TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays needed to regain stable footing ahead of a crucial rematch with the New York Yankees team that bludgeoned them into a funk last week. Taijuan Walker, Jonathan Davis and Teoscar Hernandez made sure they found some footing Sunday, pushing their team into the season’s final week in position to secure a playoff spot.
They have seven games to whittle down a magic number that sits at four after a steadying 6-3 win over the Philadelphia Phillies that ended a season-high losing streak at six games, in combination with the Seattle Mariners’ 7-4 loss in 11 innings to the San Diego Padres.
Walker shoved his fastball down the Phillies’ throats for six innings to keep the game in his team’s grasp, Davis broke open a tight affair with a two-run double in the sixth inning and Hernandez added a two-run homer in the seventh that provided some vital insurance.
After being outscored 61-23 during their skid, it was a needed bit of relief before returning to Buffalo, where Matt Shoemaker will come off the injured list to start the series opener against the Yankees.
“I thought today was a huge win to give us momentum going into the next series,” Walker said. “It’s going to be a big series for us.”
That it is, and though they have a still-comfortable four-game edge over the Mariners, with the Orioles, Tigers and Angels all 4.5 games off the pace, the Blue Jays had been living dangerously by letting their playoff rivals hang around.
The victory over the Phillies, like so much else for this edition of the Blue Jays, didn’t come easy, as errors by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Joe Panik led to a pair of unearned runs against Thomas Hatch in the seventh, setting up the type of high-stress finish that has been a staple.
Manager Charlie Montoyo had hoped to get two innings from Hatch, but once his pitch count got up, he was forced to turn to Shun Yamaguchi in the eighth with Rafael Dolis still day-to-day with knee discomfort, A.J. Cole and Ryan Borucki unavailable after back-to-back outings, and Julian Merryweather being rested after his velocity was down Thursday.
Yamaguchi walked two and struck out two before Anthony Bass came on to retire pinch-hitter Jay Bruce on one pitch to escape that jam. Bass returned for a 1-2-3 ninth to earn his sixth save, triggering sighs of relief and an energetic post-game celebration.
“It’s funny, when you go through a losing streak, you’re always waiting for the worst,” Montoyo said. “So when we made those errors in the seventh inning, it was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen now?’ But credit to the guys to the bullpen for minimizing damage. They did a good job.”
So too did Walker, who said he was determined “to set the tone,” after the Blue Jays were outscored 43-15 during a three-game sweep at Yankee Stadium before dropping both ends of a doubleheader Friday against the Phillies, blowing multiple leads in the nightcap, and falling 3-1 Saturday to squander a gem from Hyun-Jin Ryu.
That left the Blue Jays needing both quality and quantity from Walker, who provided a pick-me-up. After being staked to a 2-0 lead in the first on a run-scoring balk by debuting righty Adonis Medina and a Lourdes Gurriel Jr. RBI single, he surrendered a Didi Gregorius RBI double in the bottom half before locking things down.
Walker allowed only three hits from there, none out of the infield, while striking out eight batters, repeatedly beating hitters with challenge fastballs in the heart of the zone. Of his 104 pitches, 48 were four-seam heaters, with six misses, nine called strikes and 15 foul balls.
“I don’t try to get too cute, trying to pick the corners or anything, I just try to stay on the plate with all my pitches and force them to put the ball in play,” Walker said of his aggressiveness with the fastball.
“I thought my changeup played off my four-seam really well today, started mixing in the curveball and the slider, too. The four-seam is my best pitch, it’s always been my best pitch and if I can get that going, everything else plays off that.”
Medina kept the Blue Jays in check after the first, retiring his final eight batters, but eventually Heath Hembree wilted. Davis was sitting slider against him in the sixth, even after falling behind 0-2 in the count, and got one that he belted over Adam Haseley’s head in left field to open up a 4-1 edge, a pivotal hit that eased some of the pressure on his struggling team.
“It felt great for the group, you could tell by the reaction in the dugout, Davis said. “Guys were, I guess you could say, relieved but at the same time, excited for me and for us to get some breathing room. You feel like people have been stomping on your neck for a little bit, it’s good to get some air. It was a good moment. I think that helped out the rest of the game.”
The Blue Jays had a worrisome moment in the fifth when Andrew McCutchen sent a Walker fastball 102.6 mph. toward the wall in right that Hernandez chased down on the track. His momentum carried him into a cement lip at the base of the fence, the toes on his right foot taking the brunt of the impact.
Hernandez was shaken up afterwards – Davis was initially worried that Hernandez had knocked his knee or ankle – but he was able to stay in the game.
“Scary, for sure,” Montoyo said. “But that was a nice play.”
In Hernandez’s next at-bat, he followed Bo Bichette’s first career triple by hammering a middle-away fastball from Hembree over the wall in straight-away centre to open up a 6-1 lead.
Shoemaker, built up to the 50-60 pitch range, will look to set the Blue Jays off on the right foot as they try to deliver a better outcome versus the Yankees on Monday. Tanner Roark, who had been scheduled to pitch the opener, will start Tuesday, with Montoyo leaving things open for the final two games of the series, although Ryu is sure to start Thursday to keep him on turn for the first game of the playoffs Sept. 29.
Before they get there, there’s more work to do.
“It’s definitely something you think about but you try to take it day-by-day. We can only control what we can control,” Davis said. “Guys are fighting, man. Sometimes in baseball, things just don’t go your way, you go through stretches like this, it just happens that we’re going through it right now. We felt pretty good today, we swung the bats well, we had an overall clean game, so I think things are going to turn around in our favour.”
A true test of that begins Monday against the Yankees.