Birds of prey: Tempers flare as Blue Jays fall to Orioles in heated clash

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays is held back by Jorge Mateo of the Baltimore Orioles after the benches cleared during the seventh inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on September 06, 2022 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

BALTIMORE — Perhaps you suspected Tuesday’s home plate umpire — Jeff Nelson — would chart a character arc in that evening’s game between the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles.

You may remember him from such films as the late-April Blue Jays loss to the Oakland Athletics, when he oversaw one of the five worst strike zones in the over 2,000 MLB games played this season — one that significantly favoured Oakland — as judged by Umpire Scorecards.

And from Monday afternoon, when he ruled Kevin Gausman balked upon delivering his very first pitch with a runner on base. Gausman was incensed; a commotion ensued. There was little perceptibly different about Gausman’s delivery a pitch later with the runner on second, which wasn’t ruled a balk. In the words of the Blue Jays starter, “it felt premeditated.”

Cut to the top of Tuesday’s seventh inning and Nelson was letting the Blue Jays dugout have it, saying, “I’m not listening to it, all right? And I heard you — and that’s it.”

Two batters later, the benches cleared.

[brightcove videoID=6311961865112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

That incident stemmed from an interaction between Bryan Baker — who was in the Blue Jays organization from 2018 through 2021 and spent a week on Toronto’s major-league roster last September — and Teoscar Hernandez. After the Orioles reliever got the Blue Jays outfielder to ground into a double play on a full-count pitch, Baker followed Hernandez up the first-base line and said something to him. Hernandez laughed it off and headed back to his dugout.

Moments later, Baker struck out Matt Chapman to end the inning and stared directly into the Blue Jays dugout, making a motion with his right hand and pointing at Hernandez as he walked off the mound. That’s when it all kicked off. And after the game, the Blue Jays had some feedback for their former teammate.

“I didn’t understand why Bryan Baker was looking into our dugout after giving up a run on back to back days,” said interim manager John Schneider. “I don’t think it was a Teo thing. I think it was Baker looking into our dugout like he has every time he’s pitched against us since he wasn’t part of our team. And I think our team reacted.”

“I guess he was mad because yesterday I hit a homer. Every time he pitches against us, he tries to make a show,” Hernandez said. “When I hit the ground ball, he’s staring at me and saying, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ Like I don’t know what happened. And then he strikes out Chapman and he turned into our dugout and started talking and pointing at me, saying that I was talking too much. But I wasn’t talking, I wasn’t saying anything. And then he started walking and I just reacted.”

“You can enjoy the moment. We understand that. If you strike out somebody, you can celebrate. But when you stare at the person, it’s kind of disrespectful,” said Vladimir Guerrero Jr. “I mean, I don’t know, maybe you think you’re a superhero or something — whatever it is. But, yeah, it does cross the line. … We believe if you’re looking at the dugout, you want problems. You want us to react.”

The Blue Jays certainly reacted, layering plenty of spice and intrigue into what was ultimately a 9-6 loss to the Orioles. The tension continued to escalate prior to the bottom of the seventh, as Nelson issued warnings to Yimi Garcia and each dugout, which brought Schneider back to the field for a word. It wasn’t his last.

Seven pitches later, as a Garcia slider near the bottom of the zone was ruled a ball, Nelson heard something form the Blue Jays dugout he didn’t like and ejected Schneider from the game. Which instigated the most heated moment we’ve seen from the Blue Jays interim manager since he took the job eight weeks ago:

Schneider got every inflated dollar of his money’s worth, unloading from a deep reserve of grievances with Nelson that have built up over time. Nelson stood there and took it. And a series between two American League East rivals battling for a wild card spot delivered the fireworks everyone was expecting when it began.

“I didn’t understand the warnings,” Schneider said. “And I thought a couple of pitches were close that Jeff didn’t agree with. I asked, ‘Was that down?’ And he threw me out. So, I wasn’t quite sure what prompted that.”

So, that sets quite a stage for Wednesday, as Alek Manoah — the testy 24-year-old took a good, long look at the Orioles from his dugout as they celebrated Tuesday’s victory — takes on Dean Kremer in the finale of this four-game series. The Blue Jays will begin the day 3.5 games up on the Orioles for the third and final wild card spot. That would’ve make the stakes of the game high enough even without everything else. But now, there will be everything else.

