit the break.

“But we all know we can get better in every aspect,” he added.

With Sunday’s win, the Blue Jays took three of four from the Royals, though it’s tough to read too much into that as this was a last-place Kansas City club that was missing a whopping 10 players — including outfielders Andrew Benintendi, Michael A. Taylor and Kyle Isbel — who did not meet Canada’s COVID-19 vaccination requirements. That led to a roster that saw several players make their major-league debut during the series. Amidst all that roster confusion, the Royals impressively managed to keep the games close, with the exception of Friday's blowout loss.

Nonetheless, the Blue Jays did what they had to do by collecting wins and now the hope is that they can carry some of that momentum into the second half, which begins Friday when the club visits Boston for a three-game set against the Red Sox.

“The vibes, they’ve always been there,” Kirk said. “But it feels good right now.”

Added Jose Berrios, who earned a no-decision on Sunday: “We have been trying so hard to get that rhythm. But I think these next four days are going to help us rest, reset ourselves and come back stronger in the second half.”

Berrios continued his strong July with another stellar outing. Royals second baseman Nicky Lopez led off the game with a single to centre and then advanced and scored on consecutive soft contact bloops by Vinnie Pasquantino and Edward Olivares to put Kansas City up 1-0. However, Berrios recovered from that by using his curveball to get back-to-back strikeouts. He allowed a home run to first baseman Nick Pratto in the second frame, but settled down nicely from that point on, facing the minimum over the next four innings. 

He topped out at 95.9 mph and relied on a curveball that had plenty of movement, responsible for six of the seven strikeouts he generated. In total, Berrios allowed one walk and two runs on seven hits over 6.1 innings and 90 pitches. 

It’s a nice sight for the Blue Jays to see the right-hander return to form this month. Following his worst start of the season — against Milwaukee on June 26 when he surrendered eight runs over 2.2 innings — he has stabilized himself. Including Sunday, Berrios has allowed just eight earned runs in 23.1 innings (3.09 ERA) over his last four starts. The Blue Jays are 14-5 in games that he has started this season.

“We’re looking for him to continue to roll,” said Schneider.

Meanwhile, Berrios was matched by Royals starter Kris Bubic. The left-hander kept the Blue Jays offence dormant and off balance for most of his seven innings using an effective fastball, changeup and curveball combo. Santiago Espinal and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. reached on infield hits in the third inning, then came in to score on an error by Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., and a sacrifice fly from Bo Bichette. That tied the score 2-2 and was the only offence the Blue Jays had until Kirk’s homer.   

Royals right-hander Wyatt Mills hung a slider that Kirk launched over the left-field wall for his 11th homer of the season. Half an inning later, Romano was on the mound and made quick work of the Royals, striking out two of the three batters he faced.

Prior to the game he got a nice surprise when he was informed he'd been named to the American League roster for Tuesday’s All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. He’ll replace New York Yankees starter Gerrit Cole and join teammates Alek Manoah, Kirk, Guerrero Jr., and Espinal — who got his all-star nod on Saturday. George Springer was also selected but opted not to attend to rest a sore right elbow that has bothered him since late June. The outfielder was given a scheduled day off on Sunday and the hope is that the five total days of rest will help him.

“It’s really special,” said Romano, a native of Markham, Ont., of receiving his all-star berth. “The coaches put a lot of work in with me. [Bullpen coach Matt] Buschmann, [pitching coach] Pete [Walker], Schneider and the whole staff. To see their hard work and my hard work pay off together, it’s really special.”

The 29-year-old Romano now leads the league with 20 saves and sports a 2.65 ERA with 39 strikeouts over 34 innings. “I always wanted to go to an All-Star Game,” he said. “It wasn’t the ultimate goal, but that was one of my goals.” 

“For me, he’s the best in the league,” Kirk said. “He always goes out there and competes. I’m very, very happy for him.”

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