Walker shines in debut as Blue Jays push into legit playoff contention

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Taijuan Walker throws to a Baltimore Orioles batter during the first inning of a baseball game in Buffalo, N.Y., Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020. (Adrian Kraus/AP)

TORONTO – Things change fast in this 60-game season, and as much as the Toronto Blue Jays have had to keep an eye behind them in the standings to this point, the gap has narrowed enough that they can start looking out ahead, too.

An impressive six-shutout-inning debut by trade pickup Taijuan Walker and two more timely swings from Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio led the way in a 5-0 victory over the Baltimore Orioles on Saturday night — a 10th win in 13 games, pushing them further into legit contention.

At 17-14, the Blue Jays are now a mere half-game behind the New York Yankees (17-13) for second place in the American League East, while moving two games clear of the Detroit Tigers (15-16) for the eighth and final wild-card spot. The Orioles (14-18) had a good start but have now lost 10 of 12.

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“We’re trusting each other, especially on offence,” Guerrero said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “If I can take a walk for the next guy to get a base hit, get some runs that way, that’s what we’ve been doing the past couple of weeks. We’re trusting each other right now, we’re together and hopefully it continues that way.”

While this isn’t the time for anyone to get ahead of themselves – there’s a month still to go and Toronto is a bad series away from being on the wrong side of the cut-off line – the opportunity is such that the Blue Jays need to double down on the addition of Walker and keep pushing.

To that end, the front office is said to be “making a ton of calls” right now in pursuit of more help, with general manager Ross Atkins saying Thursday that “pitching and run prevention will be our focus,” ahead of Monday’s trade deadline.

“Definitely it feels good that the front office is bringing in people now,” Guerrero said. “We’re playing well and if they continue to bring people to help us out, even better.”

Even after adding Walker, in control throughout six efficient frames despite an uncharacteristic three walks, the need for pitching remains acute, exacerbated by the right middle finger strain that landed Canadian reliever Jordan Romano on the injured list Saturday.

Another starter makes sense, especially one with some control beyond this season like Lance Lynn of the Texas Rangers, whom Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic connected to the Blue Jays, among other clubs. The Blue Jays pursued Lynn in free agency a couple of winters ago so they’ve like him in the past, but they’re kicking tires on every arm available right now.

At the same time, it’s notable that Atkins has mentioned the broader “run prevention” as opposed to simply pitching in both of his recent discussions with media. Given the club’s defensive issues this year – they entered Saturday’s play with an MLB-worst minus-17 rating in Defensive Runs Saved – there’s definitely room to upgrade in that regard.

That’s easier said than done – no one is displacing Teoscar Hernandez and Guerrero, two of their soft spots in the field – but in the ongoing absence of Bo Bichette, who continues a careful resumption of baseball activities, getting better at shortstop would really help.

Pending free agent Andrelton Simmons of the Los Angeles Angels would shore that up, but a suggestion by Jon Heyman of MLB Network that they could add the shortstop and switch Bichette to third once he’s back would require at least a conversation out of respect to the young star, which isn’t believed to have happened yet.

Bichette’s timeline is uncertain, although he’s expected to play next month, while further reinforcements are on the horizon with closer Ken Giles set to throw a live batting practice Tuesday, Nate Pearson getting out to 90 feet Saturday and Matt Shoemaker to resume throwing Sunday.

Still, there’s never enough pitching, especially amid these constrained COVID-19 circumstances, and the Blue Jays have both enough prospect capital to make moves and the reason to do it, in stark contrast to the pre-deadline sell-offs the past two seasons.

“I feel like our offence can be pretty dangerous any night, we have a lot of guys who can drive the ball out of the yard consistently and our pitching has been phenomenal,” Randal Grichuk said. “Obviously with a couple of guys going down, that is a spot we need to either add, which we did, or just start extending some guys in the bullpen that are long guys. I’m excited with the guy we got.”

Walker rewarded that excitement Saturday, throwing 92 pitches during his first start in nine days, holding the game under his thumb for each of his six frames. While not at his sharpest – his command waned and he felt neither his curveball nor changeup had the usual bite – he still bulldozed through the Orioles, who managed only four hits against him.

He and catcher Danny Jansen also seemed to mesh well almost immediately, allowing Walker to establish the type of tempo that would alleviate baseball’s pace-of-game issues.

“Just confidence, to have confidence in me and confidence in all four of my pitches, to have a game-plan and to stick with it, no matter what’s going on,” Walker said of what worked with Jansen. “My curveball wasn’t very good today, but he kept calling it and I kept throwing it and that’s what I really like, we have to keep throwing all my pitches no matter what. And the communication, we had really good communication before the game, had a good game-plan and in-between every inning, we talked about the hitters coming up.”

Even more impressive is the way Walker zeroed in despite a tumultuous few days in which he helped lead the Seattle Mariners into a protest withdrawal from Wednesday’s game versus the San Diego Padres, got traded to the Blue Jays, and learned his family had “lost everything” when Hurricane Laura swept through Lake Charles, La.

Save for a couple moments of frustration at losing the zone, his even-keel was water-level accurate.

“He’s a big man, he throws all his pitches for strikes. He looked really good to me, like there’s a presence there,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “He looks like he’s going to give you a chance, which he did.”

The Blue Jays supported him right out of the gate by a two-run Guerrero single in the first inning that left the bat at 115.8 mph. A Derek Fisher fielder’s choice and two-run single in the fourth pushed the game out of reach, setting up a rare low-leverage night.

Significant challenges loom. The Blue Jays might be done with the powerhouse Tampa Bay Rays, but they still have 10 games against the Yankees next month, which will go a long way in deciding their fate. But they’ve survived some early-season struggles, they’ve overcome some roster attrition and now is the time to load up and make it all count.

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