BALTIMORE — It’s that time of year. Fewer than 30 games to play; only a few separating the Toronto Blue Jays and their rivals in either direction; MLB’s postseason scheduled to begin a month from Wednesday. Stretch drive, crunch time, call it what you want. Just don’t be surprised if the Blue Jays lineup is a little more fluid than usual.
Heating up at the plate like Bo Bichette, who entered Monday batting .360/.439/.540 over the last two weeks? Up into the three-hole you go.
Searching for something like Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who hit .167/.216/.271 over the same span? Dropped down to eighth.
Deep in the weeds like Whit Merrifield, who’s mired in a .163/.250/.233 funk that began four weeks ago? Sitting on the bench for the seventh time in Toronto’s last 12 games.
Blue Jays manager John Schneider no longer has the luxury of giving slumping players runway to snap out of it. He has to embrace recency bias rather than working to suppress it, weighing what a player’s done lately more heavily than what an objective projection suggests he ought to do with time. He can’t worry about hurt feelings and egos. If you’re performing, you’re going to get opportunities. If you’re not, you’re not.
“You’ve got all the numbers, and you have all the projections, and you have all the plans. But performance plays a big part in what we're doing right now,” Blue Jays manager John Schneider said Monday morning before his team took both ends of a Labour Day doubleheader with the Baltimore Orioles, 7-3 and 8-4. “We’re trying to just put ourselves in position to win each night.”
And, wouldn’t you know it, there was Bichette right in the middle of everything Monday. He went 3-for-5 in the opener, helping extend Blue Jays' leads in both the fifth and ninth innings as his club earned some breathing room ahead of the Orioles in an intense, tightly-contested matinee. Then he came to the plate with two on and two out in the third inning of the nightcap, and took a pretty big cut at the first pitch he saw.
You're going to have to push the fence a bit further back to contain that one, which travelled a mere 412 feet at 109.4 m.p.h. off Bichette’s bat.
Three innings later, Bichette came back up and liked the first pitch he saw again. Only this time he took it in the opposite direction.
And what do you think Bichette did in his next trip to the plate? Took a pitch, naturally. Then he let it rip again.
So, make that three homers to three different parts of the ballpark in the span of four pitches seen, part of a 6-for-10 day. Give Bichette 12 hits and a walk over his first 23 plate appearances of September, and a .328/.371/.595 line since Aug. 4.
“That's just a really good hitter getting hot. We’ve said this all along — that Bo is a huge part of our team and offence. And right now, he's locked in,” Schneider said. “Unbelievable performance by him. Impressive to go left field, right field, and left-centre. I've been saying it all along — he's a special hitter. And when he's locked in, there's not many better than him. So, getting hot at the right time, He's really dangerous right now.”
That right there is why Bichette’s going to be hitting near the top of Toronto’s order for the foreseeable future, after being dropped to its bottom third only three weeks ago. At the time of that batting order demotion, Bichette was hitting .259/.300/.427, following up last year’s 122 wRC+ and 121 OPS+ season with league-average 100's in each category.
Thanks to the heater he's on, Bichette's dragged that wRC+ up to 118 and the OPS+ to 116. That says one thing about how productive he's been of late and another about how depressed MLB's offensive environment has been this year. Even with this streak, Bichette's batting 272/.315/.451 for the season, which stands in stark contrast to the .298/.343/.484 he posted in 2021.
And with only 28 games remaining, there likely isn’t enough time for Bichette to bring his season-long line back up to the standard he set for himself in the past. But there is enough time for him to stay hot and help propel a Blue Jays lineup built to overcome the team’s shaky run-prevention with a high volume of run production.
Any way you slice it, Bichette staying hot and playing to his potential is one of the highest leverage outcomes the Blue Jays could get over the season’s final month. Of course, Bichette might not even call this hot.
“You talk to Bo and he feels the same way. He's like, ‘I haven't even got it going. I haven't even come close to getting it going,’” said Kevin Gausman, who put on a stirring performance in Monday’s opener.
