ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Toronto Blue Jays have used phrases like whatever it takes to win, style points don’t matter and they all count the same often over the past month, and regardless your verbiage of choice, the bottom line is adapting to the opportunities a given game presents.
Facing an elite starter for a third straight night Friday, the nearly impossible Tyler Glasnow this time, that meant seizing on the right-hander’s command issues and largely keeping bats on their shoulders during a pivotal four-run sixth. That three-hit, three-walk, one-hit-batter rally wasn’t particularly pretty, but it combined with another Chris Bassitt gem to produce a 6-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays.
“This is how we need to win ballgames,” said Bassitt, who threw 6.2 frames to reach 192.1 for the season while establishing a new career-best with his 20th quality start. “I think a lot of people thought our identity was our hitting coming into the year and now it’s kind of like an awkward panic, but I think our identity is pitching and defence. That’s what wins World Series. Yeah, our hitting has been sporadic at times, but if our pitching is keeping us in games, games like this can happen, where we’re going to try to outlast you and then hopefully win that ballgame. That’s the recipe to win a World Series.”
The victory, in the series opener between potential wild-card opponents, allowed the Blue Jays (86-68) to extend their lead for the second wild-card spot as the AL West teams beneath them shuffled. They’re now one game up on the Houston Astros (85-69), who lost the division lead after a 7-5 loss to Kansas City, and 1.5 games ahead of the Seattle Mariners (84-69), who fell 8-5 to the now West-leading Texas Rangers (85-68).
While the Rays (94-61) still have hopes of stealing the American League East from the Baltimore Orioles (95-59), they’re positioned to host whoever wins the second wild-card spot, currently held by the Blue Jays.
In that way, the stakes for both clubs during their clashes this weekend and to close out the regular season next weekend in Toronto are ratcheted up by the possibility of even more drama in the post-season.
Friday’s series opener before a Tropicana Field crowd of 18,538 demonstrated the type of grinding, any-means-necessary baseball the teams will need to employ to beat one another.
“I think we’re trusting the person that’s behind us and in front of us to be able to do the job and pass the baton to the next person,” said Varsho, who capped the rally in the sixth with an RBI single and tacked on a solo shot in the ninth. “It’s not about trying to hit the three- or two-run homer, it’s about being able to get it to the next person and hopefully that they can do the same thing that you’re doing as well, taking good pitches, swinging at the right ones and doing the best you can.”
A day after getting stymied by AL Cy Young Award contender Gerrit Cole at Yankee Stadium, the Blue Jays were similarly flustered by Glasnow twice through the batting order before breaking through in their third turn.
George Springer reached with one out when his 108.1 m.p.h. grounder up the middle skipped past second baseman Isaac Paredes for a single, promptly stole second and scored when Bo Bichette lashed a liner at 101.4 m.p.h. off a diving Yandy Diaz’s glove at first for a base hit that tied the game 1-1.
Then, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., back in the starting lineup, Cavan Biggio and Alejandro Kirk each followed with walks, the latter of whom brought home the go-ahead run, to end Glasnow’s night. Kevin Kelly took over, hit Matt Chapman to make it 3-1 and surrendered Varsho’s RBI single before escaping the frame.
“Huge hits from George, Bo to kind of get us going there and then guys kind of just took what they were given. Against a guy like that, that’s what you’ve got to do,” said Blue Jays manager John Schneider. “When you’re not in a hurry, you make better decisions on what you’re going to swing at. And I think that’s what we’ve done. When you’re facing really good pitchers, I think there’s a little bit of a heightened sense of awareness of what’s going on. It’s that time of year too. And we’ll take a couple of walks, a hit-by-pitch and a couple of big knocks.”
Bassitt, in total control after surrendering a Randy Arozarena double and Harold Ramirez RBI single in the first, delivered a shutdown inning in the bottom of the sixth and after a Curtis Mead solo shot made it 4-2 in the seventh, he left with one on and two outs.
With one start remaining, the right-hander has a shot at 200 innings but has been a workhorse even if misses the milestone, currently ranking fifth in the majors. He’s been every bit the pitcher the Blue Jays signed him to be and feels he’s in better shape to keep going now than last season.
“I felt last year my legs just completely gave out on me. If you ask any pitcher, if you don’t have your legs, I think you’re kind of screwed, honestly,” Bassitt explained. “This year, I’ve done by far the most important job of just keeping my legs underneath me, keeping strong, keeping focused with workload throughout the week, how I’m doing workouts and how I’m running just to keep my legs fresh. Right now I feel great. Obviously, we have a long way to go to get to what we want to do, but I think we’re definitely on the right path.”
Jordan Hicks struck out Rene Pinto to end the rally in the seventh and left two on with two outs in the eighth, but Jordan Romano, after a walk to Paredes loaded the bases, got Mead to end that jam and then closed things out in the ninth.
That came after Varsho added a solo shot and Springer delivered an RBI in the top of the ninth, the type of add-on runs the Blue Jays produced during two wins at Yankee Stadium to begin this six-game road trip, one of them against Michael King, who preceded Cole and Glasnow.
The trio of dominant starters are good practice for the kind of playoff-calibre rotations they’re likely to face in the post-season, should they get there.
“Tough sledding, for sure and guys are ready for it,” Schneider said. “They joked about it early in the year, it seems like teams always line up their guys against us. But when you get to this point of the year, that’s all you’re going to see.”
Helping the Blue Jays in this one was that Guerrero returned to the starting lineup as DH for the first time since exiting Tuesday’s game in the ninth inning with right knee discomfort. He walked twice against Glasnow and scored once and asked what type of management his all-star first baseman would need moving forward, Schneider replied, “I don’t think anything.”
“He’ll be ready to go,” the manager added. “Hopefully back playing first base (Saturday). But I don’t think we have to do anything out of the ordinary.”
The general principle applies to his team, too. Tuesday in New York, the Blue Jays went deep three times because the pitches were there to hit. That was less the case Wednesday, when they used a five-walk, no-hit rally to score twice, Thursday against Cole and Friday against Glasnow, when they made do with what was there.