Blue Jays’ win over Red Sox overshadowed by protests across sports world

Toronto Blue Jays' Cavan Biggio, right, is congratulated by Lourdes Gurriel Jr. after scoring one of the runs on a three-run double hit by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. against the Boston Red Sox during the seventh inning of a baseball game. (Adrian Kraus/AP)

TORONTO – Around 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday evening, just as Julian Merryweather was heading to the Sahlen Field bullpen to warm up for his first career big-league start, some significant news broke. Merryweather didn’t know it yet, but as he was beginning his warm-ups the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds were finalizing their decision not to play.

The decision came three days after the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisc. and just a few hours after the Brewers’ NBA counterparts, the Milwaukee Bucks, boycotted their own game in a decision that would soon inspire others. All three NBA games scheduled for Wednesday were postponed. All three WNBA game were postponed, too. The MLS soon followed suit.

And in baseball, it wasn’t just the Brewers and Reds who took a stand. The Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres decided not to play. Then the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants joined them. On an individual level, Jason Heyward chose to sit out while his Chicago Cubs teammates played on. Before long, Matt Kemp, Jack Flaherty and Dexter Fowler would do the same.

All of these decisions follow the shooting of Blake, a 29-year-old unarmed Black man, who was shot in the back seven times on Sunday. Since then, many athletes have voiced frustration with the systemic racism that still exists in our society.

As LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers tweeted, “WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT.”

In Buffalo, they played on. As rain fell at Sahlen Field and postponements were announced across the continent, the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox proceeded as planned. For the Blue Jays, the game went well; after a 9-1 win they’re over .500 again at 15-14.

“It’s sad to hear what’s going on out there and I understand and support the teams that decided not to play,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “But it was right before the game when we found out and the players were already out there, so the players proceeded to play.”

Still, on a night that so many teams and players made powerful statements about racism and inequality by sitting out, what happened between the lines was secondary Wednesday. Rowdy Tellez‘s two-home run game, Shun Yamaguchi‘s stellar relief work, all of it. While the Blue Jays and Red Sox prepared to play in Buffalo, others directed the spotlight beyond baseball.

“Instead of watching us, we hope people will focus on the things more important than sports,” Seattle shortstop Dee Gordon tweeted.

“Ending police brutality is more important than sports,” Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Cole Tucker tweeted.

“With our community and our nation in such pain, we wanted to draw as much attention to the issues that really matter, especially racial injustice and systemic oppression,” the Brewers and Reds players said in a jointly-issued statement.

Eventually, the Blue Jays will have similar conversations of their own. The timing of Wednesday’s game didn’t allow for a full discussion, but a team-wide talk will take place ahead of Thursday’s scheduled game and Montoyo says he supports “whoever wants to not play or boycott the game.”

While the Blue Jays don’t have any African American players on their active roster, Tellez learned a lot from his friendship with Anthony Alford, who was designated for assignment last week. When Alford kneeled in support of Black Lives Matter on opening day, Tellez rested his left hand on Alford’s right shoulder.

“I will never understand what it’s like to be an African American in the United States,” Tellez would tell Alford. “But if I can be as knowledgeable as I can that’s the best that I can do for you as a brother of mine.”

How the Blue Jays respond Thursday will depend on the upcoming team discussion about the appropriate response to continued racism, but Tellez said “it’s weighing heavy on a lot of our hearts.”

Between the lines, Merryweather impressed once again. He touched 98.9 m.p.h. on the radar gun and struck out three over two innings of work. Three appearances into his big-league career, Merryweather already looks like someone who belongs at this level.

But once Merryweather left the game, the Blue Jays still had seven innings to cover against a dangerous Boston lineup. Thanks to Yamaguchi, they pulled it off. The right-hander put together his longest and most impressive outing of the season Wednesday, going four innings in relief of Merryweather with an appearance that helps the Blue Jays on a couple of levels.

First of all, Yamaguchi’s stuff was good enough to limit the Red Sox to just one run. He topped out at 92.9 m.p.h. while generating 10 swinging strikes and allowing just two hits. After a slow start, he’s now showing the Blue Jays some real value.

As Montoyo said, “that was four big innings.”

But even beyond Wednesday those innings are important for a Blue Jays team that’s now down two starters. By pitching so effectively, Yamaguchi allowed the likes of Anthony Kay and Thomas Hatch to rest, which frees them up for Friday – another bullpen day.

Ideally, the Blue Jays would like to add starting pitching before Monday’s trade deadline. With Nate Pearson on pause until the weekend, Matt Shoemaker described as week-to-week and Trent Thornton now meeting with Dr. James Andrews to assess the severity of loose bodies in his pitching elbow, the Blue Jays can’t count on their injured starters to return imminently.

But if no satisfactory trade presents itself, Yamaguchi warrants consideration for an expanded role, perhaps as a bulk pitcher behind an opener such as Merryweather. After throwing 59 pitches Wednesday, he’s certainly stretched out if needed.

Really, all of that’s minutiae, though. Big picture, this was a chance to direct the spotlight beyond baseball. Some teams seized that opportunity. On Wednesday, the Blue Jays were not among them. Maybe on Thursday that changes.

“We have a big platform and a big voice,” Tellez said. “That’s something that we are going to use.”


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