TORONTO — The opening night of this high-stakes series between the Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays was, in part, the baseball equivalent of fighting over field position. Five games in 72 hours, including a day-night doubleheader Tuesday, can very quickly wear out a pitching staff and the attrition adds up quickly. With both teams essentially planning a bullpen game in the twin-bill's nightcap, chewing up the other side's arms could pay off big the next three days.
To that end, both teams needed quantity as well as quality from their starters Monday and Jose Berrios did his part by pitching into the seventh inning, leaving only eight outs for his bullpen to cover. The Rays, on the other hand, rode call-up Cooper Criswell for 3.1 frames and four relievers behind him, having burned 10 different pitchers — including Jays nemesis Ryan Yarbrough — the previous two days at the New York Yankees.
All that strategizing played out in the background of the latest magical moment in Bo Bichette's increasingly remarkable September surge, a dramatic two-run homer in the eighth inning off Jason Adam that propelled his Blue Jays to a thrilling 3-2 victory.
That it came in the at-bat after a 97.1 m.p.h. Javy Guerra sinker grazed his wrist, narrowly missed his face and caused "my life (to) flash before my eyes," Bichette capped a remarkable seven-pitch at-bat by sending a slider headed for the low and away corner over the wall in left-centre.
"Two strikes I’m just competing," Bichette said of his approach after taking a 2-2 slider in the dirt before going deep. "Just trust my ability to get to the fastball, I have to rush for it and give myself a chance on the slider. Got the chance."
That Bichette could shake off the close call from Guerra in the sixth — he slammed his bat into the ground and then whipped it away after getting hit because the pitch "scared me" — and then push aside a sketch called second strike underlined how locked in he is right now.
Already the reigning American League player of the week, Bichette also drove in his team’s other run with a fourth-inning RBI single and over his last 11 games is batting .511/.549/1.128 with seven homers and 21 RBIs.
Just a truly special level of performance.
"I've seen him do so many great things," said teammate Cavan Biggio. "I've seen him be hot, I've seen him be cold and what I see from him now is mentally, he's just keeping things really simple. He's not trying to be the perfect hitter. He's not trying to be someone that he's not. He's just being the best version of himself."
An elated Rogers Centre crowd of 23,002 stood and cheered until Bichette took a reluctant curtain call as the Blue Jays (79-61) tied the idle Seattle Mariners (79-61) for the first wildcard, a half-game up on the Rays (78-61) with their 11th win in the past 14 games.
Their surge has coincided with that of Bichette, who keeps carrying his team to victories.
"He's already a tough at-bat when he's not doing what he's doing now currently," said catcher Danny Jansen, whose mental mistake in the sixth inning — airmailing a throw to second on ball four, allowing Randy Arozarena to take third and eventually score on Manuel Margot’s fielder’s choice — led to a 2-1 Rays lead. "It does (make a pitcher) feel like he has to make the perfect pitch sometimes and there's something to be said about that, too. The pitcher knows how hot he is and that can be a psychological thing on the mound. … It's fun to watch."
Indeed, and Bichette ensured Adam didn't get off the hook in the eighth after Raimel Tapia opened the frame with a leadoff single and stole second before George Springer hit a comebacker to the mound and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. struck out.
"He has that unique ability to really cover the whole strike zone and then some," said interim manager John Schneider. "He's definitely the dude you want up right now in any spot."
Jordan Romano, helped by a brilliant running catch from Jackie Bradley Jr. on Margot’s drive to deep centre, closed out a well-played, tension-filled and testy affair for his 33rd save.
The ill will followed Bichette's close call and Berrios hitting Francisco Mejia on the hip with an 0-1 four-seamer to open the next frame. Warnings for both clubs followed as did an extended bout of chirping between Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker and Rays counterpart Kyle Snyder, with Schneider also getting some words in.
Given the bigger-picture aspirations for both clubs cooler heads prevailed, even after Arozarena swung his bottom hand into a Yimi Garcia sinker in the eighth.
Berrios insisted there was no intention behind the pitch to Mejia and was caught off guard by the warnings to both clubs.
"I don't want the leadoff guy on base in that inning," he said. "I want to pitch my game, try to attack the hitter and I hit him. That’s part of the game."
Either way, his efforts really positioned the Blue Jays well for the next three days.
Alek Manoah starts Tuesday's opener against Jeffrey Springs, with Mitch White set to anchor the Toronto relievers against the Tampa bullpen. Ross Stripling takes the ball against Drew Rasmussen Wednesday while Kevin Gausman goes Thursday, likely against Shane McClanahan, who's expected to come off the injured list to make the start.
Monday didn't help an already beaten up Rays bullpen while the Blue Jays will go into Tuesday with everyone available, according to Schneider.
"You get good starting pitching, you get a quality start, it lines up guys out of the bullpen, keeps guys available," said Schneider. "What (Berrios) did tonight was fantastic. He's a really, really good pitcher. I know he's had its ups and downs. But tonight was a really good step in the right direction for him in a lot of different ways. We're looking for more of the same from Jose going forward and when you have cover 18 tomorrow, it's awesome that he did what he did, too."