MINNEAPOLIS – These are the games the Toronto Blue Jays need to be winning.
Facing a last-place team whose ace they traded for mid-season, the Blue Jays had things lined up nicely on paper, especially with George Springer returning to centre field for the first time in more than a month.
And Jose Berrios did well enough, striking out 10 and holding his former team to three runs before handing the ball over to the bullpen. But while the Yankees were beating up on the Red Sox at Fenway Park, the Blue Jays had trouble generating any offence against Bailey Ober at Target Field Friday on their way to a 3-1 loss.
At a critical point in their season, the 85-69 Blue Jays have now lost three in a row and fallen 2.0 games behind New York for the second wild-card berth. It’s not time to panic, but it is time to win and, suddenly, the Blue Jays aren’t winning.
"Just hang in there," Springer said afterwards. "This is obviously the point in the year where we know what we have to do. We know what's at stake. You've just got to flush it and it's on to tomorrow. You can't really dwell on it. You've just got to learn from it and move on."
With only eight games remaining in the regular season, the Blue Jays are running short on time. And while the upcoming Yankees series offers a real chance to gain ground, the Blue Jays should be using these chances against the Twins to keep the pressure on the teams ahead of them. Instead, they’re adding to their own challenge while the Mariners gain ground behind them.
Pitching at Target Field for the first time since the Twins traded him to Toronto in July, Berrios allowed a costly two-run home run to the multi-talented Byron Buxton but was otherwise sharp over the course of six innings.
“He had his best stuff of the year tonight,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. “It was just that one pitch. Other than that, he was really good.”
And while returning to Minnesota as a visitor took some getting used to, Berrios did enjoy support from the crowd of 18,861 fans, many of whom showed appreciation for his six-year tenure with the Twins.
"I still enjoyed pitching in this ballpark," Berrios said. "It's amazing to compete against the team that gave me the opportunity to be a big-leaguer."
The return of Springer to centre field does count as a positive for the Blue Jays, especially at a time that Lourdes Gurriel Jr. is sidelined after Randal Grichuk stepped on his hand, necessitating two stitches. Whenever Gurriel Jr. does return – possibly as soon as Saturday – he’s likely to do so as a designated hitter. With that in mind, having the flexibility to use Springer in the outfield does help.
Yet Springer hasn’t been hitting of late. He entered play Friday batting just .164/.247/.260 with one home run in the month of September and a hitless night against the Twins means those numbers will fall further. Asked after the loss what’s been happening at the plate, he acknowledged he’s still seeking those answers himself.
"I don't really know,” he said. “I know I've missed some pitches to hit. That happens. It's the game. But it's one of those things where I've got to keep grinding, and hopefully I can help out."
"I'm not going to make excuses for it," he added. "I know I need to perform. I know I need to help this team ... At this point it's not about stats, it’s about what I can do in the moment."
Still, at this point in the year, the Blue Jays need results and the four hits they managed against the Twins’ pitching staff were not nearly enough. Yes, there was some hard contact, including Marcus Semien’s 42nd home run of the year, but loud outs are the expectation when you’re facing the team with the second-worst ERA in the American League.
The Blue Jays’ hitters simply didn’t deliver Friday.
Despite the recent struggles, the Blue Jays are expecting a turnaround from Springer, a former World Series MVP with a lifetime OPS of .851.
“Hopefully it’ll come soon,” Montoyo said. “He’s one of the best players in baseball when he gets it going.”
Before the game, the Blue Jays activated Santiago Espinal, who doubled in his first game back after spending 25 games on the injured list due to a right hip flexor strain. His return allowed the Blue Jays to DFA Jake Lamb Thursday and option Kevin Smith Friday, but Breyvic Valera’s still expected to see time at third base moving forward.
On Saturday, Cy Young frontrunner Robbie Ray will get the ball for the Blue Jays in what might be his biggest start yet. Because while splitting this four-game series against the Twins might be something the Blue Jays can overcome, losing three of four under these circumstances is not a prospect any contender wants to contemplate.
"Maybe guys are feeling a little pressure, but that's a privilege,” Montoyo said. “We have earned it to get to this point to still have a chance after everything we've overcome the whole year. I'm proud of this team that at this moment, today, with eight games to go we still have a chance."