Springer delivers season-defining moment as Blue Jays stay hot

George Springer played the hero for the Toronto Blue Jays as he smashed a three-run go-ahead home run against the Boston Red Sox in the eighth inning, propelling them to a 9-8 win.

TORONTO — Toronto Blue Jays fans waited the better part of three months to see what George Springer could do in their team’s uniform. Amidst frustrating stops, tantalizing starts, and vague status updates in his recovery from a problematic quadriceps strain. On televisions, tablets, and phones broadcasting dimly lit scenes from minor-league parks in Dunedin and Buffalo while Rogers Centre sat empty. Throughout an uneven first-half of a 2021 season in which his team kept losing close games he could’ve helped them win.

Sunday afternoon, as the Blue Jays fell behind early to the Boston Red Sox with their ace on the mound and cost themselves repeated opportunities to retake the lead, another one of those games was playing out. The difference being Springer was there — leading off, playing centre field, coming to the plate in the eighth inning, bat in hand, wearing powder blue. That’s when, before 14,766 bunched around Rogers Centre’s 100 and 200 levels, the biggest free agent signing in franchise history produced his first emblematic moment as a Toronto Blue Jay. And probably not his last.

With two on, two out, and two strikes, against one of the game’s best closers who he grew up playing ball against as a teenager and rooming with at the University of Connecticut, Springer went down to get a 95-m.p.h. fastball and pulverized it 442-feet over the left-centre field wall, erasing a two-run deficit, bringing a building to its feet, and winning a ballgame. If the Blue Jays go on to make something of this season, to beat the odds and return to the playoffs, it’ll be a signature moment in an epic game at the end of an emotional homestand you’ll never forget.

“It's just indescribable,” Springer said after the Blue Jays capped a wild day with a 9-8 victory over the Red Sox. “To get down early but not quit, for us to keep battling all day, to hold them to only one more run — we just fought and battled and scratched and clawed all day.”

Do you reckon that one meant something special to him? As the ball sailed, Springer dropped his bat and watched it go, jumping in the air and screaming back at a Blue Jays dugout erupting onto the turf. And he didn’t stop yelling at he rounded first base. Didn’t stop when he reached home plate. Didn’t stop as he worked his way through the line of teammates waiting in front of the dugout steps to greet him. Didn’t stop as he threw that navy blue home run jacket over his shoulders.

That swing took Toronto’s win expectancy from 16.8 per cent — it was as low as 6.4 in the sixth inning — all the way to 83.6. It is not an exaggeration to call it the biggest, most meaningful hit of the Blue Jays season. It won a game, won a series, sealed a fabulously successful homestand, and put the Blue Jays 2.5 games back of a wild card spot. It was righteous. It was a long time coming. And it was worth every second of the wait.

“It's been hectic. It's been crazy,” Springer said of his season. “Didn’t really start the way I would have liked it to start, getting hurt. But, at this point, it's about staying in the moment. It's about staying present. I can't change the fact that I got hurt. That is what it is. But I’ve got to go out and play every single day as hard as I can. And I’ll leave everything I’ve got out there.”

Springer’s moment came nearly four hours into a back-and-forth struggle that began with Hyun Jin Ryu suffering through his worst appearance as a Blue Jay, allowing seven runs on 10 hits and a walk while striking out only one. It was the first time he’d given up that many runs in an outing since 2019, the second time in his last 22 games he’s recorded fewer than two strikeouts, and only the 10th time in 159 career starts he’s failed to complete four innings.

“Overall, everything just wasn’t how I want it to be,” Ryu said. “A lot of my pitches were going over the plate a little too much and resulting in a lot of hits. I prepared for today's game and wish that my command was there for me. But it just wasn't.”

It’s probably a little too simplistic to boil Ryu’s struggles down to purely location — but it certainly didn’t help. The 34-year-old was missing either too far off the plate to generate swings, or too far on the plate to avoid solid contact. That’s the fine line Ryu perpetually walks as a command-and-control pitcher whose fastball velocity is among MLB’s fourth percentile. He has to hit his spots, has to paint the corners. Otherwise, outings like Sunday’s are liable to occur.

After breezing through a crisp, 11-pitch first, Ryu surrendered four consecutive hits to open the second, letting the Red Sox put up a three-spot. The third inning opened with consecutive hits, as well, while the bullpen over Ryu’s right shoulder came to life. With one out, a run already in, and runners on second and third, the Blue Jays brought the infield in, trying to quell further damage.

Intriguingly, that was also the lone moment on the afternoon that Ryu looked anything like himself, tunnelling a fastball off his curveball to strike out Bobby Dalbec swinging, before getting Jonathan Arauz to swing under a full-count changeup and pop up to end the inning.

Still, the location of that changeup — up and over the plate rather than down and in where Reese McGuire set up — was part of the problem. Ryu left far too many pitches on the dish Sunday, struggling to bury his changeup at the bottom of the zone and letting his fastball come in below the chests of hitters rather than elevating it above the letters.

It’s not like he was allowing laser beams to the wall. But the Red Sox did well to take what Ryu was giving them, serving singles and doubles onto outfield turf, piling up eight hits through three innings, only the fourth time in 22 starts this season that Ryu’s surrendered as many.

And that total swelled to 10 — matching his season high — as Ryu allowed base hits to Jarren Duran and Xander Bogaerts in the fourth. Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker came out for a visit. Patrick Murphy started turning it up in the Blue Jays bullpen. And after a five-pitch walk to Rafael Devers — the only one close to the zone generously called a strike — Ryu’s day was done. He watched from the dugout as Murphy allowed consecutive singles, cashing all three runners he left behind.

