Blue Jays, Gausman prevail in intense matchup against Orioles to start doubleheader

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Kevin Gausman, left, is restrained by shortstop Bo Bichette, center, and second baseman Cavan Biggio after Gausman was called for a balk by second base umpire Jeff Nelson during the fourth inning of the first game of a baseball doubleheader against the Baltimore Orioles. (Julio Cortez/AP)

BALTIMORE — September baseball just hits a little different, doesn’t it? The Toronto Blue Jays three-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates on the weekend was technically September baseball, too. But it wasn’t September baseball like the club played against the Baltimore Orioles Monday afternoon. 

That version of September baseball was the first of what could be 10 intense, meaningful games between these two clubs over the next 30 days as they jockey for American League wild card position — a significant matchup on paper that delivered once pitches started flying.

Gutsy pitching performances; loud home runs; a controversial call; snuffed-out rallies; late-inning charges; big celebrations; a loud, engaged crowd that ran about 80 per cent orange and 20 per cent blue; and a 7-3 Blue Jays win in the first half of a scheduled traditional doubleheader.

Whether rain forecast in the area sabotages Monday’s second game remains to be seen. But the Blue Jays will be hoping it doesn’t so they can carry over the positive momentum of not only the win, but the three-run ninth-inning rally that helped propel it.

The Blue Jays plated those runs off top Orioles prospect DL Hall – called up days ago to aid in the club’s playoff push — which quickly turned the box score into one that doesn’t reflect the tightly-contested, one-run game the clubs were playing when the inning started. It was a stress-releasing offensive outburst more than three hours after Kevin Gausman laid it all on the line for the Blue Jays in his latest stirring and strong start.

Gausman pitched into the seventh, allowing a pair of runs on seven hits while striking out six. He surrendered one of those runs early, leaving a two-out, full-count splitter up to Anthony Santander, who took it 414-feet onto Eutaw Street for only the 10th homer hit off the right-hander all year. But Gausman was back in the dugout four pitches later, as he began a run of retiring seven straight Orioles hitters to get into the fourth.

“From the first play of the game you could tell that the whole stadium was pretty fired up for this game,” Gausman said. “And after the Santander home run, geez, they were locked in and ready to go. And so, I thought we did a good job of limiting the damage after that. And they had guys on base. I definitely had to pitch out of jams. But we made it work.”

And it wasn’t only the opposition and its fans that Gausman was up against. Adley Rutschman led off the fourth with a flare to right that fell just out of Teoscar Hernandez’s reach. On Gausman’s very next pitch, second base umpire Jeff Nelson called him for a balk, awarding Rutschman second base.

You’re likely familiar with the pre-pitch bounce in Guasman’s set-up. Evidently, Nelson was, too. The pitch was Gausman’s first with a runner on base all afternoon and didn’t look any different than the 2,600+ pitches he’s thrown this season. Gausman had been called for a balk only once this year prior to Monday, and only three times in his decade-long career. But Nelson felt this was his fourth:

If that doesn’t look unusual to you, well, that’s because it isn’t. That’s how Gausman always comes set. Here’s a side-by-side of Gausman’s balk (left) and the very next pitch he threw with Rutschman standing on second (right):

And here it is slowed down — again, called balk on the left, very next pitch on the right:

“First chance a guy gets on first, you're going to call something like that,” Gausman said. “I just felt like Jeff, for whatever reason, wanted to make that call and went into the game knowing that he was going to make that call. And that's unfortunate.”

As he said, Gausman’s heard it all before. Often, opposition third base coaches will get in the third base umpire’s ear during Gausman’s outings about whether he’s coming to a stop or not. That typically leads to an umpire raising it with Gausman while checking his hands for foreign substances after an inning. And that’s been where things have ended in the past.

But Gausman said Nelson — the second base umpire — never gave him a warning Monday. And that when his first baserunner of the game reached, he made a mental note of ensuring he came set in his delivery. Having watched the replay back, Gausman’s adamant he didn’t do anything differently than he normally does. 

“Before I even threw the pitch, I heard [Nelson] calling balk. So, that made me pretty mad,” Gausman said. “I just felt like it was premeditated. They knew they were going to do it, they wanted to make an example of me.”

To suggest Gausman was incensed by the call would be an understatement. Perhaps the only thing that kept him from getting ejected was Bo Bichette sprinting over to intercept Gausman as he marched in Nelson’s direction.

