TORONTO – David Phelps walked into a bumping Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse Saturday morning, saw a DJ spinning beats in the middle of the room, laughed and turned to Ross Stripling.
“This you?” the reliever asked the starter.
“No, not me,” grinned Stripling.
Interim manager John Schneider was actually the culprit, inviting DJ Ray, a Blue Jays fan a few staffers had gotten to know, to come in and “break up the day after a night game,” said Schneider.
It was pre-planned, a heads-up went to some players in advance and the playlist was open to requests.
“It's a fun way to come into the clubhouse. It's unexpected,” said Phelps. “Day games can be a grind and it's trying to get the energy up. You walk in and there's a DJ going and you're like, 'Oh, geez.’”
Vibes matter, and while such events won’t be part of Schneider’s approach on the regular – this wasn’t a gateway to some of Joe Maddon’s zanier clubhouse stunts – it is demonstrative of the atmosphere he’s seeking to maintain.
“That was a first,” said Stripling, who allowed two runs over 4.1 innings of work in the 5-3 victory over the Detroit Tigers that followed. "That guy worked hard for a long time. I mean, he was there from like 11 to when we took the field just jamming. There's one point where I was the only one in the locker room and he was just over there, having a good time. It's cool. Brought some energy for sure. Everything he played was upbeat, so it was fun. … It'll be interesting to see if we bring it back or not. We got a win. So he’s 1-0.”
Even more significant on the vibes front is that following losses Wednesday against St. Louis and Friday against the Tigers, the Blue Jays played music in the clubhouse post-game, albeit at a much lower volume and minus the body-moving beats.
That’s a far more notable change and one in stark contrast to the oppressively tense silence that followed losses during the 1-9 stretch that led to Charlie Montoyo’s firing.
The Blue Jays are playing far better now, with Saturday’s win their 11th victory in the past 14 outings. Phelps said Matt Chapman put on the music following the 6-1 setback to the Cardinals “and I was like, yeah.”
“I don't ever have a problem with music post-game, win/loss. I'm all for like taking a little bit of time after the game to decompress and take stock of what that game was. But it helps make it not be bigger than what it is,” explained Phelps. “Over the course of 162, you're going to lose games. If we can, even after like losses like that, keep the good energy going in a positive direction, it helps us not snowball into something bigger.”
The Blue Jays did that Saturday before a crowd of 42,933, even if it wasn’t the prettiest of afternoons.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. helped get them going in the first by stealing second after a base hit and then scoring on a Lourdes Gurriel Jr. base hit to open the scoring. But Gurriel was thrown at second as Bo Bichette struck out to end the first, the Tigers eked out a pair in a weird fifth set up by a Jonathan Schoop hit by pitch confirmed by replay after it initially led to a double play and extended their lead to 3-1 on a Schoop RBI single in the sixth.
"I was surprised," Stripling said of the Schoop play being ruled a hit-by-pitch instead of a fair ball off the knob. “On the Jumbotron, they just showed that one (angle) that was impossible to tell and then it was overturned pretty quickly, so I feel like there must have been something that they saw that was obvious it was a finger. I've since seen a couple of replays. Maybe I missed the one that they were looking at, because to me it looked like knob all the way. It sounded like knob. I mean, it came all the way back to me, right? It's not like it just died in the box, so it hit something hard. Good luck turns into not so good luck there.”
Said Schneider: “If it came off his hand that hard back to the pitcher, he's got a really strong pinkie.”
Some karmic payback, perhaps, came in the bottom of the sixth when Derek Law, part of the 2019 teardown season in Toronto, unravelled. He gifted the Blue Jays a big inning set up by a scary Guerrero hit by pitch on the left wrist – “We’re dodging bullets left and right,” said Schneider – and an error on a Gurriel comebacker.
Bo Bichette’s sacrifice fly cut Detroit’s lead to 3-2 before Teoscar Hernandez ended an 0-for-13 drought with a three-run homer that provided the difference.
The short leash on Stripling nearly backfired as Adam Cimber came on in the fifth with two on, one out and the game 1-1 and allowed a Riley Greene RBI double. The damage might have been worse but Cimber’s errant pickoff attempt at third base took a lucky carom right back to Chapman, who threw out Schoop at home to help limit the damage.
Yimi Garcia delivered 1.2 key innings of tour-de-force relief before Jordan Romano closed out the ninth for his 23rd save, recording the final out on a Javy Baez 105.5 m.p.h. drive caught by Gurriel against the left-field wall. Kody Clemens also led off the inning with a 100.8 m.p.h. out to the track in centre.
The Blue Jays’ focus appears to be on the bullpen ahead of the Aug. 2 trade deadline as the market begins to narrow, and the sense on the Tigers’ side of the field is that one or two of their relievers could end up crossing the diamond. That doesn’t mean that they will, but Joe Jimenez, Gregory Soto and Michael Fulmer offer up the power/swing-and-miss the Blue Jays badly need for games like this one.
This time, during an afternoon when they were more opportunistic than at their best, all the pieces fell into place, helping to maintain the good vibes and keeping the music loud post-game once again.
“The loss to St. Louis after the run we were on feels different. Guys are still loose. We're not beating ourselves up after,” said Phelps. “That just speaks to knowing this season is a grind. We know that we're going to go through some really bad stretches when you're in the middle of playing good baseball. You don't want to overstate a loss. We're going to lose games. At the same time, if we can just keep our mindset on let's win series, let's keep the vibe that we have going right now, that's the biggest thing, not letting one loss carry over into more.”
They didn’t Saturday and are now in a position to win another series Sunday.