PITTSBURGH – The relief for the Toronto Blue Jays was evident before Bo Bichette’s three-run double in the seventh inning touched green in the left-field corner. George Springer urged trailing runners Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Matt Chapman, who walked after his base hit, to follow him home as he approached the plate. Guerrero pointed out toward Bichette as he came in, while Springer hopped up and down with both arms in the air as Chapman raced across. Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who left the on-deck circle for the safety of the dugout after consecutive Bichette foul balls just missed him, emerged and pumped his fists in the air.
That the hit meant so much is a result of both the pressures of playing meaningful September baseball and a collective dry spell hitting with runners in scoring position. Bichette’s 108.7 m.p.h. liner that provided the difference in a 4-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates, on the 10th pitch of a grinding at-bat against Duane Underwood Jr., was the Blue Jays’ first in 10 tries Saturday. The tenacity in his approach was exactly what you want in that spot.
“Just never give in,” Bichette said of his mindset. “Don't let him speed me up. Trust in my ability. Trust how quick I am. And I just did a pretty good job of that.”
In the seven games preceding this one, against the Los Angeles Angels and Chicago Cubs and Friday’s series opener at picturesque PNC Park, they had gone just 9-for-47, a .191 average, with the chance to bring in runs and scored only 22 times.
As the wild-card standings contracted within that same stretch, the weight on each at-bat felt bigger and bigger. On Saturday, they came up empty after putting two men aboard in four separate innings before Bichette broke through, to the delight of a heavy pro-Blue Jays contingent among the crowd of 23,568.
“That's just a big, big at-bat, a huge moment,” said Springer. “The at-bats by Vladdy, by Chappy were huge. Bo battled his ass off. He fought off some good pitches. That guy's throwing 96, 97. He's got a nasty changeup and a 94 mile per hour cutter and somehow, someway Bo just fought and battled and it's just a huge moment for us, especially when that’s what we needed.”
Still, the difficulty in pushing across runs meant a steady diet of higher-than-expected leverage against teams the Blue Jays (72-59) expected to handle more comfortably.
Alek Manoah did the heavy lifting for them in Friday’s 4-0 win while the tightrope walk Saturday was far more taxing on a deftly handled bullpen day. Key moments included Yimi Garcia entering the game far earlier than usual and inducing a key double play to end the fifth in relief of Yusei Kikuchi and Tim Mayza striking out Jack Suwinski with men on the corners in the eighth. Jordan Romano threw a clean ninth for his 29th save.
“Kind of all hands on deck,” interim manager John Schneider said of going to Garcia in the fifth. “We were going to pick and choose our spots based on where they were in the order and based on traffic on the bases. A lot earlier than what he's used to usually but if we didn't use them there, maybe we wouldn't use him. Just another hell of a job.”
Indeed, and credit to the pitching staff for keeping the Blue Jays in games, but clear is that the offence needs to start fulfilling more of the innings they’ve created. Small sample sizes are noisy, of course, and the past week could merely be the work of randomness. In zooming out for a better read, the Blue Jays entered the day 14th in the majors hitting with runners in scoring position with a .260 average, along with a .342 OBP and .423 slug, and while not elite, it’s not the raging inferno it’s felt like in recent days, either.
Worth noting is that the Blue Jays entered Saturday eighth in the majors with 605 runs scored, better than Houston, Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Seattle and Cleveland. Their hot and cold spells remain enigmatic and there remains a sense of bewilderment around the team about why they haven’t put together the type of extended run they appear to be capable of, but sometimes baseball is weird, winning is hard and the players on other teams drive nice cars, too.
“It's tough, right? Not a lot of runway” remaining in the season, said Schneider. “Overall, the last month or so, we're swinging at the right pitches. The results have been a little bit varied, but the talent in there is going come through and tonight was a perfect example of that. You've got to stick with it. You can't abort mission, try to panic and try to do too much. That's when it goes a little bit south. The season is short, but at the same time, they're good enough to kind of stick with that approach.”
As quickly as the Blue Jays went cold, they can similarly get hot, too, and Bichette’s recent resurgence bodes well in that regard. He came into the day batting .349/.429/.535 in his previous 11 games and while he swung at the first pitch in his first three trips Saturday – resulting in a single and two flyouts – he wore down Underwood until finally whipping around a 91.7 m.p.h. cutter.
“I definitely feel like myself,” he said. “I've always been very aggressive and just kind of feel like I'm embracing that. Being aggressive, trusting in my two-strike approach allows me to do that early count and I definitely feel pretty good.”
The fine line for Bichette and his teammates is the balance between taking it to opponents and, in his words, “being too aggressive and looking wild,” and his swing from the first three trips up to the fourth was exactly that.
Schneider called the duel with Underwood “a testament to him and who he is as a competitor” and added that Bichette “is really, really good right now. And it's just a big boost for us.”
“You can look back a couple of weeks ago when we talked about there's one at-bat, or one inning that really gets you going – that at-bat by Bo symbolized that a little bit,” Schneider added. “You don't want to do too much. The walks by Vladdy and Chappy to get to that point is really indicative of what we're trying to do and then just keep passing the baton, get someone up there, get a good pitch to hit and don't miss it. All in all, that inning, the approach is kind of what we wanted to do and you got the right hitter up at the right time.”
Bichette delivered and a night headed for frustration instead ended in elation for a Blue Jays team fighting to unlock the floodgates at the plate.