But despite Ryu’s struggles, the Blue Jays hung around, as they do. Facing Red Sox starter Garrett Richards for an incredible sixth time this season, Toronto’s lineup got something going in the third, as Springer and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., both reached to lead off the inning.

But they came away with only a run on a Teoscar Hernandez single, as Marcus Semien, who’d fouled off five tough Richards offerings in a 10-pitch plate appearance, was punched out looking at what should have been ball four, before Corey Dickerson grounded into an inning-ending double play. And it’s not like the pitch Semien was called out on was particularly close:

Of course, incorrect rulings like those are to be expected when you’re asking a human to judge the location of a small object — one moving unpredictably with extreme velocity — within a variable, imaginary box in real time. Some of those calls aren’t going to go your way. You hope they don’t happen in such consequential moments. But them’s the breaks.

Guerrero Jr., clawed a couple runs back in the fifth, lifting an 0-2 Richards breaking ball over the left-field fence for his 35th homer of the season. And the top of the order came through again in the seventh, as Springer and Guerrero worked consecutive leadoff walks that came around to score off Red Sox reliever Adam Ottavino.

But the Blue Jays let Ottavino off the hook moments later, making a pair of outs on the basepaths to end the inning. Hernandez was gunned down trying to take third on a groundball to short; Dickerson was picked off straying too far from second; and another opportunity to overcome the deficit evaporated in frustrating, avoidable fashion.

If you’ve been watching the Blue Jays all season, you’re familiar with that feeling. Momentum-sapping own-goals; openings uncapitalized on; winnable games slipping away. But it wasn’t to be on this day, as Toronto’s stretched bullpen kept the club within two and, with two out and one on in the eighth, McGuire worked a nine-pitch walk against Red Sox closer Matt Barnes to put two runners on for Springer. And you know what happened next.

“For him to fight off some pitches and ultimately get to first base is huge,” Springer said of McGuire’s walk. “It shouldn’t get overshadowed because that's the at-bat of the game. Just an unbelievable at-bat."

Sunday’s win has to be a satisfying outcome for a Blue Jays team that entered this series 5-9 against Boston while outscoring them 74-66 — an agonizing microcosm of Toronto’s season. All along, as the club's run differential increased and its record in one-run games worsened, the Blue Jays have felt deserving of better fates, particularly against teams above them in the standings which they'd played competitively with little to show for it. Now, that luck finally appears to be turning.

“You never know what one game could do. One game could be the difference between the playoffs and not the playoffs,” Springer said. “Every game is huge now. It doesn't matter who it's against.”

After taking three of four off Boston this weekend, and 9 of 11 on the homestand, the Blue Jays have made significant gains towards a potential wild-card berth that looks much more realistic now than it did 10 days ago — and even in a divisional race that is still wide yet far from settled. For that fact alone, it’s impossible to call Toronto’s first true homestand of the season anything but a resounding success. And the results are supported by the process, as the Blue Jays outscored their opponents 58-32.

We all knew, as the Blue Jays spun their wheels a few games above .500 through June and July, that this team would eventually need to start making hay. It would have to outperform its first-half pace and start piling up wins to give itself a realistic chance of qualifying for postseason play. It would need to go on a run.

That’s no longer the case. Winners of 10 of 12, 16 of 24, and 27 of 42, the Blue Jays no longer need to go on a run. They need to sustain a run. With a .643 winning percentage since June 19 — tops in the American League — the Blue Jays have been running for some time. And if they keep this up over the season’s final 52 games, they’ll end up well north of 90 wins and positioned to play in the wild card game. Maybe even to host it.

And wouldn’t that be something to see on Bremner Boulevard? This is a team that’s been given a clear jolt over the last 10 days, feeding off the energy and emotion of playing before a legitimate home crowd for the first time in nearly two years, channelling that fervour into their play. Quality of opposition is a factor, of course. Kansas City is lousy; Cleveland is middling; Boston’s in a tailspin. But it’s hard to imagine a crowd 15,000-strong behind you not having an impact, as well.

There’s certainly no quantifying it. There’s no empirical explanation for it. We’re talking about professional athletes here — individuals who are greatly incentivized to perform to the best of their abilities regardless of where games occur. But, at this point, how can you deny it? Every Blue Jays player, coach, and staff member has raved about it. Anyone who’s been at the ballpark over the last 10 days has felt it. It’s real.

“We're playing at home. I cannot stop talking about it because that's the truth. The energy that this place gives us, it's huge,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. “When we played Boston in Buffalo, it was full of Boston fans. So, we never got that energy. And the players from Boston felt comfortable there in our home. So, we haven't had that. And here, it's just that energy. When the trade deadline came, that was the biggest trade — coming back to Toronto.”

And even if the crowd is giving only a marginal boost each night, a percentage point here or there, that’s something. And like anything in life, that small, daily advantage adds up and compounds over time, growing into something more meaningful in the greater scheme of things. That’s how the Blue Jays won a game Sunday. Small, incremental gains inning by inning. Chipping away, chipping away. Until George’s big swing.

“It's probably one of my best moments here so far, for sure,” Springer said. “But, at the end of the day, I don't really look at anything like that. I’ve got to go out and play as hard as I can every day for the guys who are in that locker room, the fans, the city, the country — I've got to go out there and give everything I’ve got. And hopefully something positive happens.”

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