Guerrero Jr. delivers huge game with Blue Jays hoping to go on a run

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. recorded a career-best four hits as the Toronto Blue Jays beat the Miami Marlins 5-1.

TORONTO – On the first pitch Vladimir Guerrero Jr. saw Tuesday evening, he doubled to right field. On the second, he hit a three-run homer to centre.

And while there was far more to the game than those two pitches, they went a long way toward allowing the Toronto Blue Jays to open the Buffalo portion of their home schedule with a 5-1 win over the visiting Miami Marlins. Better still, after two months spent playing in front of Dunedin, Fla., crowds that often rooted against the Blue Jays, a limited capacity sellout was there at Sahlen Field to cheer them on.

"It was a great feeling," manager Charlie Montoyo said. "To have them pulling for us at the ballpark for the first time in two years, it was great. All the players felt it, too."

The crowd serenaded Guerrero Jr. with “MVP” chants as he set a career high on Tuesday with four hits, including three to the opposite field.

"I'm the kind of hitter who always, ever since the minors, has used the entire field," Guerrero Jr. said through interpreter Hector Lebron. "Obviously, you've got to make adjustments and this year I've prepared myself for that, made adjustments, tried to go the other way with power and thank God it's paying off."

On the season, the 22-year-old’s now batting .337/.441/.663 with an MLB-best 17 home runs. And after two months, the sample size is getting substantial.

"He's locked in. He's one of the best hitters in baseball right now," Montoyo said. "He's been really fun to watch. Because it's not easy to do what he's doing."

Big offensive games from Marcus Semien and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. also helped the Blue Jays improve to 28-25 while on the pitching side, another impressive outing from Robbie Ray kept Miami's lineup under control.

Over the course of six innings, the Marlins managed just one run on six hits against Ray, who walked two while striking out nine. His fastball topped out at 98.3 m.p.h. while a sharp slider generated 13 swinging strikes. Two months into the season, he has an impressive 3.57 ERA thanks to much-improved control.

“My fastball had a lot of life on it tonight and my slider had really good life to it,” Ray said afterwards. “My command was really good. I felt like I was able to drive the fastball down in the zone and elevate it when I needed to.”

Even the bullpen pitched well, rebounding from a difficult finish on Sunday that led to a loss in a game the Blue Jays should have won. Left-hander Tim Mayza, who had allowed 12 earned runs over his previous 5.1 innings, came through with a scoreless seventh before Rafael Dolis and Jordan Romano closed it out.

And so with Alek Manoah’s second career start on the horizon Wednesday and an off-day to look forward to Thursday, some order has been restored for the Blue Jays. Life in the American League East won’t be easy this year, and their roster has some issues that need addressing before the July 31 trade deadline, but they’re a contender now with room to improve on what they showed over the first two months of the season.

The way team president Mark Shapiro sees it, there’s reason to believe this team can go on a run. That the Blue Jays will face lesser opponents as the summer unfolds is undeniable, and playing the likes of the Orioles, Tigers and Mariners will help. But beyond the schedule, Shapiro pointed to players returning from injury, the ongoing development of the team’s young core and the character of the players on the roster.

“The resilience and toughness that our team has shown in the face of so much adversity,” Shapiro said via Zoom on Tuesday afternoon. “So many injuries and two different homes, none of which are actually a home. I take all those things, add them together: the makeup, the character, the toughness, the talent and the trend and I say, I really feel like we’ve got a good run in us.”

After the last two weeks, it’s evident the Blue Jays’ bullpen is now vulnerable, and Shapiro acknowledged as much. Clearly, that’s an area the Blue Jays will explore. Yet there’s still plenty of time for needs to evolve, so even as the Blue Jays ramp up their trade talks, they’ll stay flexible.

“You could look at anything from a balance to our lineup to the bullpen to another starter,” Shapiro said. “There are multiple ways to improve the team. What I do know for certain is that Ross (Atkins) and our baseball operations staff have already started dialogue (on) those conversations. Over the next two months, those conversations will get more serious and improving this organization is something that not only happens a couple of times a year, it's a constant obsession."

With a farm system that includes eight of the game’s top 100 prospects as ranked by Baseball America, the Blue Jays certainly have the ability to bid on controllable, star-calibre players if they so choose. But as Tuesday’s game showed, there’s an enviable amount of high-end talent already on this roster. It’s also possible meaningful supporting players will be enough considering the strength of the existing core.

The way Ray was pitching Tuesday, he wouldn’t look out of place in a playoff rotation. And at this point, no discussion of the game’s best hitters is complete without Guerrero Jr. For a Blue Jays team dreaming about an extended hot streak, that production’s a good place to start.

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