“We’re all playing for something right now,” Schneider said. “We’re playing really well. We’ve won however many in a row on the road. We’re confident with what we’re doing. And we have one of our best dudes tomorrow. Win a series and move on.”

Of course, in order to win this series, Toronto will need to pitch better than it did the day prior and take advantage of opportunities to drive in runs. The Blue Jays were outscored by three Tuesday despite out-hitting the Orioles by four.

Bo Bichette stayed surface-level-of-the-sun hot, going 4-for-5 with a double and a homer, giving him hits in 16 of 28 plate appearances this month. Alejandro Kirk had four hits himself, while George Springer and Chapman had two apiece.

But Mitch White pitched his worst outing since being acquired at the trade deadline, getting only seven outs while coughing up five runs on three hits and three walks. Orioles starter Kyle Bradish wasn’t much better, allowing three runs over his three innings. But his bullpen kept Toronto’s offence contained, while Orioles hitters piled on against Toronto’s, particularly Trevor Richards, who gave up three runs in the bottom of the eighth.

White’s trouble came in his third inning, which began with a seven-pitch walk of the No. 8 hitter, Rougned Odor, followed by a five-pitch walk of No. 9, Jorge Mateo. He fell behind the next batter, Cedric Mullins, fought his way back to two strikes, then plunked him, loading the bases with none out.

It’s not what you want. Neither is the 1-1 back-up slider White threw three pitches later, which Adley Rutschman rifled up the third-base line to plate two of those runners. Nor the nine-pitch battle White found himself in with the next man up, Anthony Santander.

White eventually got Santander to make an out. But then Ryan Mountcastle laced a 106.5-mp.h. single through a drawn-in infield. And a four-pitch walk of Ramon Urias later, White’s evening was done. He ultimately threw 36 pitches in that third inning, giving up five runs while retiring only two.

“I think he just lost command. It was weird. He was really good the first two innings. And then you walk Odor, and you walk Mateo, and you hit Cedric on a two-strike pitch, which is a little bit out of character,” Schneider said. “So, from there we tried to stretch some length out of him a little bit because you’re a little bit light [in the bullpen.] But just command kind of escaped him. And for as good as he started, that was a tough third.”

White biggest issue was an inability to generate swing-and-miss. He earned only one whiff on 63 pitches, a season-low and the third time in his six starts with Toronto he’s generated fewer than seven.

White’s slider has been a reliable bat-missing weapon for him over the course of his career and as recently as last Wednesday, when he earned nine swinging strikes with it against the Chicago Cubs. But he threw the pitch 16 times Tuesday and earned only that lone whiff, as Orioles hitters either laid off the pitch (10 times), fouled it off (three), or put it in play (two).

The right-hander’s sequencing and location likely had something to do with that, as far too many of his sliders were thrown early in counts and landed too far off the plate. Meanwhile, his control fluctuated throughout his start — particularly against the five Orioles batting left-handed — as he missed either well off the plate or right over the heart of it.

White’s best pitch on the night was his four-seam fastball glove-side to right-handed hitters, which he landed for five called strikes, including one that rung up Mountcastle in the second inning. But that was about all White had working Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Toronto’s offence had its chances but went 4-for-16 with runners in scoring position, stranding eight. The most critical missed opportunity came in the fourth, when Cavan Biggio drew a lead-off walk against Bradish and advanced to third on a Lourdes Gurriel Jr. single.

That’s the same place Biggio finished the inning, as Whit Merrifield flew out at a depth too shallow for him to score, George Springer struck out looking at a 1-2 pitch at the knees, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. grounded out on an elevated slider.

Situations like those, in which the Blue Jays strand a runner at third with less than two outs, are all too familiar. Entering Tuesday’s play, Toronto hitters had made plate appearances with less than two out and a runner on third 231 times this season and cashed that run in only 114 of them — a 49.4 per cent rate. That ranked 22nd among the 30 MLB teams and only a tenth of a percentage point ahead of the 23rd place Atlanta Braves.

So, plenty to look for in Wednesday’s finale. Toronto’s plate appearances with runners in scoring position. A fiery starting pitcher who leads the AL in hit batters staring down a club his team mixed it up with a day prior. Any carry-over from the dust-up between Baker and Hernandez. Nelson getting himself involved, as he always seems to do. Feels like a big one. Feels like September.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.