Blue Jays eke out win by holding off Brewers’ pressure

Yusei Kikuchi gave up three hits and struck out five through five innings, combining with four Toronto Blue Jays relievers to shut out the Milwaukee Brewers 3-0 on Tuesday night.

MILWAUKEE — Rhys Hoskins describes the Milwaukee Brewers’ style of play as “organized chaos.” It’s vastly different from what he’d gotten used to during his seven years with the Philadelphia Phillies, when he remembers that facing them “was always uncomfortable.” As a free agent over the winter, it’s part of what led him to join the National League Central leaders, who have overcome a number of major off-season and spring training setbacks to remain ahead of the pack.

“Look, this is a pretty consistent model for winning here — it’s a small-market team, so trying to figure out ways to find value around some of the edges and we’ve done that with a lot of the young players that we have here,” explained the slugging first baseman/DH. “There’s just constant pressure on the other team. … We’re not relying on hitting home runs, we’re not relying on getting a ton of hits at once because we have the ability to drive the ball, but a walk, a stolen base, move a guy and all of a sudden we have a run — we seem to do that a couple times a game and that just keeps us in a lot of games. I’m glad I don’t have to face this staff anymore because they always have guys come up and immediately be nasty. Couple that organized chaos with good pitching, you get a pretty good product.”

Very much so, one that’s been to the playoffs in five of the past six seasons and is on track to do so again. To eke out a 3-0 victory against them Tuesday night, the Toronto Blue Jays needed Yusei Kikuchi to fight through five innings of traffic, in part caused by home-plate umpire Quinn Wolcott’s wildly erratic strike zone, and the lineup to squeeze out a pair of early RBI singles from George Springer and Spencer Horwitz.

The Blue Jays also had to survive some of that constant pressure Hoskins mentioned late as Christian Yelich doubled and Willy Adames walked to open the eighth against Trevor Richards, handling leverage with the bullpen missing Jordan Romano and Erik Swanson.

Richards rallied to get Hoskins and pinch-hitter Sal Frelick on flyouts before Yimi Garcia took over and after a double-steal, struck out Blake Perkins to end the threat.

Some pressure of their own helped the Blue Jays add on in the top of the ninth on Danny Jansen’s RBI double before Garcia closed things out before an American Family Field crowd of 25,253. Chris Bassitt starts against Tobias Meyers in Wednesday’s series finale when the Blue Jays (33-34) can both win the series and reach .500.

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“We’re all grinding, preparing hard, so I see why we’re back in this position,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Yusuke Oshima. “Obviously not where we want to be, but we’ve been playing some clean baseball, pitching well, playing really good defence. As long as we keep doing that, I feel like we’re just getting started here.”

That doing so against the Brewers (39-28) would be such an accomplishment is somewhat surprising after workhorse starter Brandon Woodruff underwent shoulder surgery in October, manager Craig Counsell bolted for the rival Cubs last November, ace Corbin Burnes was traded to the Orioles in February, closer Devin Williams suffered a stress fracture in his back in March and veteran lefty Wade Miley blew out his elbow in May.

Infielder Joey Ortiz, part of the return from Baltimore for Burnes, has certainly helped, as have the additions of Hoskins and Gary Sanchez, while they continue to churn out pitching, with prospect Carlos Rodriguez debuting with 3.2 innings of two-run ball. 

Horwitz’s RBI single in the fourth made it 2-0 and was the last of seven hits against the right-hander, who showed both stuff and feel to pitch.

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The infielder, meanwhile, batting leadoff for the second time in four games with Davis Schneider not in the starting lineup, saw six pitches during a first inning strikeout to help his teammates get a read on Rodriguez, although he noted, “I also swung at the first pitch.”

“I’m in there trying to do damage and put some runs on the board,” continued Horwitz, who also singled in the third and walked in the ninth. “As a leadoff hitter, it’s also your job to relay the message to the rest of the guys and I trust myself enough, whether I swing first pitch or not, that I’ll be able to see pitches and be able to do that.”

Hoskins, with 10 homers and a .446 slugging percentage in his first season back from a torn ACL in his left knee, also does damage and seemed like a strong potential fit for the Blue Jays over the winter. He was part of a deep first baseman/DH type market that also included Joc Pederson, J.D. Martinez, Jorge Soler and, of course, Justin Turner, whom the Blue Jays signed for one year at $13 million.

The Blue Jays pursued Pederson, who signed with Arizona for one year plus a mutual option that guarantees $12.5 million, before landing Turner, while when it came to Hoskins, “I didn’t have many discussions at all,” he said. “There was some connected interest early on in the GM meetings, before the winter meetings, just, ‘hey, we like you.’ But beyond that, not a ton. My guess is that just the right-handedness of the lineup didn’t match up with me. But beyond the initial, hey, we’re here, there wasn’t much (engagement).”

Hoskins did more than fine in landing a $34-million, two-year deal that includes an opt-out and a mutual 2026 option with the Brewers, who haven’t flinched even a little after so many wrote them off.

“Well, that’s part of it, right?” Hoskins said. “You trade away a Cy Young-type pitcher, you lose certain guys and expectations go down. That can either be deflating to a club or you kind of get a little chip on your shoulder because of it and people start count you out. The reality is we just have a lot of young and hungry players who are trying to establish themselves in this league, but also trying to get a feel for what it’s like to win.”

The Brewers have done plenty of that already this year. The Blue Jays, over the past couple of weeks, have begun to join them.

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