Blue Jays' fortune finally turns in much-needed win vs. Yankees

Steven Matz goes 6 2/3 innings, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit his league leading 16 home run of the season as the Toronto Blue Jays defeated the New York Yankees 6-2.

Lately, if there’s demoralizing fashion in which to lose a baseball game, the Toronto Blue Jays have found their way to it. It’s just been one of those stretches. Slumps at inopportune times. Late leads botched. The long-simmering consequences of overworking a bullpen bubbling to the surface. Bounces not going their way. Luck on the other side. All that and more conspiring to make it seem like the sky’s falling above them.

There was a first-inning Ross Stripling meltdown in an uncompetitive loss a week ago to the Red Sox, followed by a ninth-inning Rafael Dolis meltdown the next day, evaporating a late lead as Boston took two out of three.

There was an extra-innings loss to the Tampa Bay Rays 24 hours later, featuring the Blue Jays blowing opportunities to win the game with just a run in the 10th and 11th while wasting a gutsy bullpen effort in the process. Then another blown lead, and another strong pitching performance wasted (Robbie Ray’s seven innings of one-run ball) in a narrow defeat the next day.

Sunday, the bullpen fumbled on the one-yard line, as Tyler Chatwood sat fuming in the dugout watching Travis Bergen walk in three of his baserunners with two out in the ninth. Then Monday, after an inspired offence overcame deficits early and late of five and two runs, after Stripling returned to throw seven shutout frames his team desperately needed, that exhausted bullpen coughed and sputtered and allowed a converted touchdown in the 11th.

Make that a four-game sweep, a sixth consecutive loss, and what had to be an awfully quiet flight to New York for this week’s series with the Yankees. All thing’s considered, this was a club overdue for a turn or two of good fortune. And some of that baseball luck finally arrived Tuesday in the Bronx, as the Blue Jays won for the first time in a week, 6-2 over the Yankees.

“I wasn't panicking about it because we were playing good baseball. When you don't play good baseball, you go, ‘Oh, what can we do to get better?’ But we were playing good baseball the whole time,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. “And today everything went our way. And, of course, it starts on the mound.”

It does, with Toronto starter Steven Matz, who was playing on easy mode, running up 16 whiffs while striking out 10 and holding the Yankees to one run on six hits over 6.2 innings. With his bullpen in the battered state it is, Montoyo rode Matz as far as he could, pushing the left-hander to 112 pitches — the most he’s thrown in an outing since June 2019, and the fourth-most of any outing in his seven-season career.

"He was on. He was throwing all his pitches for strikes. He was strong. So, it was easy for me to send him back with 90-something pitches," Montoyo said. "He was dealing against a good lineup. So, when we scored five, it was a lot easier to get him to 112. He was really good."

Matz has long had strong stuff, carrying two above-average MLB pitches in his sharp sinker and fading changeup. But Tuesday he had even more. He was throwing his sinker a half-mile-per-hour harder than he typically does, sitting at 95.3 m.p.h. while running up seven swinging strikes with his set-up pitch. And while his changeup was there as usual — if a little elevated at times — it was a tight, 90-m.p.h. slider that Matz went to most often off his fastball, driving it in on the hands of New York’s many right-handed hitters. Matz was throwing it so hard it often looked more like a cutter.

“In the bullpen before the game, it was actually a little big. It was a little too big. And that was something that me and [Blue Jays pitching coach] Pete [Walker] were talking about,” Matz said of his slider. “I was really trying to stay behind it more than trying to get around it. And so, I think that was just a gradual thing. But Pete kind of cued that up for me in the bullpen before the game.”

And Matz’s outing could have been even better had he not been on the wrong end of two borderline ball-strike rulings in 1-2 and 2-2 counts to Clint Frazier with two out in the seventh. That forced Matz to leave a fastball on the plate and watch Frazier hammer it to left-centre for a double. Then it was a slider up to Kyle Higashioka, which the Yankees catcher ripped down the left field line to cash Frazier and end Matz’s night.

Fortunately, the Blue Jays were working with some margin for error thanks to a five-spot the offence put up through seven innings despite stranding three walks through the first two. It started when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. went deep off Yankees starter Corey Kluber in the third — his MLB-leading 16th was a 114.7-m.p.h. missile over the opposite-field fence — which, well, what else is new? It’s amazing Guerrero’s still getting pitched to.

MLB’s WAR leader is on the kind of world-destroying tear Toronto fans of a recent vintage regularly witnessed from Edwin Encarnacion. He’s taking the kind of disciplined, selective, punish-anything-out-over-the-plate trips Jose Bautista built one of the greatest Blue Jays careers ever out of. He’s racking up counting statistics — Guerrero ranks top three in the American League within each triple crown category — with the sort of game-in, game-out production fans from deeper in the cellar will remember from Carlos Delgado.

