TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays did more than delay the inevitable Monday night.
Eventually, the Yankees will clinch the AL East, and with their magic number still two, that could easily occur this week at Rogers Centre. The way he’s hitting, Aaron Judge seems likely to make history at some point soon, tying Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs.
But the Blue Jays made sure neither celebration happened Monday, holding Judge homerless in five trips to the plate and keeping the Yankees’ champagne on ice with a walk-off, 3-2 win. In doing so, the Blue Jays showed off some high-end pitching – the kind that will surely play once the playoffs begin late next week.
A strong start from Kevin Gausman led the way for the Blue Jays, who gain a half game in the standings on the Rays and Mariners, both of whom were idle. Scoreless outings from Adam Cimber, Yimi Garcia, Jordan Romano, Anthony Bass and Tim Mayza followed as the Toronto pitching staff limited the AL’s best offence to just two runs. Then, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. walked it off in the 10th with a single that scored Cavan Biggio.
“Such a team effort tonight,” manager John Schneider said afterwards. “For (Guerrero Jr.) coming through with two outs is huge for him. He’s been grinding a little bit. Hopefully this catapults him down the stretch."
But even after a close game between two division rivals, what didn’t happen stands out nearly as much as what did.
Every time Judge came to the plate, a sense of anticipation set in at Rogers Centre. Phones went up, recording Judge’s every move. Some fans held signs inviting Judge to hit one into the outfield seats, nearly all of which were full. Right behind the Yankees’ first base dugout, Roger Maris Jr. sat and chatted with Judge's mom.
On the field, a different set of routines played out. Home plate umpire Laz Diaz received a new set of baseballs from the ball boys each time Judge stepped in. The baseballs were individually identifiable with numbers and other undisclosed ways of making sure the record-setting ball can be verified. A league authenticator was on the scene just in case. Starter Kevin Gausman wasn’t thrilled about it all, but he did his best to focus on the task at hand regardless.
“I don’t want to be the answer to a trivia question,” he told himself.
"You have to respect what Judge is doing," Schneider added. "With that comes a little bit of extra fanfare. I think our guys handled it really well."
Yet this was not the night for Judge, who singled and walked his first times up before striking out twice his next two at-bats. With two on and two out in the tenth, the Blue Jays walked Judge intentionally, preferring to have Mayza face Anthony Rizzo, who grounded out to end the threat.
“Smartest move is to not let the best guy on their team beat you,” Gausman said.
That set the stage for Guerrero Jr., who squared up a base hit to left field for his third walk-off hit of the season. The 34,307 in attendance made their presence known all night, and from talking to Blue Jays greats Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, Guerrero Jr. wasn’t surprised to see added intensity as the playoffs approach.
“I was talking to Bautista and Encarnacion,” he said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “They both told me that you haven’t seen Toronto yet.”
“You have to embrace it,” added Schneider. “Respect the fact that you’re here and enjoy what the fans are giving you.”
In the fourth inning, a Yankees misplay helped the Blue Jays get on the board. With none out and Bo Bichette on first, Guerrero Jr. bounced a 111.5 m.p.h. laser to shortstop. But Isiah Kiner-Falefa struggled to field it, and instead of a double-play, the Yankees had runners on first and second.
After an Alejandro Kirk walk loaded the bases, Teoscar Hernandez crushed a ball off the top of the centre field wall for a two-run double. Believing the ball was gone, Hernandez left the batter’s box slowly, but he still made it to second when the Yankees threw home in a futile attempt to stop Guerrero Jr. from scoring.
Making his 30th start of the season, Gausman pitched 6.1 innings of two-run ball, striking out seven to reach 201 whiffs on the season. The only walk he issued went to Judge as the right-hander lowered his season ERA to 3.30. Put simply, Gausman did what frontline starters do, going deep into the game against an elite offence with minimal damage allowed.
Afterwards, he said he would have preferred to use normal baseballs against Judge.
“Why does he need a different baseball?” Gausman said. “If we're writing something on it beforehand, I think he's going to get the baseball no matter what, right? I know why they're doing it. But, you know, kind of weird.”
Weird or not, Jose Berrios will face the same challenge when he starts opposite Jameson Taillon Tuesday in search of the Blue Jays’ 88th win of the season. And those in the Blue Jays’ clubhouse are hoping for a similar outcome when the series resumes.
“We know that they need to win one more to celebrate here,” Gausman said. “Obviously we’d like to win all three here and not let them do that.”