ST. PETERSBERG, Fla. – Matt Chapman ran into Charlie Montoyo at the hotel coffee shop before heading to Tropicana Field and the manager had a question for his third baseman. The Toronto Blue Jays needed a leadoff man with George Springer day-to-day with sprained left ankle, how would he feel about jumping up into the spot?
“I said, ‘Let’s go,’” recalled Chapman, who’d batted everywhere 2-9 in the major leagues and needed the top spot to complete the set. “I'm excited to get more ABs, try to get on base and help this team win. That's the main focus. Shaking things up, see if we can get a little something going, that's pretty standard in baseball if the lineup that you're running out there right maybe isn’t having success. Change things up and see if we can get a little momentum.”
Eventually, their breakthrough came Saturday night, as Teoscar Hernandez’s go-ahead solo shot in the eighth inning opened a four-run outburst that carried the Blue Jays to a 5-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays, ending a five-game losing streak.
Hernandez, moved up to third as part of the rejigged order behind Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and in front of Bo Bichette, opened the eighth with a 109.3 m.p.h. laser to centre field off Ryan Thompson, his first since returning from the injured list.
The home run was also the Blue Jays’ first since Springer’s leadoff drive Tuesday at Yankee Stadium, part of a stretch of six games with one home run. Their inability to score was the prime driver of a 2-8 stretch, during which they went deep four times and plated 33 runs.
“My homer came in a good moment,” said Hernandez. “We all know that we needed a big hit like that. It came from my bat but I know it's in there and all the guys are going to get hit keep hitting and we're going to get on a good winning streak.”
This time, rather than following Hernandez’s breakthrough with three quick outs, they added on, with Santiago Espinal reaching on a base hit, advancing to third on a Zack Collins groundout and scoring on a Lourdes Gurriel Jr. base hit. Danny Jansen, activated from the injured list before the game along with starter Hyun Jin Ryu, then clubbed a two-run homer for a 5-1 lead.
Adam Cimber worked around a leadoff walk in the eighth while Jordan Romano, his velocity back up to season norms, nailed things down in the ninth.
Good tonic after a trying week.
“It's been a long time coming,” said Jansen. “This team can really hit. It's still early and everybody's just getting in the swing of things now, myself included. It's great to be back and able to contribute.”
While the win was a collective exhale for an offence that had frustrations mount in recent days, the Blue Jays also received a lift from the performance of Ryu, who allowed one run on four hits and a walk over 4.2 innings of under-wraps work.
The left-hander’s average fastball velocity was up one m.p.h. and he topped out at 92.1, a slight boost that allowed for better separation between his changeup and curveball. More importantly, he commanded the ball much more effectively, which allowed him to keep the Rays down while the offence grinded to its outburst.
“My fastball felt like it had some life,” Ryu said through interpreter J.S. Park. “I’m pretty happy with the command and everything else. Aside from that one changeup that I gave up the home run, I was pretty happy with the way the changeup was working, too.”
That Ryu’s return from a bout of forearm inflammation was paired with that of Jansen from an oblique injury was a happy coincidence. While Jansen’s importance to the club starts with his work behind the plate, his recent work with the bat suggested he’d turned a corner offensively and his production on that front was missed, too.
Prior to the home run, he’d been hit by a pitch, walked and sent a 103 m.p.h. drive to the centre-field wall that ended as a long out. The home run was his third of the season.
“One of the things that I did in the off-season was find out really who I was (offensively) and then freedom came with that,” Jansen said before the game. “Obviously it was tough after the start going on the IL for a while, but that freedom I had in the beginning of the season, in spring training, at the end of last year figuring out who I was really helped me mentally. I'm looking to pick up where I left off with that.”
Jansen’s fly ball in the sixth was one of several near-miss drives the Blue Jays hit, which made Hernandez’s drive all the more cathartic. The all-star right-fielder has been frustrated while trying to find his timing at the plate since his return and a two-hit game, including the no-doubter, should help him get comfortable.
“Everybody knows how hard it is to hit a ball out of the park right now because of the things that they've been doing to the baseball. It's obvious they changed the baseballs,” said Hernandez. “It's been hard. But I got that one pretty good. I had a feeling that it was going to go out. You just have to keep hitting.”
That applies to Chapman, too, who sent one ball to the wall in left at 101 m.p.h. and another to right-centre at 100.8 m.p.h. and ended up with 723 feet of out as a result. That came on the heels of drive he hit to left-centre at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday that came off the bat at 106.7 m.p.h. with a launch angle 35 degrees and went 390 feet before dying by the wall.
“I haven't hit very many balls 107 at a 35 that haven't been homers,” said Chapman. “When I hit the ball, it was weird. Usually when you hit the ball really hard like that, it feels like it jumps off the bat. That one just felt a little weird. I know people have been saying stuff about the baseballs. I was surprised. I thought I got that one.”
Several Blue Jays have felt that way lately which is Montoyo felt his team “hit the ball better than what the scoreboard showed.” He also praised his makeshift leadoff hitter for helping set the table for others by seeing 19 pitches over five plate appearances.
“It’s not going to change my approach. I'm still obviously ready to hit when I get my pitch,” Chapman said of batting leadoff. “A little lineup shakeup right now will help the guys maybe just kind of reset a little bit. It's not permanent, obviously, but it’ll be fun and I’m looking forward to it. Anything you can do at the major-league level that’s new is fun.”
All the more so when it ends in victory.