Blue Jays string together key hits to even up series with Guardians

Addison Barger cashed in his first career RBI and the Toronto Blue Jays pitching staff delivered a shutout performance on a bullpen day for a 5-0 win over the Cleveland Guardians.

TORONTO – In the aftermath of Friday night’s 3-1 loss to the Cleveland Guardians, manager John Schneider offered up a blunt assessment of what went wrong at the plate for his Toronto Blue Jays. “Not doing not doing as much as we would have hoped with balls in the middle of the zone,” he said. “It’s something we talk about all the time, and we will continue to explore ways to get better at that, make those at-bats tougher.”

Logan Allen allowed just one run on three hits and three walks over five-plus innings despite offering up some pretty good pitches to hit. The lefty threw 52 fastballs among his 84 pitches, averaging 91.5 m.p.h. and topping out at 92.7, many of them in hitters’ happy zones. It’s the kind of stuff the Blue Jays should do damage against but didn’t.

So, a pertinent question Saturday morning, ahead of the return engagement between the clubs, is what exactly does exploring ways to make those at-bats tougher look like?

“I think we had like 25 pitches in the heart of the plate and hit three of them hard – we’ve got to get better at that,” Schneider replied. “Each guy is different. It’s do you need to prepare differently? Do you have to have a different mindset? That’s stuff we talk about all the time. We actually talked about it quite a bit this morning with the guys. Some guys, it’s mentality, some guys, it’s actual physical work or prep. And it’s a constant grind for coaches to try to give everyone what they need to get ready. Sometimes it’s not just messaging, it’s work. Sometimes it’s not work, it’s actual, ‘hey, your mindset needs to be this.’

“So it’s different for every guy. And I think that we as a coaching staff, our job is to just find ways to provide whatever they need. That’s kind of where we’re at now.”

To that end, rather than running a traditional batting practice Saturday afternoon, assistant hitting coach Matt Hague was on the field with the breaking-ball machine, simulating the movement on Carlos Carrasco’s slider and cut on his fastball, to prep recent call-ups Spencer Horwitz and Addison Barger. Others did their pre-game prep in the batting cage and there was the usual array of approach talk to digest.

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It all added up to a 5-0 victory keyed by RBI singles from George Springer, Barger and Horwitz during a decisive three-run second and a strong bullpen-day effort led by Trevor Richards’ opening 2.1 innings and four frames from Bowden Francis.

Isiah Kiner-Falefa added an RBI single in the fourth while Daulton Varsho, whose double in the third helped set up that rally, grounded into a double play in the fifth with the bases loaded to bring home another run as the Blue Jays improved to 34-36.

They’ll try take the series from the AL Central leading Guardians (44-24) on Sunday when Jose Berrios faces off against Ben Lively.

Intriguing about Schneider’s distinction between mentality and physical work/prep is that the Blue Jays have taken steps in recent weeks to address the former while some of the on-field work the Blue Jays did Saturday is meant to help with the latter.

That so many adjustments are necessary in-season is troubling given how the Blue Jays devoted so much of their off-season to deep-diving the issues that plagued their underperforming offence a year ago. At the same time, they’ve also been making personnel and usage adjustments to try and change the mix and find more production.

Horwitz and Barger fit into that category and their pre-game routine is something that’s come up from the minors with them. On Saturday, Hague configured the machine to mimic Carrasco’s fastball, cutter and changeup with the duo doing one round against each pitch, helping to build adjustability in how each hitter attacks each offering.

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“We’re just trying to emulate what we’re going to see that day as much as possible and work on the kinds of swings we want to take during the game at those pitches,” said Barger, who was recalled Friday and collected his first big-league RBI on his second-inning chopper up the middle. “It’s not identical to the game, but the angles and the way the ball’s moving is roughly the same. I think that’s huge for me going in. I kind of know what to expect, what kind of swing I’m going to put on it.”

Horwitz first incorporated such machine work during the 2022 season and at this point, it’s the bulk of his pre-game work. He prefers the challenge of velocity and spin “because I felt like I could get away with a bad swing … and still have a good result” against the usual arm work, while “the machine works better for what I’m trying to do.”

What he’s trying to do is identify “a certain cue that can play on more than just one pitch,” Horwitz explained. “I don’t want to sell out for a cutter or a slider or a changeup and then don’t give myself a chance on the other ones because then I’m only giving myself a limited opportunity. If I can get myself a cue that helps me cover more than one pitch, that’s what I’m really trying to do.”

Varsho’s table-setting double after Justin Turner’s leadoff walk in the second came on a slider while the RBI knocks by Springer, Barger and Horwitz that inning, plus Kiner-Falefa’s run-scoring single in the fourth, all came on heaters — a focal point of their pre-game work.

“We were pretty locked in on him,” said Horwitz. “It’s obviously a machine, not Carlos Carrasco out there, but today I thought we did a great job with it. After my first at-bat, I was like, dang, that’s really coming down, not just side to side. It’s more downward, just like we were doing today pre-game, and went from there.”

The same can be said for the Blue Jays, who continue making adjustments in all manners possible and are going from there.

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