TORONTO – This weekend is an opportunity for the Toronto Blue Jays to focus the rest of the regular season on what’s in front of them rather than what’s behind, a chance to help ensure the return engagement Oct. 3-5 against these Baltimore Orioles is a tune up, nothing more.
The way their rotation rolls out from here after another bullpen game – backed by two Matt Chapman homers and a George Springer three-run shot – in Friday’s 6-3 victory, both Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman can be available for that close-out set at Camden Yards.
That’s great, if necessary. Far better for the Blue Jays (82-63), now six games clear of the fourth-placed Orioles (75-68) and 1.5 games up on the third-placed Tampa Bay Rays (80-64) in the wild-card standings, is making sure their dominant front two is rested and available to pitch in the first round of the playoffs beginning Oct. 7.
They created separation from the upstart Orioles by taking three of four in Baltimore Sept. 5-7 and while it’s perilous to look too far forward, if the Blue Jays capitalize on this series, they’ll make their lives much easier for the rest of the campaign and beyond.
“Obviously, every game is crucial – you're playing against your own division, but not only that, the calendar, too, there's only so many games left, so it's hard to make up games,” said Chapman. “Any opportunity we can get to gain a game, whether it's separating ourselves from Baltimore or putting the pressure on the teams that are right there in the mix with us, is huge. This series is definitely important because if we keep taking care of business, it just gives us more space.”
A third bullpen day in the past two weeks, not including Tuesday’s Mitch White bulk-inning outing in the doubleheader against the Tampa Bay Rays, couldn’t have gone much better for the Blue Jays. Trevor Richards opened by striking out the side, Julian Merryweather followed with two clean frames and Chapman’s first homer, off Jordan Lyles in the second, opened a 1-0 lead.
Yusei Kikuchi, almost to script, took over in the fourth, immediately allowed a Cedric Mullins triple and Adley Rutschman homer and then settled down to retire his next six batters, the latest Jekyll and Hyde outing that is both infuriating and intriguing.
That carried the Blue Jays through five frames and they took control in the bottom of the fifth when Lyles left a 3-2 curveball middle away and Springer rocked it over the wall in left to make it 4-2.
After Tim Mayza ripped through the top of the Orioles order, Chapman hammered a two-run shot over the wall in left in the sixth and Adam Cimber, Anthony Bass and Yimi Garcia, who allowed a Gunnar Henderson solo shot in the ninth, closed things out from there.
"For us, when the phone rings, it's you, so when you're in the game, you compete,” Richards said of the mindset going in. “(Bullpen days) are more on the coaching staff and they do a good job of communicating and planning things out. That's hard, to cover a whole nine innings and then you've got some yesterday, you've got some tomorrow. We're more focused on the game that night and when the phone rings, go at them.”
Blue Jays relievers have allowed only eight runs over 26 innings during the three bullpen games, necessitated by Kikuchi’s struggles as a starter and a lack of viable options to support a very strong front four. There won’t be another gap in the rotation until Sept. 24 at Tampa Bay but White will be eligible to be recalled by then.
“It's a big ask of them and they've answered the bell,” said interim manager John Schneider. “Every time we've done it, they've all kind of looked forward to it and kind of accepted the challenge and made pitches, gone an extra inning, an extra out, whatever it is. You can't really say enough about how good they are and we’re doing our best to make sure that the execution is there, but also the proper rest is there, too.”
Richards’ outing was especially important as it wasn’t a lock he’d pitch after throwing 29 pitches in a mop-up outing gone awry in Thursday’s 11-0 loss to the Rays. He allowed five runs on three hits and two walks in the ninth inning of that one, needing David Phelps to bail him out, and then rebounded to shove against the Orioles.
“Baseball's crazy, right? Yesterday, I couldn't hit water if I fell out of a boat. Today, it's just crazy how things change,” said Richards. “I just wanted to focus on going after hitters and set the tone.”
The Orioles lost for the seventh time in 11 games since creeping within 1.5 games of the Blue Jays for the final wild-card spot at the beginning of the month, perhaps a sign their surge from doormat to relevance this season is petering out.
Manager Brandon Hyde, a finalist for the Blue Jays job when Charlie Montoyo was hired in the fall of 2018, spoke before the game about how beneficial this experience will be for his current group and before a rollicking Rogers Centre crowd of 36,573, another lesson was learned.
“These types of series are just different than the series in May or June,” said Hyde, whose team is going to be a problem in the AL East in the coming years. “To be able to play in games like this, for me, it gives you confidence going forward. That's the huge difference for us this year over last year, we got confidence, guys got confident their ability, guys got confident in each other. I feel like that kind of changed in May a little bit and we just stayed that way throughout. And you add Gunnar, who's a confident guy and extremely talented, the more games you can play in like this, the better.”
The Blue Jays did their learning last year. They’re intent on doing far more this time around and setting themselves up as best as possible for a wild-card series that will be tough no matter the opponent will be crucial in that regard.