TORONTO – There will be times this summer that the Toronto Blue Jays’ lineup makes up for underwhelming performances elsewhere on the roster. In Vladimir Guerrero Jr., they’ve got the best hitter in the game right now. With George Springer back, this lineup is as deep as any in baseball.
What’s less obvious is how often a vulnerable pitching staff can steal some wins of its own, yet that’s exactly what’s happened in each of Springer’s first two games back from the injured list.
On Tuesday, the Blue Jays beat Miami 2-1. Then with Robbie Ray on the mound Wednesday, the Blue Jays won 3-1 to sweep the Marlins, improved to 37-35 on the season and – for a couple of eerily calm nights, at least – moved past the bullpen issues that have troubled them so much of late.
“It’s great. We can come in and shut it down when the hitters are having a little bit of trouble,” Ray said afterwards. “We grinded out our at-bats, we got the runs we needed and it was great for the pitchers to shut it down – especially the bullpen.”
The win extends the Blue Jays’ winning streak to four, their longest of the season, as they face a rare soft spot in an otherwise difficult schedule. With a weekend series against the Orioles on the schedule next, there’s even more opportunity for the Blue Jays to prove they’re deserving of meaningful reinforcements at the trade deadline.
For now, the contributions of Ray and relievers Tim Mayza, Tyler Chatwood and Jordan Romano were more than enough despite a quiet night from the Blue Jays’ lineup. For manager Charlie Montoyo, no nights are completely stress-free, but some are certainly more comfortable than others.
"The key is that starter going deep," Montoyo said. "We used the same three guys and they're locked in. They're pitching really good and with the game on the line, the three guys did a great job again."
Pitching with his distinctive max-effort style, Ray gave the Blue Jays six innings while allowing just one run and striking out six. The lone blemish came on a Starling Marte solo home run giving Ray 18 homers allowed on the season – the most in the American League.
Still, homers are less costly when you're walking fewer hitters and Ray's season-long trend of throwing more strikes continued on Wednesday. Marlins shortstop Miguel Rojas truly earned the lone walk Ray issued with an 11-pitch base on balls, but otherwise the Marlins managed just three singles against Ray, whose fastball topped out at 96.5 m.p.h.
On the season, the left-hander now has a 3.35 ERA while also ranking in the top 20 in the American League in innings pitched.
“He’s been like another ace,” Montoyo said. “When he takes the mound, we have a really good chance to win.”
From there, the Blue Jays handed the game over to the bullpen and for the second consecutive night the results were excellent. In three innings of relief, the trio of Mayza, Chatwood and Romano allowed just one total hit though all three had pitched the night before.
Of course, no two-game stretch will fundamentally shift the way the front office assesses its needs, so none of what occurred over the last two days eliminates this team’s need for pitching help. Three relievers aren’t nearly enough, after all, but at least these two wins are now in the bank.
Playing centre field for the second night in a row, Springer went hitless in three at-bats with a walk and a groundout RBI. In centre field, it was another relatively quiet night for the 31-year-old, but he did track down a Sandy Leon line drive with apparent ease to end the seventh inning.
By the lofty standards to which he’s now held, Guerrero Jr. had a quiet night at the plate with a walk and a single, but before the game he announced a decision that offers insight into the way he’s approaching the season. After discussing the matter with a few people, including his Hall of Fame father, Guerrero Jr. decided against participating in this year’s Home Run Derby.
“Part of me of course wanted to say yes, but the other part was more about me mentally and physically,” Guerrero Jr. said through translator Hector Lebron. “At the end of the day, I decided not to participate in the derby just to take care of myself physically and mentally and be ready for the second half.”
After playing in each of the Blue Jays’ first 72 games, Guerrero Jr. still feels strong physically so the decision is largely precautionary. Just as he did last year, he hopes to contribute in every game the Blue Jays play. In fact, when Montoyo asks Guerrero Jr. what day he’d like off, the 22-year-old will point to the blank days on the calendar when no games are scheduled.
“What I love about the kid is that he’s thinking about winning here and he wants to play every game,” Montoyo said. “I just love that about him.”
Safe to say any manager would enjoy pencilling a player that talented into the lineup 162 times per season. Just as every manager starts to look smarter once the bullpen can hold a lead.