TORONTO — Lost amid the growing talk about Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s triple-crown bid is that one of his Toronto Blue Jays teammates may very well prevent him from accomplishing the feat.
Quietly, without the fanfare his performance this year merits, Teoscar Hernandez claimed the club lead in RBIs with a three-run homer Saturday, a high arching drive to left field that decided a 6-2 win over the Minnesota Twins.
At 106 RBIs, Hernandez sat third in the American League ahead of the evening slate of games, trailing only Salvador Perez and Jose Abreu. Guerrero, who walked and scored on the decisive fourth-inning drive, is two behind at 104, while leading the AL in both homers (46) and average (.318).
Hernandez said he wants to try and beat Guerrero for the RBI crown, “but if he has a chance to win the triple crown, I think I'm going to (ask manager) Charlie Montoyo to not play that day so he can pass me and win the triple crown. That's more important to me.”
That Hernandez was so tight on Guerrero’s tail before leapfrogging him is a byproduct of the depth of offence the Blue Jays have produced.
Guerrero, for obvious reasons, has drawn much of the attention in what’s been among the best, if not the best, offensive season in franchise history when you factor in his age and the era of pitching. Marcus Semien, whose solo shot to open the fourth gave him 40 homers on the season, has emerged as one of the club’s most important players and leaders. He’s got 95 RBIs, the same as Bo Bichette, whose two-run single in the seventh opened up a 6-2 lead.
Add in the dynamism of George Springer atop the batting order and the recent surge of Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who has knocked in 26 runs so far in September, and Hernandez’s essential steadying of the lineup from the No. 5 spot hasn’t been spotlighted the way the others have.
Regardless, he’s been a fundamental part of the overall lineup’s success, from punishing clubs who tried to pitch around Guerrero early in the season out of the cleanup spot, to cashing in the top four’s leftovers while table-setting for the bottom four the past couple of months.
"The numbers speak for themselves, but he'd be the best hitter in a lot of teams' lineup out there, so it's easy with how good this lineup is to overlook him,” said starter Steven Matz, who allowed two runs over 5.2 innings. “But he's been amazing for us and it's been fun to watch him just quietly have an amazing season again.”
Hernandez has been fairly consistent, too, as aside from an eight-game sample from April when he had COVID-19, his monthly OPS has been .959 in May, .741 in June, .853 in July, .835 in August to 1.193 in September.
There was one 13-game dry spell – when he went 6-for-50 in 13 games Aug. 20-Sept. 1 – but he’s been on a tear since, illustrating his ability to let go of “bad moments.”
"You know it’s going to happen at some point, this game is so hard,” Hernandez said. “But if you can control that and not lose your mind trying to do too much when those moments happen, that's when you get out of those bad moments, quick. That's what I'm doing right now, trying to not think about the day before if I go 0-for-4, 0-for-5. It doesn't matter. I'm always going to get an opportunity the next day.”
And to underline the balance in his performance, he’s batting .304, and of the seven hitters batting .300 or better midway through Saturday, only he, Guerrero and Baltimore’s Cedric Mullins were also slugging above .500 (Guerrero, ridiculously, is slugging .615 while batting .318).
Montoyo points to all his numbers as well as his improved defence when saying that Hernandez “is becoming a complete player.”
“He's been one of our MVPs, easily,” added Montoyo. “To pass Vladdy in RBIs – of course, I'm biased, he should be the MVP — (Hernandez) just passed the MVP, so that's pretty cool. That tells you everything about Teoscar.”
It was his thunder Saturday that leveraged the latest solid outing from Matz, who surrendered a two-run shot to Josh Donaldson in the first inning and then nothing else as the Blue Jays (83-65) moved a half-game up on the New York Yankees (83-66), 11-3 losers to Cleveland, for the second wild card. They remain a game back of the Boston Red Sox (85-65), 9-3 winners over Baltimore, for the first spot.
Matz left after a two-out walk to Donaldson and single to Miguel Sano in the sixth, with Trevor Richards retiring Brent Rooker to protect a 4-2 lead, but delivered just what the Blue Jays needed after Hyun Jin Ryu’s two-inning dud Friday.
Another short outing with Jose Berrios, who left his last outing with left abdominal tightness, due to start Sunday would have left the bullpen vulnerable. But Matz did enough to help reset the relief corps.
"I feel really good about (the curveball) coming along, the changeup is still there, fast location was decent,” said Matz. “I still want to go deeper in the game, but the bullpen has been doing an awesome job. Trevor Richards did a great job to get out of that with the tying runs on base there. That was huge. So you've got to give the bullpen credit there. They've been great.”
Twins starter Bailey Ober didn’t allow a hit his first time through the lineup but got knocked around the second, as Semien opened the fourth his solo shot before Guerrero walked, Bichette singled and Hernandez, as he so often has, delivered a big blow.
“I'm working on trying to slow the game down and trying to not think about the baserunners and focus on my at-bat and try to just to make good contact,” Hernandez said of hitting with runners in scoring position. “I know if I make good contact with men on base I'm going to do damage.”
Time and again this season, he’s done precisely that.