TORONTO — While the Toronto Blue Jays face an uphill battle to make the postseason, they took an important step on their journey to beat the odds Sunday.
By blowing out Oakland 8-0, the club secured a sweep that tied them with the A’s in the wild-card race and helped them close the gap to the Boston Red Sox by a game. The Blue Jays came into the weekend knowing that a series loss would essentially snuff out their fragile chances. They leave it in the midst of a 7-1 run — exactly the kind of stretch they need to stay alive.
Not only did the Blue Jays get the results they wanted against the Athletics, they awakened a dormant lineup to produce a 29-run weekend.
“This team can hit. There’s no question about that,” starter Robbie Ray said of his teammates’ work with the bats. “There’s starting to come around these last few games and it’s really fun to watch.”
On Friday, the offence made a miraculous eighth-inning comeback and manufactured its first double-digit run output since Aug. 11. Saturday included another superlative offensive performance and a strong José Berríos start, indicating the trade deadline acquisition is righting the ship after a late-August wobble. Sunday was the first comfortable win in some time for a team whose last 10 victories have come by an average margin of 2.1 runs, including five one-run Ws.
The series finale blowout combined a typical Ray start — 6.2 innings of one-hit, shutout ball with 10 strikeouts, and three walks — with another offensive explosion. The former has come to be expected from the Cy Young contender who won AL pitcher of the month in August and came into the game having pitched 22 innings with 35 strikeouts and just two walks in his prior three starts. Sunday’s outing was the southpaw’s eighth consecutive start of six frames or more with two or fewer runs allowed. One of the most volatile pitchers in the majors for years, Ray has been metronomic of late.
“He’s probably the best pitcher in baseball,” manager Charlie Montoyo said of his starter. “When he takes that mound everybody feels safe.”
“I feel really good,” the southpaw added. “I’ve taken each start and tried to build off it, and I feel like I’ve been able to do that.”
That consistency hasn’t been based on a singular approach either as Ray has dabbled in different plans of attack depending on what’s working.
“My slider has been the pitch for me the last few games and today I was able to use the fastball a little bit more,” Ray said after throwing 70 per cent heaters against the A’s. “In those situations where maybe they’re not biting on the slider I’m able to change the game plan a little bit and it still works out because the fastball command is there.”
More surprising than Ray’s brilliance was the continued dominance of the offence as the 13-hit, eight-run afternoon driven by Marcus Semien and Alejandro Kirk’s home runs put an exclamation point on the week. Considering the talent in the Blue Jays lineup this type of outburst shouldn’t come as a shock, but the club simply hasn’t been able to score consistently in recent weeks. Their last seven-game homestand, for instance, yielded just 21 runs.
After looking lost for much of August, the prognosis for the Blue Jays’ lineup is better than it’s been in weeks.
George Springer is back. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is in the midst of a 13-game hit streak and seems to be recapturing his early-season form. Bo Bichette is on a 10-gamer of his own, bolstered by a four-hit effort on Sunday. Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who drove in 10 runs against the A’s over the weekend, including his dramatic game-tying grand slam, came into the series finale hitting an impressive .298/.348/.508 since June 1.
Even Randal Grichuk, who’s been as cold as humanly possible in recent months, got his first extra-base hit in 11 games on Sunday — and set the tone in the first inning with an outstanding catch.
You could go down the list and there’d be something positive to say about what virtually every position player on the Blue Jays did against Oakland. While it’s easy to overestimate the power of momentum, this group seems like it’s out of its funk.
That’s particularly promising for the Blue Jays considering their starting pitching has been nothing short of elite since the All-Star break as only the Milwaukee Brewers can boast a better WAR total from their rotation. The bullpen has been another story — particularly after a rough weekend for Jordan Romano that included two ninth-inning home runs — but Sunday’s win presented a template of what Toronto can be at its best.
“We haven’t really had everything clicking at the same time many times,” Montoyo said. “For this series it was, and it was great to see.”
The combination of consistently strong starting pitching and a potent offence is a reliable recipe for success, even if it has let down the Blue Jays at times in 2021. It’s not exactly rocket science, as Bichette pointed out after the game.
“The rotation’s been amazing,” he said. “When we hit like this, and they don’t give up runs, it leads to a lot of wins.”
For all the positives to be drawn from this series, the road to October baseball remains extremely perilous, requiring a stellar September — and probably a stumble from the New York Yankees or Red Sox. It’s a possibility, but not something it would be reasonable to project.
If the weekend had gone another way, though, that faint hope might’ve been extinguished entirely. Instead, the Blue Jays get to play "meaningful September baseball" for a little longer and see where the chips fall.