TORONTO – The Cleveland Guardians are a pain in the ass.
At the plate, they’re a pesky bunch, fouling off pitches, finding holes no matter the defensive alignment, with Jose Ramirez lurking in the three-hole to deliver big blows. On the mound, they keep churning out pitchers capable of suppressing contact and generating swing and miss. Defensively, they’re pretty air tight.
“I really like this team – I think we have a good chance this year,” said Cal Quantrill, the Canadian right-hander who on Friday delivered seven shutout innings in an 8-0 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays. “We're a complete baseball team. I think we surprise teams when we come in to play, they don't know what they're getting into, we have so many young kids out there playing. The fact that I'm referring to anyone else as a kid is just ridiculous, I'm not that much older (he’s 27). We're just so young and it's just fun. It's an exciting bench. I'm sure you saw the emotion between Josh Naylor and I, but we're not even the craziest of the group.”
That they’re playing in the junior varsity American League Central definitely helps, but the Blue Jays have certainly gotten all they can handle from them so far, fighting tooth and nail Saturday afternoon for a 2-1 victory.
Solo shots by Matt Chapman in the fifth inning – ending a 16-inning run drought – and Teoscar Hernandez in the seventh inning off Triston McKenzie provided the difference as the Blue Jays improved to 2-4 against the Guardians this season with their second win in seven games.
But it was touch and go all afternoon before a crowd of 44,977, with starter Mitch White having to grind through 4.2 solid innings of one-run ball, five relievers forced to navigate traffic to close things out and the offence managing precious little despite lots of solid contact.
Up until Chapman’s homer in the fifth all they managed off McKenzie was a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. ground-rule double in the first, extending his hitting streak to 22 games, and walks to Chapman in the second and Hernandez in the fourth as several lasers turned into an out.
Consider this sampling:
A Lourdes Gurriel Jr., liner to right at 102.2 m.p.h with an expected batting average of .630 in the first;
Alejandro Kirk’s liner later that inning with an expected average of .920;
Guerrero’s groundout to second hit at 105.1 m.p.h. and an expected batting average of .560;
Bo Bichette’s inning-ending double play grounder in fourth hit at 106.7 m.p.h. off the bat with an expected average of .490.
That’s going to happen over the course of a long season but for a lineup that’s not clicking at the moment, it’s all the more maddening.
“Yeah, it's frustrating when you hit the ball, you're taking good at-bats and nothing is happening, especially in the moment we are in,” said Hernandez. “You just have to keep going, keep grinding every day and and just help our teammates stay focused, to do what they've been doing, to keep hitting the ball hard because those bad moments are going to go and the good ones are going to come.”
Underlining just how tough it is to score for them right now, a potential add-on run in the seventh was erased at the plate when Andres Gimenez made a terrific play to keep Santiago Espinal’s bouncer from reaching the outfield and fired off-balance to the plate to get Raimel Tapia on a play that survived a replay challenge.
Regardless, they created more opportunity for offence Saturday and interim manager John Schneider saw more grind in his team’s at-bats, although he still wants to see it more consistently.
“We have the ability to change the leverage of a game in one swing, but it's going to take more than that,” he explained. “It's going to take consistent at-bats and getting on base and when that big blow comes, it’s even better with guys on.”
The replay ruling nearly loomed large in the eighth when Naylor doubled with two out off Yimi Garcia to put the tying run in scoring position and Schneider turned to Jordan Romano, who walked Gimenez before striking out Oscar Gonzalez.
Romano then locked down the ninth for his 26th save in his fifth multi-inning this season.
“He's showing that he can do it,” said Schneider, noting that his closer was due to pitch Saturday no matter what and that he’s expected to be ready Sunday if needed. “I trust him in any spot.”
This series is the second between the clubs and they won’t meet again unless it’s in the post-season. The Guardians took three of four during a May series in Cleveland and the way they found holes during that set prompted the Blue Jays to “definitely back down the aggressiveness in terms of shifting (for the current series)” and “we did kind of as a whole collectively after that series anyway,” said Schneider.
“We've kind of been a little bit more neutral, if you will, especially with some right-handed hitters,” he continued. “But that's how they play and it's a credit to them. So hopefully when they do put it in play on the ground, we're in the right spot. But they're very diligent about putting the ball in play. And if you look at them as a whole, they're busting their ass down the line, they're putting the ball in play. It’s obviously something they think is important. So we've got to be able to respond.”
After a rough start – White’s first seven pitches were balls – the right-hander acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers at the deadline settled in to keep Cleveland largely under wraps. At 94.6 m.p.h., his fastball velocity ticked up from his average of 93.7, while his slider sat at 86.2, up from 85.
He threw a handful of curveballs and a few changeups, mostly to lefties. White also featured his slider against them, too, including a back-foot beauty that Ramirez swung through in the third, prompting the all-star to pound his bat into the ground.
“Definitely using my legs a little better,” White said of the uptick in velocity. “Last outing was probably a low point in terms of velo. Maybe a little bit of adrenaline, too. I'll take it.”
As for fighting off the death-by-papercuts attack of the Guardians, White said his approach is to ensure he’s “commanding the ball in the zone and inducing weak contact. Spin the ball well, but just keep it around and let them get themselves out as opposed to grinding out long ABs and wasting pitches.”
That’s Cleveland’s M.O., and it’s different from the bash-and-cash ball the Blue Jays typically play against their American League East rivals. Being able to win in different ways matters and they’ll need to be at their flexible best against Shane Bieber in Sunday’s series finale to stave off the Guardians at the gate.