“I was pretty heated,” Gausman said. “And Bo kind of saved me. He did a good job of just reminding me, ‘Hey, we got two games today.’ And I really needed to stay in the game.”

It eventually took both Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to keep Gausman back while Blue Jays manager John Schneider took up the argument on his behalf. Moments later, the dust still settling, Gausman was looking at the heart of Baltimore’s order with none out and a runner on second.

Of course he struck out the side. Of course, of course, of course he did. He caught Santander — in his very next plate appearance after taking Gausman deep — looking at a low fastball Alejandro Kirk vacuumed up into the zone. He got Ryan Mountcastle on four pitches, three heaters setting up a splitter that torpedoed under the first baseman’s bat. And he got Ramon Urias with only three, earning a pair of called strikes before sitting down the third baseman with another splitter diving towards the dirt. Walking off the mound, Gausman stared coldly in Nelson’s direction as he paced for his dugout.

“I was pissed. I was not happy. I wanted to get out of that inning and I definitely gave him a look after,” Gausman said. “It's unfortunate that it put me in a spot where I was 0-0 with the guy on second all of a sudden after a bloop hit.  But made some good pitches to get out of it.”

And Gausman carried that intensity into the fifth when he again had to pitch himself out of a jam, getting a pair of outs in the air and one on the ground to strand a pair of singles that led off the inning. Gausman couldn’t MacGyver his way out of another bind in the sixth, as Ryan Mountcastle drove in Rutschman’s leadoff, soft-contact — 72.7-m.p.h. exit velocity — groundball single. But he got two outs with his next five pitches, extinguishing any hope of an Orioles rally.

In the end, Gausman completed three trips through Baltimore’s order, allowing only seven of the 27 batters he faced to reach base. He didn’t walk a batter for the ninth time in 26 starts this season, lowering his ERA to 3.12 and raising his FIP to 2.18 in the process. He sat with his fastball, touching 98 twice during his fourth-inning strikeout of Santander immediately following the balk call. It was a performance that matched the intensity of the afternoon.

“I just have another level that I can go to. I just tell myself, 'Hey, we got to get nasty right here.' That’s where I go,” Gausman said of how he raises his game in big moments. “I'm either going to walk you or strike you out. That's my mentality. And I feel like I throw enough strikes to where I'm not going to walk many guys. So, I'm just going to pitch to my strengths in those spots.”

Meanwhile, the Blue Jays were seeing Orioles starter Mike Baumann well in the right-hander’s first career start, putting nine balls in play at 98-m.p.h. or harder over his five innings. But they couldn’t sequence that hard contact into many runs, tagging Baumann for only three on a day he was gettable for many more.

Alejandro Kirk grounded out with a runner on in the first; Santiago Espinal bounced into an inning-ending double play with two on in the second; and it took a Gunnar Henderson bobble at second base to prevent Kirk from ending another inning with a double play in the third. 

Henderson’s botched transfer allowed a run to score, Toronto’s second after Cavan Biggio drove in Matt Chapman an inning prior. One more came in the fifth as Henderson booted another potential double play grounder off Bichette’s bat, settling for only one out at first rather than trying to turn two. Remove those two Henderson clangers and it’s an extremely different ballgame.

And yet, that’s not how baseball works. So, the Blue Jays carried a one-run lead into the eighth, when Teoscar Hernandez took Bryan Baker deep to dead centre for his 20th homer of the season. And although the Orioles responded with a solo shot of their own an inning later, as Santander capped an eight-pitch battle with Tim Mayza by wrapping a full-count sinker around the left field foul pole, the lead stood at one as the ninth inning began.

That’s when Lourdes Gurriel Jr. led off with a single against Hall, Espinal worked an 11-pitch walk, and George Springer and Guerrero followed with singles of their own to plate the aforementioned two. Bichette then laced another base hit into right — his third of the game — helping extend Toronto’s lead further. 

In the end, the Blue Jays had 14 hits — Bichette, Springer, and Gurriel coming up with three apiece. Every batter in the starting lineup reached base at least once. They laid down a marker as to the kind of damage they intend on doing in this four-game series, and over the nine games between these teams that follow in the next 30 days. 

But through eight innings, it was an intense, tightly-contested, meaningful game. The kind of game these two teams will likely play a bunch of this September.

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