Blue Jays’ bats assist bullpen, carry the day in comfortable win over Rays

Hazel Mae and Arden Zwelling discuss the tribute to Russell Martin, Jose Berrios' bounce-back performance, and the bullpen usage as the Toronto Blue Jays endeavor on a busy holiday weekend.

TORONTO – The Blue Jays may have discovered the solution to their bullpen issues: score nine runs a game.

Sustainable? Maybe not, but the Blue Jays are hitting at their best right now, with an MLB-leading 170 runs scored in June to go along with 50 home runs last month. Wearing their red jerseys in front of a sellout Canada Day crowd of 44,445 Friday, some of that offensive output carried into July with a festive 9-2 win over the visiting Tampa Bay Rays.

“It was so special,” said starter Jose Berrios. “I’ve heard a lot about this day, but being here and pitching today was very emotional. I know a lot of Canadians enjoy it and want to be at the ballpark on a day like today.”

“It was amazing, to say the least,” added Cavan Biggio, who reached base four times Friday. “In 2020 and 2021 we definitely missed this place. Now we’re finally back and we’re experiencing that energy that we’ve all been looking forward to on a nightly basis.”

A Lourdes Gurriel Jr. home run put the finishing touch on this one, but the Blue Jays also hit six doubles, five of which came off Rays starter Corey Kluber in a five-run third inning. A three-run sixth created necessary breathing room for the Blue Jays, who were able to rest most of their high-leverage relievers on a day Berrios was not at his sharpest.

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With three hits, including his fifth home run of the season, Gurriel Jr. helped drive the Blue Jays’ offence. But don’t overlook Biggio, who walked twice while also hitting two doubles on a day his season on-base percentage climbed to .385.

“Today was great,” Biggio said. “Just hit after hit. A good pitcher, a good experienced guy on the mound, but we had a plan and we were able to execute it.”

Even before a pitch was thrown, Blue Jays fans had plenty to cheer about Friday. The recently retired Russell Martin was honoured with a memorable video narrated by former teammate Jose Bautista and personal messages from the likes of former Jays manager John Gibbons and fellow Canadian Joey Votto.

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As the video tributes played in centre field, most Blue Jays players watched from the dugout. The fans also responded warmly to Martin, who later threw out the ceremonial first pitch to another athletic catcher who wears No. 55: Gabriel Moreno.

“Unbelievable career,” Biggio said of Martin. “What stands out to me the most is he played 14 years in the majors and made the playoffs 10 times. That’s what this game’s all about: it’s about winning.”

As for Berrios, he was effective enough, allowing two runs on eight hits over the course of five innings. He worked in and out of trouble, though, stranding nine runners, including both of the batters he walked.

While his fastball averaged 93.6 m.p.h., the Rays weren’t often fooled by the right-hander, who generated eight swinging strikes on 98 total pitches. Still, the Blue Jays will take that from Berrios, especially considering he had allowed 14 earned runs over the course of his previous two starts.

“He’s better than what he did today,” Montoyo said. “He was missing by a little bit and that made him throw even more pitches and work harder …  at the end of the day, he did the job.”

But realistically, the Blue Jays would have been in a tough spot without so much help from their offence. Adam Cimber was presumed unavailable after pitching three days in a row, and David Phelps was likely off limits given that he’d just pitched in four of five. This was not an ideal day for the Blue Jays to try preserving a one- or two-run lead.

Thanks to their lineup, they didn’t have to. With the exception of one inning from Trent Thornton, the Blue Jays were able to avoid their high-leverage relievers, putting them in a relatively strong position entering Saturday’s double-header. 

“If our pitching gives us a chance, our offence is going to go and that’s exactly what happened,” Montoyo said. “We should be better tomorrow because of that.”

Sergio Romo made his Blue Jays debut with a clean inning seventh inning that featured two strikeouts and Max Castillo pitched the final two innings without incident as Toronto improved to 44-33 on the season while increasing their lead over the Rays to 3.5 games.

All told, this was pretty close to how the Blue Jays would have drawn it up. And end of the day, they’re in Toronto again, playing at home on Canada Day for the first time since 2019. In case any doubt remained as to the day’s significance, an impromptu rendition of O Canada broke out in the stands as the Blue Jays closed out the win. Soon after the fans finished singing, the players completed their 9-2 win.

“The energy and pride that this country embodies was definitely on full display,” Biggio said.

Or, as Montoyo put it: “You could tell the happiness about it.”

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