TORONTO – Even now that the Toronto Blue Jays are finally putting up runs, seat belts are still required for their leverage-filled late-game rides.
The latest outburst by their resurgent offence – six runs in 4.2 innings against all-star Lucas Giolito, keyed by a pair of two-run homers from Alejandro Kirk and two laser-beam doubles from Teoscar Hernandez – positioned them for what looked like a comfortable finish.
Instead, they needed a brilliant throw by Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who caught a Yasmani Grandal fly ball in deep left and then threw out Danny Mendick trying to tag at second before Reese McGuire crossed the plate for an inning-ending double play in the sixth, to preserve a fourth-straight one-run win, 6-5 over the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday.
Amid the big blows, details made the difference.
“One hundred per cent,” said Cavan Biggio, who took Gurriel’s throw and put down a strong tag on the play. “This whole game, I felt like it was a momentum swing back and forth. Before they started scoring runs, we had the momentum and then they started to come back, momentum had gone their way and then to finish off an inning like that, you could feel that it was starting to come back our way.
“Then you look at the score at the end of the game, we won by one run, it’s crazy how some of these baseball games pan out on little things like that.”
Gurriel’s throw and Biggio’s tag ensured what had been a 6-3 lead didn’t slip away entirely after Trevor Richards allowed the first four batters he faced, including McGuire who hit an RBI double, to reach. Adam Cimber came on to clean up the mess and allowed a run-scoring fielder’s choice to Mendick before inducing the Grandal flyball.
It’s the second timing play twin-kill the Blue Jays have enjoyed in the past five outings. In the sixth inning of Friday’s 6-3 win over the Los Angeles Angels, Biggio picked a Jared Walsh smash at first, touched the bag for the out and then threw to second to get Max Stassi before Matt Duffy scored from third, protecting a 5-2 lead.
“That should not happen in the big-leagues – and twice in short order,” said Biggio. “I feel like a ball that deep should be a sac fly regardless. The whole stadium knew it was going to be a run. The guy at first tried to take the extra base and for us to get him out there, a guy who runs pretty well, it was going to take the perfect throw and the perfect tag.
“In the back of my mind, I figured (McGuire) would have been safe at home but obviously not and it worked out in our favour.”
The play helped contain the damage in the inning, which extended beyond the runs allowed.
Using both Richards and Cimber in the same inning, meant Yimi Garcia had to face the heart of the order in the seventh and Julian Merryweather was forced into leverage in the eighth with David Phelps unavailable after pitching in three of the four games in Anaheim.
Merryweather allowed a pair of two-out hits but got a terrific play from Bo Bichette on a Grandal grounder against the shift, with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., making a nice scoop on the relay to first to finish the play.
Jordan Romano then came on in the ninth for a heavy-lifting save, working around hits by Andrew Vaughn and Jose Abreu thanks to a 5-4 double play started by third baseman Matt Chapman on a Jake Burger grounder to earn a 16th save before a crowd of 25,424 at Rogers Centre.
A sixth consecutive win and 10th in 13 outings pushed the Blue Jays to 28-20, helping them salvage a May they started with a 3-8 skid. They’ve scored 41 runs during the current win streak, more than they had in the previous 14 games combined.
“We're just playing loose, you know? Maybe we were getting a little just tight early on,” said Kevin Gausman, who kept the game in check despite struggling with grip on a sweaty night. “We played a lot of really good teams the first month and a half. We're still playing good teams, but they've seen the breaking balls, they've seen everything now. It just seems like their at-bats are just a lot more quality, getting deeper into the pitch count and really making them make a mistake because they're just so resilient.”
The latest high-wire act for the Blue Jays’ leverage relievers came after Gausman grinded through five innings of three-run ball. He was pestered mainly by Vaughn who homered in the first, doubled in the second to cap an 11-pitch at-bat and singled home a run in the third that gave the White Sox a 3-2 lead.
Still, Gausman managed to limit damage when needed, getting the every dangerous Abreu on a fly ball to deep centre after the third-inning duel with Vaughn.
“Man, I think we went through every pitch in every quadrant that we could have possibly thrown and the guy fouled off every one of them,” Gausman said of the encounter. “At that point, you've just got to keep battling and someone's going to win the battle. He won that battle and from my standpoint, as a pitcher, I always think after that a guy is going to be really aggressive because they're going to think that the pitcher is tired. When (Danny Jansen) called a fastball in to Abreu right there, I was right on board with it and he swung first pitch. Those are the little things that as you get older in the game, you kind of recognize moments like that. That was definitely a key moment.”
Kirk’s first two-run homer, immediately after Hernandez struck a double at 108.9 m.p.h., the third hardest ball he’s put in play this season, came in the second and opened a 2-1 lead.
His second came in the fifth, after Hernandez’s two-run double put the Blue Jays up 6-3. Kirk has hits in his last six games and batted .347 (25-for-72) in May with three homers, seven doubles and 11 RBIs in 23 games. That stretch helped extend the lineup and was then fuelled as others warmed around him.
“I'm trying to be more selective, looking for the pitch that I want, trying not to chase and it's getting the results that I'm looking for by doing that,” Kirk said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “Of course that helps, having all the guys around me getting better at-bats. At the same time, I feel like my plan is getting better every game. That’s why you see the results that I have right now.”
Just as crucial are plays like the ones by Gurriel, Bichette and Chapman that get lost in the boxscore but ensure that the bigger swings don’t go to waste.