“What he's accomplishing right now, and what he's going to accomplish for the rest of the season, it's amazing. It's amazing,” said Lourdes Gurriel Jr. “I would say his confidence right now is so high that we in the dugout, every time that he goes to hit, we think that he's going to hit a homer. That's what he's showing right now. A lot of confidence.”

But he needs help. The bottom of Toronto’s lineup has been a barren expanse over this losing skid, as injuries to George Springer, Cavan Biggio, and Alejandro Kirk have forced bench players into everyday roles. The one exception is Gurriel, who’s been riding the BABIP express all the way out of his deep early-season funk and came up with two more hits Tuesday, his seventh multi-hit effort in his last nine games.

“I'm just concentrating on every at-bat, on every swing. Just trying to get some good contact. It's been paying off, the work I've been putting in. Coming here early to the field, working very hard. I feel good right now,” Gurriel said. “I know I went through a slump at the beginning of the season. But things happen. What I'm showing right now, that's me. That’s the type of hitter that I am.”

Gurriel’s night included a fourth-inning homer off Yankees reliever Michael King (Kluber left the game after three innings due to right shoulder tightness) and a seventh-inning single to load the bases with one out for Santiago Espinal.

A glove-first utility infielder with a .600 career OPS, Espinal is exactly the kind of part-time player currently being over-exposed at the bottom of Montoyo’s lineup cards. And the 0-2 count he quickly found himself in, followed by the soft groundball he sent to short, demonstrated why.

But the Yankees made a mess of it, as Gleyber Torres’ throw home skipped past Higashioka, allowing a pair of runs to score on the kind of lucky break play the Blue Jays couldn’t buy for the last week. The kind, for that matter, they couldn’t buy while stranding nine baserunners over the first six innings of Tuesday’s game.

“It’s seemed like for the last six games, we've been in every game. But we haven't gotten the lucky break that other teams get,” Montoyo said. “And it was great that we got that lucky break today. That helped us win the game. I'm really happy that happened.”

But it can never be easy. In the seventh, Matz handed the ball to Chatwood, a reliable weapon for the Blue Jays in high leverage over the season’s first six weeks whose stuff has been far less effective and well-located in recent outings (Tuesday was the fourth time in his last five appearances that Chatwood didn’t record a swinging strike, a span in which he has five walks against three strikeouts).

And thus, Chatwood walked the first batter he faced on five pitches. But a nice cutter to Luke Voit produced the groundball he needed, stranding two. Back out for the eighth, the first pitch Chatwood threw was a loud out to the warning track by Gleyber Torres, and the next four were nowhere near the zone, as Aaron Judge took his free pass. But again, Chatwood got the groundball he needed — this time on a pitch right over the heart of the plate, it must be said — as Gio Urshela grounded into an inning-ending double play.

“That's going to happen, because it’s such a long season,” Montoyo said of Chatwood’s recent shakiness. “Relievers are not going to be lights out every time. He's probably going through that right now. He's walking people. But he'll get it back. And he still did the job. He hasn't been as good the last couple outings. But it's such a long season that every reliever's not going to be good every time. So, he'll be fine.”

It’s definitely a long season, a fact never more important to remember than during a particularly tough-to-watch six-game losing streak in late May. No one can fault you for covering your eyes. It’s felt bad, what’s been happening to the Blue Jays of late. It’s felt like the sky’s falling.

But recency bias is a hell of a drug. And when you zoom out the lens to find a team hanging around a game over .500 in late May with baseball’s eighth-best run differential, having played one of MLB’s toughest schedules, having spent the second-most time on the road of any AL club, having suffered 14 of its 23 losses by two runs or fewer, and having 32 games still to play against the 17-30 Baltimore Orioles, the 18-29 Detroit Tigers, and the 18-29 Minnesota Twins, it doesn’t look as bad as it may feel.

It’s certainly been a tough stretch. But every team goes through it — the good ones, too. It was only a month ago that these very Yankees were in a tailspin, their contender status being openly questioned after a mediocre 9-13 start to the year. They began last week only three games over .500 — looking up at the Blue Jays in the standings — before rattling off six wins in a row.

The Los Angeles Dodgers lost 15 of the 20 games they played between April 18 and May 9, falling to third in the NL West. But they’ve lost only once since and surged back towards the top of the table. The Houston Astros, holders of MLB’s fourth-best run differential and currently four games over .500, lost 9 of 10 at one point.

That’s a baseball season. You ride the highs, manage the lows, and try to come out the other side having done more of the former than the latter. And if you can find your way into a little good luck along the way, that always helps, too.

“I think everybody has a lot of confidence in this team in this clubhouse. We've got a lot of veteran guys who have been through a long season,” Matz said. “They know that throughout the season you're going to go through ups and downs. So, I think those types of personalities in the clubhouse definitely help. We've been playing really good baseball — just losing a couple close games here and there. So, nobody was panicking.”

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