TORONTO – Alejandro Kirk is perhaps the hottest hitter in all of baseball so it makes some sense that opposing pitchers might try to get in his kitchen. The Boston Red Sox certainly did right from the jump this week at Rogers Centre, with Connor Seabold hitting him on the left elbow in the third inning of Monday’s series opener before buzzing him again two innings later. Two other pitches missed well inside, too.
Kirk only saw two pitches in delivering a pinch-hit single during a leverage ninth Tuesday night, so there was no opportunity for brinksmanship there. But starter Nick Pivetta was back at it Wednesday, just missing him with a 94.4 m.p.h. fastball that was his second pitch of the second inning before hitting him right on the left elbow with the first pitch of their clash in the third.
While Kirk, his usual stoic self, turned away from Pivetta as he was checked on by trainer Jose Ministral, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. had seen enough. He made a get out of here gesture with his hand and became increasingly angry as the right-hander from Victoria engaged, using bad-manners language to say he wasn’t trying to hit Kirk and that Guerrero should promptly cease the discussion.
That sent Guerrero charging toward the field, prompting the Toronto Blue Jays, led by George Springer, to funnel the star first baseman back toward the dugout, while the Red Sox dragged Pivetta back behind the mound. The engagement peaked at angry words but the point had been made – Kirk wasn’t brushed back again for the rest of the night.
Warnings issued to both clubs ensured there was no retribution from Alek Manoah and the rest of the Blue Jays, who rallied late to force extra innings but were undone by their thin bullpen during a messy 10th in falling 6-5.
That kept them from completing a three-game sweep of the Red Sox in an intense and emotional finale.
“He's probably one of the best hitters in the league right now, so as a pitcher, I completely understand you might try and go in or whatever the case may be, but whenever you throw balls at the head, it's a no-go,” said Manoah. “He's been hit up there a couple of times recently and just in the heat of the moment, the team doesn't want to see their own guy get hit. Not to say (Pivetta) did it on purpose or anything, but it's just a really sensitive area up there. So as a team, we've got Kirky's back all day and we're just playing extremely competitive baseball right now.”
Very much so, which no doubt contributed to the third-inning confrontation.
For his part, Kirk felt all the near-misses was a by-product of the Red Sox “trying to pitch me different” and he didn’t believe Pivetta hit him “on purpose or that it was coming from the dugout.”
“In the heat of the moment it's normal that things happen,” Kirk added through interpreter Hector Lebron. “But personally, I don't think it was on purpose. Of course, you get a bit emotional about it and I can understand that. But I just want to leave it at that.”
The Blue Jays had other reasons to get emotional later, erasing a 3-2 deficit on Raimel Tapia’s RBI double in the eighth, watching Jordan Romano squirm out of a first-and-third, one-out jam unscathed in the ninth, suffering another bullpen blip in the top of the 10th before nearly pulling it out in the bottom half.
David Phelps, their third reliever of the night, walked his first two batters to load the bases before hitting J.D. Martinez to force in the go-ahead run. Tim Mayza took over and after inducing a 3-2-3 double play that nearly limited the damage, he surrendered a two-run double to Alex Verdugo that opened things up.
Still, the Blue Jays nearly came back, as a two-out RBI single by Santiago Espinal and run-scoring double by Cavan Biggio made it a one-run game and Matt Strahm, in his second inning of work, had to get Springer to pop out with men at second and third.
“We took two out of three, one hit away from taking three in a row from a team that was hot," said manager Charlie Montoyo.
At the same time, the Blue Jays’ lack of leverage relief depth, exacerbated by Yimi Garcia’s absence, was also exposed on consecutive days, as Tuesday they blew a late 4-2 lead but that was masked by Guerrero’s walk-off single in the ninth.
There are no quick fixes there and veteran Sergio Romo, whom the Blue Jays intend to cautiously work into their mix, won’t be a panacea. The 39-year-old was activated after his passing his physical and GM Ross Atkins noted that his addition “isn’t something that is going to stop us from continuing to look to improve this team.”
Adding more relief help is an obvious way to do that but Atkins added that “every team in contention is probably going to be looking to do that, as will we.” Making trades with the Aug. 2 trade deadline more than a month away is difficult as “teams don't want to pay large premiums for players for moving just to move.”
Last year, the Blue Jays were able to jump the market with the acquisitions of Adam Cimber and Trevor Richards, who is currently on the injured list, but Atkins said “you can't just decide that you're going to do something at all costs. That urgency or importance, I can't imagine it being higher. But we have to always be measured in how we're thinking about that.”
Manoah once again did more than his share over seven mostly overpowering innings, his main blemish a two-run homer by Verdugo on a middle-middle heater after a Xander Bogaerts infield single that put the Red Sox up
The only other run against him came on a Rob Refsnyder sacrifice fly in the third, cashing in Franchy Cordero who had earlier reached third base when Kirk threw away an attempt to catch him stealing.
Manoah cleverly worked out of a two on, none-out jam in the fifth and by going deep yet again, helping to preserve the bullpen ahead of a Yusei Kikuchi start in Thursday’s series opener against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Pivetta, meanwhile, largely kept the Blue Jays in check, giving up a Santiago Espinal RBI single that opened the scoring in the second and a Springer solo shot in the fifth that put the Blue Jays up 2-1.
Tapia’s RBI double in the eighth tied things up 3-3 and set the stage for a dramatic, and from the Blue Jays’ perspective disappointing, end in a game that ran hot.
Montoyo avoided the question when asked what he thought the Red Sox’s intent was with Kirk – “I won't be able to read their minds, I'm not that smart. I just know what I know and I keep it to myself,” he said. But the way he went after home-plate umpire D.J. Reyburn while checking on his catcher on the field indicated that he was as mad about it as several of his players.
Kirk was grateful that entire scene “didn't go any further than” words but added that “it feels good knowing your teammates are right behind you.”