“Bo is a guy that can change the game with any swing. And as a pitcher, watching Bo hit, there are not many places you can go, right? There's not many holes. He handles the breaking stuff exceptionally well. He can get to high heaters. And if you throw him a fastball away, he has no problem slapping it into right field. From a pitching aspect, he's got to be a tough guy to face.”
The Blue Jays will be a tough team to face if they can continue playing the way they have over the first five games of this road trip. After sweeping the Pittsburgh Pirates over the weekend by a combined score of 12-4, Toronto secured both ends of Monday’s doubleheader against the Orioles, 15-7. They put up 25 hits over 18 innings, extended both starters into the seventh, and got 5.1 innings of two-run relief from their bullpen, as six relievers — none of them named Romano, Bass, or Garcia — combined to allow only three hits and no walks while striking out four.
And, most importantly, they dealt a severe blow to a division rival that had recently crept a little too close for comfort behind the Blue Jays in the American League wild-card race. Toronto now holds a 4.5-game lead over the Orioles for the third and final wild card spot, with an opportunity to bury them 6.5 games behind with wins on Tuesday and Wednesday. Even with a pair of losses, the Blue Jays will have ceded no ground to the Orioles in this series.
“I think as a group we understand the magnitude of what's going on right now. We did a great job today. Tomorrow, we’ve got to show up and do the same,” Bichette said. “The goal was to win two games today. So, we accomplished that. And now the goal is to win tomorrow.”
After Gausman manoeuvred his way out of multiple jams in Monday’s first game, Jose Berrios tried to play the same high-stakes game in the second. He stranded a runner in the first and erased a lead-off single with a double play in the second. But Rougned Odor got him for a long solo shot to left, the AL-leading 28th homer Berrios has allowed this season.
Berrios went back to working around traffic from there, stranding runners in the third, fourth, and sixth. He opened the seventh with a walk, single, single to load the bases. And after a run crossed on catcher’s interference by Danny Jansen, his night was done.
“I'm feeling good. I've been throwing the ball pretty well,” Berrios said. “The first three innings, they were making some hard contact against me. But we figured it out and we made adjustments and started throwing better pitches, more quality pitches.”
It wasn’t Berrios’ crispest outing by any stretch. He earned only four swinging strikes and allowed eight balls in play at 100 m.p.h. or harder. His fastball didn’t generate a single whiff. He threw his curveball only 18 per cent of the time, his lowest rate of the season. Berrios’ performance has been perplexing since literally the season’s opening inning, which he couldn’t complete. And that trend continues.
But thanks to Trevor Richards bailing him out of that difficult seventh in the pouring rain, Berrios’ final line — three earned runs over six innings — was one the Blue Jays will take every time out from a guy who’s either their third or fourth best option to start a playoff game, depending on perspective.
And, zooming out, it was Berrios’ fourth straight outing completing 5.2 innings or more. He’s pitched to a 3.70 ERA over that 24.1-inning span, striking out 21 while walking five. He hasn’t looked his best; he hasn’t been elite. But he’s been good enough. And that’s what the Blue Jays need at this time of year, when small-sample success and what-have-you-done-for-me-lately’s take on more importance than objective projections and taking-the-longview’s.
Berrios won’t be happy with his overall stats at the end of the year. But he does have an opportunity to help his team get where it's trying to go by pitching closer to his potential down the stretch. Just as Bichette won’t be thrilled with his 2022 results when all is said and done, which hasn’t stopped him from seizing the wheel this month and forcing his way back up to the top of Toronto’s lineup.
“I'm just trying to compete every day and give my best,” Bichette said. “I think today was probably the most competitive we've been all year. That's a good thing at this time of year, especially in this series. So, we've got two more and then obviously the rest of the month. And we'll just continue to come here and put our best foot forward and see what we can accomplish.”