As Blue Jays arrive at midway point, they’re undeniably contenders

Sportsnet's Jeff Blair and Jamie Campbell discuss the Toronto Blue Jays' comeback win and how the team should deal with the injury to pitcher Jordan Romano.

TORONTO – In the top of the tenth inning Friday, a blooper off the bat of Hanser Alberto sailed just beyond the reach of Cavan Biggio. It landed in shallow right field for a single, scoring Rio Ruiz and threatening to undermine a night that had been looking so promising for the Toronto Blue Jays.

But with the Blue Jays down to their last out on Jackie Robinson Day, Randal Grichuk hit a two-run, walk-off home run at Sahlen Field to give Toronto a 5-4 win. With one swing, a near-certain loss turned into a dramatic win.

Now, the Blue Jays arrive at the midway point of this shortened season with a 16-14 record and extend their lead over the Orioles for the final American League playoff spot to 2.5 games. At this point, the slumping Yankees are now just 0.5 games ahead of the Blue Jays. While a finger injury to Jordan Romano certainly dampens the excitement of the win, it’s becoming more apparent that the Blue Jays have reason to see themselves as contenders.

“Absolutely,” Biggio said Friday afternoon.

“We’re excited,” Grichuk added after the game. “We fully expect to be in the playoffs. We’re confident in who we are and what kind of talent we have … we’re looking forward to it. Winning baseball is fun.”

In the fourth inning, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. started the Blue Jays off with the first opposite-field home run of his career (he’d later ask for the ball as a souvenir). On the very next pitch, Hernandez added a homer of his own, sending a John Means fastball 430 feet over the centre field wall. Among all big-league hitters, only Fernando Tatis Jr. has more home runs than Hernandez.

Thanks to another strong start from Hyun-jin Ryu, the Blue Jays didn’t need much offence. The left-hander limited the Orioles to two runs over six innings while striking out seven and throwing a season-high 98 pitches.

“Things have been progressing nicely for me,” Ryu said in typically understated fashion.

Seven starts into his four-year tenure with his new team, Ryu has been as effective as advertised. By changing speeds, throwing strikes and limiting the running game, he has a 3.16 ERA with 40 strikeouts through 37 innings.

As manager Charlie Montoyo said, “He was outstanding.”

That production’s valuable at any time, and especially since the Blue Jays’ bullpen has been used so much of late. Along those lines, the recent addition of Taijuan Walker made an immediate difference. Because they acquired Walker, the Blue Jays could return Thomas Hatch and Anthony Kay to the bullpen instead of using them as piggyback starters. With Hatch freed up to pitch leverage innings, he replaced Ryu and pitched an effective seventh inning.

But Romano, who followed Hatch in the top of the eighth inning, allowed a solo home run to Renato Nunez that tied the game. Then, the inning took a turn for the worse: Romano, who has quickly become one of the Blue Jays’ most trusted relievers, left the game abruptly after injuring his right middle finger. While the severity of the injury won’t be clear until Romano undergoes further testing, the Blue Jays would certainly miss him should he require any time on the sidelines.

Once Romano left the game, Anthony Bass and Rafael Dolis provided some solid relief – and Danny Jansen should get credit for an inning pitched as well considering he threw out three Orioles on the bases. Still, the loss of Romano hurts. If there’s any consolation, the Blue Jays are still winning their share of games even though this isn’t the first time they’ve dealt with injuries this year.

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“Nothing but confidence in the guys we have in the locker room,” Biggio said. “Guys that are hurt will be coming back. Guys like Bo (Bichette). Ken Giles is going to be coming back and it’s going to be an exciting club down the stretch.”

Of all the injured Blue Jays, it might be Giles who’s furthest along. He felt good after throwing another bullpen session Friday, which means his next step will be facing live hitters. While the Blue Jays aren’t putting a timetable on his return, it’s imaginable that he could be on the active roster again within a week. At that point, a surprisingly effective bullpen would get stronger.

Pearson (flexor strain) and Bichette (knee) might be further away, but both are progressing. After playing catch from 60 feet Friday, Pearson will stretch out further then resume throwing off a mound. Bichette, meanwhile, has started swinging off a tee and playing catch. Next up, he’ll take grounders whenever his knee permits.

“We’ll see how he feels,” Montoyo said.

Eventually, the return of Bichette could be a major difference-maker for this team. That’s far from imminent, though, and there are plenty of games to play in the meantime. Already, this group has proven itself to be capable of competing. When Walker debuts Saturday, they’ll have some welcome reinforcements on their side, too.

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