TORONTO – Amid the eclipsing of their own post-season pursuits by Aaron Judge’s omnipresent orbit, the Toronto Blue Jays are quietly working toward pivotal decisions while picking up valuable lessons big and small.
The extra-inning machinations of John Schneider that helped stall the pursuit of Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 homers certainly led to insights into the interim manager’s strategies and standing Tuesday, even as the star slugger walked four times and scored twice in a 5-2 win that clinched the AL East for the New York Yankees.
Last week’s stretch of four losses in five games by the Blue Jays made that divisional outcome an inevitability, one that led to the Yankees (95-59) spraying champagne in the visitors' clubhouse before charging out to the field for a triumphant photo on the Rogers Centre mound.
As bad as that was, the messy performance before a Rogers Centre crowd of 40,528, ending a three-game win streak and sealing the deal, prompted Schneider to rebuke two of his most important players for baserunning gaffes that truncated a promising rally in the sixth inning.
Bo Bichette, whose foot came off the bag after he slid safely into second with what should have been a double, must be “more attentive,” while Vladimir Guerrero Jr. “flat out needs to run harder” after getting thrown out at second after a slow start out of the box “that’s inexcusable.”
“We're at the point where every little thing matters, every 90 feet matters,” he added, “it should matter every day of the season, and that wasn't the best right there.”
Far from, yet the magic number for the Blue Jays (87-68) to clinch a wild-card berth still dropped to two when the Baltimore Orioles (80-74) fell 13-9 to Boston. The Tampa Bay Rays, 6-5 winners over AL Central-champion Cleveland, are now 1.5 games back of them for the top wild-card spot, while the Seattle Mariners (83-69) are three games back after losing 5-0 to the Texas Rangers.
“Congratulations to Aaron Boone and his staff and the Yankees. This is the hardest division in baseball. Good on them for doing what they did,” said Schneider, adding later: “They gave themselves quite a cushion in the first half. We're hoping to be in the post-season, we're hoping to see them, we're hoping to continue to play deep into October. I don't think there's anything to draw on it. You move on, you've got tomorrow and you try to win a series.”
The way he transitioned between messages post-game – from correcting and stern to measured and encouraging – were the latest examples of what GM Ross Atkins earlier in the day described as Schneider’s consistency, preparedness and positivity.
His derring-do in Monday night’s 3-2 win – intentionally walking Judge to load the bases in a matchup call to escape a 10th-inning jam – was telling not only about his decision-making in extreme leverage, but also how his standing with the front office provides the latitude to take well-reasoned risk.
The Blue Jays could have easily stayed right-on-right with Anthony Bass during that inning, but instead brought in lefty Tim Mayza to take on Anthony Rizzo, inducing a groundout to end the threat. Mayza was told the plan as he was warming up and “after the fact, you're like, ‘Wow! That was a pretty cool move.’ But in the moment, you accept the challenge and go attack that hitter as best you can.”
Whether it worked out or not, it’s not the type of easily second-guessable decision someone worried about his future makes. Atkins “wants him to feel the power to make decisions that may be perceived as potentially riskier,” and when probed about Schneider’s future, he didn’t commit to stripping the interim tag from his title, but didn’t sound like someone laying groundwork for a potential change, either.
“He's certainly a long-term fit and we continue to work through that and feel good about his leadership to date,” said Atkins. “Whether or not that ends up being a manager is not our focus. Not because we don't have the utmost respect for the job that he's done and is doing, but more all of our energy is being deployed towards winning tonight and the next day.”
For his part, Schneider said that in the 2½ months since taking over from the fired Charlie Montoyo, “I’ve come to realize that I absolutely love (the job) and couldn't think of a better place to be and couldn't think of a better group to be with. (The mind) wanders every now and then when you're sitting there at night or talking to your wife. But I'm focused on winning games and hopefully that continues to happen.”
As that plays out behind the scenes, the more imminent call involves Jose Berrios and how his outing Tuesday will impact the club’s wild-card round rotation deliberations.
Berrios pitched better than a messy pitching line – five earned runs on nine hits and two walks, both to Judge, in 5.1 innings – would suggest and Schneider felt the right-hander “probably had his best stuff of the year.” His velocity was up nearly two m.p.h. across the board and at 97.3, he threw his hardest pitch of the year en route to seven strikeouts.
A pair of Bichette misplays in the fifth, one on a Rizzo blooper to short right-centre and a throwing error on a Josh Donaldson grounder two batters later, extended an inning that should have ended without damage. And perhaps they contributed to a troublesome two-run sixth, when Aaron Hicks ripped an RBI double and later came around on Gleyber Torres’ second RBI single of the game.
“I felt pretty good out there, I thought I was throwing the ball the right way,” said Berrios, who’s been weighed down preparing his Florida home for Hurricane Ian’s arrival and caring for family both there and in Puerto Rico, which was recently struck by Hurricane Fiona. “But that's baseball. Sometimes it doesn't matter if you have your best stuff.”
Judge scored on two of his walks and perhaps if his chase of Maris wasn’t soaking up so much of the baseball’s world oxygen, the Blue Jays might be attacking him differently, although Schneider chalked the walks up to Judge not straying from his approach.
Either way, the jump in Berrios’ raw stuff is sure to get the Blue Jays thinking, because the extra power is bound to play if he can maintain it. At the same time, there will be debate over whether to ride with him or sacrifice some upside to lean on the reliability of Ross Stripling.
The front office was surely hoping for a more definitive answer on Berrios one way or another, but he showed enough to steer some of the conversation.
Definitive is that the Yankees are AL East champions and the Blue Jays will soon punch their ticket to the post-season, too, perhaps even as soon as Wednesday, beneath the ample shadow cast by Judge and his chase of 61 and beyond.