Manoah's gem helps Blue Jays sweep White Sox to begin gruelling stretch of games

Teoscar Hernandez talks with Hazel Mae post-game about his recent plate approach, the team's confidence in Alek Manoah, and Santiago Espinal's consistency in the lead-off role.

TORONTO – As the Toronto Blue Jays fly into their most gruelling stretch of the 2022 schedule, series like the ones against the Chicago White Sox and incoming Minnesota Twins – struggling opponents with depleted rosters – are an opportunity they must fully leverage.

Because the wins won’t always come as easily and as steadily as they have over the past couple of weeks now that they’re in a stretch of 40 games in 41 days, and 46 in the next 48. That run of 30 games in 31 days to begin the season in some ways was a preparatory course for the current test, which they started with a three-game sweep of the White Sox capped by Thursday’s 8-3 victory.

In some ways, the structure behind the Blue Jays’ eighth straight win and 12th in the past 15 outings, before a Rogers Centre crowd of 25,250, was somewhat of a template for the grind:

Alek Manoah delivered his latest gem with 7.2 innings of three-run ball, easing the toll on a nearly-always-in-leverage bullpen;

• Down-roster contributions came from Raimel Tapia, who reached and scored twice covering left field on a rest day for Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Bradley Zimmer, who reached twice while patrolling centre for the ill George Springer;

• Cavan Biggio, whose versatility and left-handed bat are critical to the club’s hopes of working in rest for its regulars, delivered a key RBI double in the eighth that opened up breathing room after the White Sox had pulled with one;

•Santiago Espinal, who had three hits and three RBIs while subbing in at leadoff, delivered a two-run single later in the eighth to open enough of a gap that Jordan Romano wasn’t needed in the ninth: “As soon as this team started hitting, there's a little bit of relief for the pitcher, for our bullpen,” said Espinal. “Having those opportunities to be able to drive in those runs is huge for us, especially right now.”

• That helped support heart-of-order impact delivered this time by Teoscar Hernandez, whose two-run shot in the sixth made it 4-0 and was his first homer since May 14, feeding a cycle where each part of the lineup enables the next: “It's just trusting everything that you're going to take to the home plate," said Hernandez. "If you have a plan, take it and get through it and the results at the end of the day are going to be positive and are going to be there.”

With just two off days and a doubleheader between now and July 10, expect deeper roster usage and strategic recovery days to become a more frequent part of how the Blue Jays set up their pieces daily.

“Some people are going to get their days off, but the addition of Biggio has been huge because you put him anywhere and he'll give you a really good at-bat and good defence,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “He’s playing right field (Friday) already so now Teo gets to DH or somebody else gets a day off. That’s the good thing about having Biggio. Today he played first, Vladdy (Guerrero Jr.) DH'd. That's been great for us. You'll see guys rotating, having days off trying to keep them fresh because we're going to need it through a pretty good stretch of games.”

Helping to make it work is the versatility built into the roster, long an organizational goal for the Blue Jays. Former prospects like Biggio and Espinal, along with current ones like Otto Lopez, Jordan Groshans and Orelvis Martinez, are groomed to bounce around the diamond and the payoff is now showing at the big-league level.

"It's really important for our team, especially when we have guys that can play different positions," said Espinal. "Like I told Montoyo and coaches, I know I've been playing a lot of second base, but if (Matt) Chapman needs a day off, I'm there at third base. If Bo needs a day off, I'm there at shortstop. We've got different guys that can play different positions and that plays a huge part on our team, especially in this long season.”

Even still, attrition is inevitable, as underlined by Hyun Jin Ryu’s return to the injured list Thursday with left forearm inflammation. There was no immediate diagnosis following some imaging Thursday, with Montoyo saying, “we’re still assessing that.”

Even still, attrition is inevitable, as underlined by Hyun Jin Ryu’s return to the injured list Thursday with left forearm inflammation.

The immediate fallout from that injury is that Ross Stripling will return to the rotation while reliever Jeremy Beasley had his contract selected from triple-A Buffalo to further bolster the bullpen. Bigger picture, the flux there will make it more difficult for the Blue Jays to drop an arm in the bullpen in favour of another position player, which ideally they’d rather have.

Stripling is also no longer available for potential spot starts to help work in a breather or two for a rotation that’s already logged lots of innings.

One place where perhaps the Blue Jays are best positioned to weather the coming workload storm is behind the plate, where Alejandro Kirk and Danny Jansen continue to deliver impact well above league norms.

Kirk once again caught Manoah, leveraging his bottom of the zone framing magic, and he again delivered a strong two-way effort with two hits and a walk as a complement for shepherding the righty through his outing.

Some of Kirk’s most important work came in the first, helping funnel this gutsy 3-2 slider from Manoah to Yasmani Grandal into the zone for a called third strike, leaving the bases loaded to end the inning. Manoah retired the next 16 batters from there.

The entire sequence demonstrated his fearlessness in tough spots, as rather than worry about a potential walk, he chose to be the aggressor in the situation.

“I'd thrown him a ton of heaters and I was like, I think I can freeze him up right here," explained Manoah. "Mindset was just attack him. I think he's swinging and whatever happens, happens."

The burden of the coming games, meanwhile, are likely to be most felt behind the plate, which is why the clever job the Blue Jays have done thus far mixing and matching the duo looms large.

In recent years, catching has become even more demanding, bench coach John Schneider said, because, “it's more information to digest mentally, guys are throwing harder, guys' stuff is better, you have to block tougher balls, you have to catch higher velocity, the stolen base is coming back a little bit, and the actual nature of squatting up and down a million times a day.”

“But the hardest part is more the mental side of it than the physical,” he added. “They've all prepped themselves physically to do it. So it's absorbing a game plan, adjusting on the fly, using PitchCom, worrying about tipping, worrying about sign relaying, all that kind of stuff.”

On top of that is knowing opponents will be scanning video trying to steal information from “every move that you make, basically.”

All of which makes the Blue Jays having two well above-average catchers an advantage for them to utilize through the season’s busiest point as much as an area of surplus from which to potentially trade.

“Any good team is going to utilize its whole roster to a certain extent and do it in an intelligent fashion,” said Schneider. “When we can optimize both of their skill-sets, we're going to. It's been fun that they're both performing well. It's a luxury. … They both do things behind the plate that are great and they both do things at the plate that are great. You've got to pick and choose your spots and hopefully pick the right ones.”

At the outset of what may very well be the most demanding portion of the schedule, that holds true across the board.

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