Deeper bench giving Blue Jays more opportunities to match up late in games

Arash Madani and Shi Davidi discuss the scuffle that resulted from Aaron Judge getting hit by Alek Manoah's pitch, Gerrit Cole's reaction, and the Blue Jays' approach at the plate during their hot streak.

NEW YORK — Earlier this season, the type of matchup manoeuvring Toronto Blue Jays interim manager John Schneider engaged in with New York Yankees counterpart Aaron Boone during the seventh inning Sunday wouldn’t have been possible.

Simply put, the Blue Jays just didn’t have many options to create an advantage at-bat when their bench was occupied by the likes of Bradley Zimmer, Zack Collins, Tyler Heineman, Vinny Capra and Gosuke Katoh. While each had a role to play in specific situations, primarily Zimmer with his plus speed and defence, taking a high-leverage at-bat wasn’t usually going to be one of them.

Now, though, Schneider’s bench on any given day could include some four-man combination of Whit Merrifield, Raimel Tapia, Cavan Biggio, Santiago Espinal, Danny Jansen and Jackie Bradley Jr., plus potentially a regular one of them might be subbing in for.

The improved depth makes covering absences like that of George Springer in the final three games of the Yankees series over the weekend a bit easier and provides Schneider far more opportunities to plot moves than predecessor Charlie Montoyo ever had.

It’s something he intends to take advantage of.

“Yeah, for sure,” Schneider said. “And it still puts guys that are good defenders out there, too, at any spot. Having Whit gives us that flexibility, bouncing back and forth, infield and outfield, and guys like Tapia, Biggio. It is nice to have that luxury.”

The seventh inning of Sunday’s 4-2 loss made for a fascinating case study, helped along by the availability of Springer for an at-bat off the bench.

Here’s the situation: The Blue Jays are down 2-1 with two on, one out, righty Jonathan Loaisiga on the mound, lefty Wandy Peralta warming in the bullpen and Santiago Espinal coming up.

Schneider could have stuck with Espinal in a tough righty-righty matchup, but instead opted for the lefty Biggio. That forced Boone to decide whether he wanted Biggio versus Loaisiga or bring in Peralta and risk him facing Springer, whom he couldn’t be certain was available.

Boone risked it and he called on Peralta, which made some sense with Bradley due up behind Biggio. Once he did, though, Schneider sent out Springer, and he delivered a single off Peralta, whose OPS allowed against righties was .604 and versus lefties was .344 coming in.

In creating that advantage at-bat, he surrendered the option to do the same in Bradley’s spot and credit to the veteran centre fielder for working a bases-loaded walk to tie the game. That played large because it set up a right-left matchup in Lourdes Gurriel Jr. versus Peralta, who had to face three batters, and forced Boone to make another move to avoid the same with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., which he did with Lou Trivino.

Peralta and Trivino both prevailed, Gurriel hitting into a fielder’s choice and Guerrero grounding out to short to end the frame.

But in needing three relievers to get through the seventh, Boone was forced to sub-optimally extend Trivino through the eighth and ninth innings, too, which he did to close out the win.

“Liked them both, Biggio versus Loaisiga and George versus Peralta — we were happy with either one of those matchups,” Schneider said in explaining how the Blue Jays played out the inning. “Would have liked to have tacked one more on there, just didn't get it done. But like those matchups and I thought it was nice that we have the flexibility to put ourselves in that spot.

"Didn't quite work out. But that was the thought process.”

Springer, by the way, seeing action for the first time since fouling a ball off his knee during a five-hit night Thursday, “was fine hitting,” Schneider said, but not well enough to stay in the game and play defence for a potential second at-bat.

“Just to be cautious today,” he added. “But hopefully that changes going forward.”

With Monday’s day off, the club hopes Springer will be back for Tuesday’s opener at Fenway Park.

VIBE CHECK: The Blue Jays were in a bad spot after a 4-2 loss to the Baltimore Orioles last Tuesday, dropping their eighth outing in 10 games, all against fellow post-season contenders.

Then, a 6-1 win Wednesday over the Orioles gave them a good springboard into a four-game set with the Yankees in the Bronx, where they proceeded to take the first three games of the series to really shift the vibe around the club, even if they might have left a sweep on the table Sunday.

“Winning three out of four, for one,” Schneider said of the positives he was taking from the weekend. “Having a really good offensive approach, I think. Facing really good pitchers for them and sticking with it. … If you look at the way we approached the opposing pitchers who are really good and you look at the way our pitching, starting pitching and bullpen really performed, it was a really good series.”

GREAT GARCIA: With Jordan Romano unavailable after pitching on consecutive days, the Blue Jays turned to Yimi Garcia to close out Saturday’s 5-2 win over the Yankees, which the right-hander did with his usual efficiency.

The save was his first of the season, but the 32-year-old is no stranger to late-game pressure this season, with his Average Leverage Index score of 1.68 when entering games second on the club only to Romano’s 2.51 (a score of one indicates average leverage, the higher above the higher the leverage).

Of his 44 appearances, 26 have come in high leverage, and at 0.7 wins above replacement as calculated by Fangraphs, he’s again second only to Romano among Blue Jays relievers.

“I'm feeling great,” Garcia said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “Regardless of what inning I pitch, the only thing I have in my mind is just to try and do a good job and continue to help the team to win a game.”

That he’s done it so effectively has been pivotal for a Blue Jays bullpen that’s needed his steadiness. Though he’s not a big velocity arm and his whiff rate is only in the 40th percentile, he’s still managed to post a 2.74 ERA over 42.2 innings with a 0.914 WHIP and 40 strikeouts.

Driving his success is an ability to limit hard contact, as he’s among the top 12 per cent of pitchers in the majors at average exit velocity, hard-hit percentage and expected batting average and ERA. His walk percentage of 5.9 per cent is in the 83rd percentile.

“For me, the key to command pitches is I'm not afraid to throw the ball, sometimes even close to being right down the middle,” said Garcia. “I'm not afraid for them to hit it. We've got nine players out there trying to catch the ball, so I'm never afraid to throw strikes. That's pretty much what I do.”

Having pitched on three post-season teams, his poise on the mound amid the current playoff pressures has been steadying for a bullpen that doesn’t share his level of experience. Early in his career, Garcia felt he had to make perfect pitches, but he's learned that he doesn’t have to be that fine and to trust himself.

“I've been through a lot of important playoff games where you feel the pressure,” said Garcia, who appeared in the playoffs with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2015, the Miami Marlins in 2020 and the Houston Astros last year. “But when you go through those types of games, that will shape you a little bit and now when I'm in that situation, for me it's normal.

“That's what motivates me, being out there, especially when the games are very close, the pressure, I just love it. That's why I'm here, for those moments.”

QUOTABLE: “It's going to be good. I've got a lot of great memories there. My family will be there. I have a lot of close people in the city of Boston. We're excited. As a group, we're excited we continue to play good baseball.” – Jackie Bradley Jr. on returning to Boston as an opponent for the first time.

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