ARLINGTON, Texas – If it feels like the Toronto Blue Jays were just in this spot last weekend – in a three-game series of opportunity against a much weaker opponent, trying to line up their pitching for a pivotal set against a division rival next week – well, that’s because they were.
Alek Manoah set them up perfectly for the 6-1 week that followed with 7.1 dominant innings in the opener, laying the groundwork for both the bullpen game that beat the Pittsburgh Pirates the next day and the Kevin Gausman/Jose Berrios combo that swept a Monday doubleheader from the Baltimore Orioles.
The blueprint for a weekend deep in the heart of Texas ahead of next week’s five-game series versus the Tampa Bay Rays wasn’t much different for the Blue Jays, who recovered after blowing a late lead to beat the Texas Rangers 4-3 Friday night on Danny Jansen’s RBI single in the ninth.
Raimel Tapia started the decisive rally with a walk, stole second, advanced to third on Santiago Espinal’s deep fly ball and trotted home easily on Jansen’s 68.8 m.p.h. liner over a drawn-in infield before a crowd of 21,329 at cavernous Globe Life Field.
Jordan Romano then locked things down in the ninth, ensuring six table-setting innings from Ross Stripling and another brilliant night in Bo Bichette’s September surge – a run-scoring groundout that opened the scoring in the first, a two-run homer that provided some needed cushion in the third and a one-out triple stranded in the eighth – didn’t go to waste.
The situational baseball pushed them up to 77-60 and ensured they’d remain at least level in the wild-card standings, pending the result of Seattle’s game against Atlanta.
“That’s something that that we’ve done over the last couple of months, trying to get the small-ball effect in there,” said Jansen. “Get the safety bunts over, man on second, nobody out, move him over … the little parts of baseball that are huge. That one inning, with Tapia’s walk and stealing and Espinal moving him over, that’s showing you how crucial that small ball is.”
Still, it was Stripling, delivering his usual handy work, that kept the club’s pitching plans for a gruelling stretch of 11 games in 10 days on track, even after getting through the final three frames turned out to be heavier lifting than expected.
“That was perfect,” said pitching coach Pete Walker. “If we had scored a couple more runs, (Stripling) probably would have stayed in there (longer) but obviously our bullpen was rested. It puts us in a great position going into (Saturday’s) game with Gaus and then a bullpen day possibly on Sunday and then moving into next week. It’s kind of a grind right now, a lot of games in a short amount of time. And any time a starter gets deep into the game, it gives us a great chance out of the following day.”
The Blue Jays went one reliever more than planned as Adam Cimber got two outs in the seventh but needed Yimi Garcia to bail him out a of runners-on-the-corners jam. Garcia then left a runner on third with one out in the eighth for Tim Mayza, who gave up a game-tying RBI double to Corey Seager before getting Nathaniel Lowe and Jonah Heim to end the frame, with Romano later collecting save No. 32.
“Whenever you can go deep into the game it lines up the bullpen for the next day and the day after that, so quality starts are huge, getting guys in the right spots is huge,” said interim manager John Schneider. “Strip definitely did that tonight.”
Gausman starts Saturday and the deeper he goes, the easier it will be for the Blue Jays to throw another bullpen game Sunday in the series finale. That would allow them to push Jose Berrios back to Monday’s opener against the Rays, with Alek Manoah slated for one of the games in Tuesday’s day-night doubleheader. Mitch White is a candidate to return from the taxi squad as the 29th man to start the other, with Stripling and Gausman handling the rest of that series.
The Blue Jays would need to figure out a starter for Friday’s return engagement against the Orioles, but would have Berrios and Manoah for the weekend.
Working that out is essential, as the lineup took a hit when Lourdes Gurriel Jr., was forced to the injured list with a left hamstring strain. The earliest he could return is for the Sunday finale against the Orioles although interim manager John Schneider said he’s “not quite sure” if Gurriel would be ready in time and added, “it has a chance to be longer, I think. But we’ll know more after the initial 10 days, how he’s responding and go from there.”
The Blue Jays will get a boost Saturday when Teoscar Hernandez returns from paternity leave and anything the offence can do to ease the burden on the pitching staff will be welcome.
Still, in the midst of a stretch that’s defining their season, the Blue Jays will continue to need all hands on deck regardless of the opponent, whether it’s bottom-feeders like the Pirates and Rangers or post-season rivals like the Orioles and Rays.
“I mean, it’s fun,” Jansen said of this high leverage run. “This is the baseball that you’ve got to through them. We’re all right there in the standings, so what better than just to play each other and see what happens, right? That’s definitely our thought, take each game one at a time. We know how important they are, but not stressing about it, putting too much pressure on each other. Just going out there preparing and having fun.”