TORONTO – The slider from Joel Payamps hung over the centre of the plate, right where Salvador Perez wanted it. Seconds later, it had landed beyond the centre field wall at Kauffman Stadium and the Blue Jays’ chances at a double-header sweep had disappeared.
With that walk-off home run from the Royals’ veteran catcher, a promising afternoon gave way to a missed opportunity in the evening, as the Blue Jays lost by a score of 3-2 to split their double-header with the Royals.
To be fair, winning both ends of a double-header is never easy – especially when your starting pitcher throws with less velocity than some position players. Even so, Tommy Milone’s first start of the season started well when he held the Royals scoreless through his first two innings. The left-hander’s change-up was particularly effective early, but Kansas City rallied against him in the third, scoring twice and chasing him from the game.
From there, the Blue Jays turned to a bullpen that was barely used in Game 1 thanks to another strong start from Steven Matz. After Milone left, Anthony Castro, Ryan Borucki, Trent Thornton and Payamps kept things close before Perez’s decisive home run. Were it not for a Rowdy Tellez throwing error that contributed to Kansas City’s two-run third, the Blue Jays might even have snuck out a second win.
"We played great for 14 innings," manager Charlie Montoyo said after the second game ended. "We made one mistake that cost us in the second game, but other than that we played a great game."
At the plate, the Blue Jays didn’t manage much against Kansas City in Game 2. They got a little early offence from Alejandro Kirk, who drove home the Blue Jays’ first run of the evening with a double into left field that scored Josh Palacios.
Two innings later, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s patience got him on base and his newly-improved footspeed helped him score. After walking to reach base, he went first to third on a Tellez single and scored on a Lourdes Gurriel Jr. sacrifice fly into shallow right field. Both times, his improved conditioning appeared to make a difference.
All told, it was another big day for Guerrero Jr., who hit a solo homer in Game 1 to give him four on the year. After reaching base three times Sunday, he’s hitting .412 with a 1.230 OPS.
"I feel like every time he steps into the box he's going to absolutely smash a ball,” said Matz, whose favourite player growing up was Vladimir Guerrero Sr. “He's really talented and it's been really fun to be able to witness that."
The Blue Jays’ afternoon started well thanks to Matz, who’s making a convincing case that his 2020 struggles are behind him three starts into his Blue Jays career. After a strong opening effort against the Texas Rangers and an equally impressive start against the Los Angeles Angels, Matz allowed just one run on two hits over six innings as the Blue Jays beat the Royals 5-1.
"It's fun to get in a groove early in the season, especially when you've got a lineup like this," Matz said afterwards. "It’s been good. I'm just trying to build off each start and get better every time out."
Like any team in win-now mode, the Blue Jays will take wins any way they can get them. But to determine how sustainable these early-season results are, it's worth looking at how Matz is keeping runs off the board. On that front, the process was as encouraging as the results. His fastball velocity remains up – he topped out at 95.9 m.p.h. Saturday – and change-up was particularly effective.
"If he keeps pitching like that we've got a chance to win when he's on the mound, and that's all you can ask," manager Charlie Montoyo said afterwards. "He's been great."
Clearly, nobody expects Matz to keep his ERA at 1.47 all year. But with each passing start, he looks more like the pitcher who posted a 4.09 ERA over the course of 60 starts for the Mets from 2018-19. And that version of Matz would be a welcome addition to a Blue Jays pitching staff with few sure things in the rotation. It’s certainly more than they could have banked on when they sent Sean Reid-Foley, Yennsy Diaz and Josh Winckowski to the Mets back in January.
Defensively, the absence of Cavan Biggio prompted a different look with Santiago Espinal at third base in Game 1 and Joe Panik at the hot corner for Game 2. Biggio would later enter the game as a pinch runner and get thrown out on the bases, but he didn’t stay in the game to play defence, indicating his right hand still isn’t fully healed after getting hit with a line drive Thursday.
Also deserving of mention are two outfielders who showed signs of breaking out at the plate. In the first inning of Game 1, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. got the scoring started with a two-run double that nearly cleared the left-centre field wall. Later in the game, Jonathan Davis would add some offensive contributions of his own with a homer, single and steal his first base of the year.
"It's an amazing feeling," Davis said afterwards. "My first hit (of the season) came on a home run. That's pretty awesome. I was looking for that first one and (now) I breathe a little bit."
One more game against the Royals awaits Sunday, after which the Blue Jays will finally be able to catch their breath as a team. Starting Monday, they have four of their next 11 days off, allowing for creativity with the pitching staff and additional rest for the position players.