Blue Jays fall to Red Sox in battle of teams with the same uncertainties

Tyler O'Neill hit two homers, while Rafael Devers and Ceddanne Rafaela also added solo shots off Yusei Kikuchi to lead the Boston Red Sox to a 7-3 win over the Toronto Blue Jays.

TORONTO – Though the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox didn’t meet during the first 2½ months of the season, the American League East rivals and neighbours in the wild-card standings certainly kept tabs on one another.

The impression from Beantown of what’s been happening up here?

“They’re good,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “They can pitch. I don’t think the numbers reflect who they are offensively. And they’re in the mix. They’ve been talking about them struggling – they’re right there in the hunt. In the division, if you look by names and who they have in that clubhouse, they’re one of the best if not the best this season.”

Perception isn’t always reality, of course, as neither team is currently in the situation it expected to be in heading into the year; the Blue Jays still trying to find themselves as a lineup and as a roster, the Red Sox leaning into an athleticism/speed identity and executing consistently. 

As a result, they are teams having vastly different conversations about themselves while facing some of the same uncertainties over how to approach the July 30 trade deadline. 

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The Red Sox (38-35) are still building toward a competitive window, yet suddenly they’re fourth in the wild-card standings, 2.5 games up on the Blue Jays (35-37) after a resounding 7-3 victory Monday, a tempting opportunity to chase the post-season at hand even if the probabilities say their best days still lie ahead.

The Blue Jays, meanwhile, are fighting tooth and nail to keep their window open as the contractual control of their roster means a decision point is coming, and if it’s not buying before this deadline hits to help land a wild-card spot, it’s selling off expiring deals to regroup for 2025.

Featured prominently in the opener between them were two pending free agents who, depending on circumstance, could garner significant attention at deadline time – Yusei Kikuchi, the left-handed starter who uncharacteristically surrendered four home runs, two to Tyler O’Neill, the Canadian slugger who’s now gone deep 14 times.

His solo shot on a fastball in the first opened the scoring before Rafael Devers went back-to-back, while in the third, two outs after Ceddanne Rafaela’s eighth of the season, O’Neill hammered a changeup that made it 4-1.

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“It’s a dynamic lineup,” said O’Neill. “We can do a lot, we got speed, we got some burners, we can pop the ball out of the yard any time, there are lots of ways we can put runs on the board and we’re doing a good job of that of late.”

Kikuchi, meanwhile, was trying to compute how he struck out seven and had 15 whiffs on 39 swings, but also gave up four homers in a single outing after allowing only seven total in 14 starts beforehand.

The Blue Jays planned to search video for a possible tell, although Kikuchi didn’t seem locked in on that, saying, “it could happen but maybe it’s not all about tipping as well.”

“Today in warmups, all four pitches were working and it was like, yeah, ball is coming out pretty good, but it resulted in not a good start,” he continued through interpreter Yusuke Oshima. “Last game in Milwaukee, I had trouble with my command, I had to grind and battle, but as a result, it was a good game. This is how difficult baseball is. So reset and then go with a fresh mind and prepare for the next start.”

Complicating things for both teams is that while the wild-card race in the American League features remarkably mid-contenders, the AL East is set up to be a gauntlet for years to come. The Baltimore Orioles, with their young big-league team and enviably deep farm system set up to continually resupply it, are as well positioned as anyone in the majors and they’re still second to the New York Yankees, who have a big question mark looming with Juan Soto’s free agency but still have a deep base to work from.

For the Blue Jays, their decisions next month will be all about the quality of opportunity in the here and now. But for the Red Sox, who have a deep farm system and a demanding fan base, there are more layers to when they decide to augment aggressively, regardless of what’s happening with the others around them.

“Just because someone heading into opening day looks like a great team on paper, obviously, this game is wildly unpredictable and things happen,” said Craig Breslow, the Red Sox’s chief baseball officer. “So we have to run our own race. We have to put together the most competitive team we possibly can. Now, playing in the AL East is tough. It represents a unique challenge given how good some of those other teams are. We recognize that. But really, we can’t allow that to distract from what we need to do to put the best possible team on the field that we can.”

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To that end, they’re developing a pipeline of talent, and the progress of their young players will ultimately determine their next steps. But when a team is situated the way Red Sox are now, there can be friction on trying to time up pieces to both seize the moment while not losing sight of the longer-term.

Hence, the overall divisional landscape as it ties into their asset management “is still a secondary consideration,” said Breslow.

“But I think we’ve been pretty transparent for a while now that we weren’t in a position to sacrifice future wins in favour of now wins,” he continued. “That’s largely driven by our personnel and the development that we anticipate from this young, exciting group that’s currently in the big-leagues, from the next wave of guys that we can start to see emerge in double-A. If that lines up with optimal timing relative to other teams, great. But we kind of owe it to our fan base and owe it to ourselves to put the most competitive team on the field that we can.”

And so Breslow will have to walk that line, just as the Blue Jays have to walk theirs, still fighting to get back over .500 and now down Yimi Garcia, whose case of right elbow ulnar neuritis threatens not only their ability to close out games, but also the pending free agent’s trade value should they have to go down that road.

All part and parcel of what lies ahead for two AL East rivals in similar spots, facing different questions.

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