NEW YORK – Quietly, as Yusei Kikuchi’s sleep habits occupied an inordinate amount of the discourse around the Toronto Blue Jays, the right-knee discomfort Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has been playing through for a while flared up into something more.
Manager John Schneider played down the all-star first baseman’s removal from Tuesday night’s 7-1 win in the ninth inning, after he’d struggled his way up the first-base line to reach on an error, by saying Guerrero “is good, he’s a little banged up, but he’s good. He’s feeling every game that he’s been playing right now. But he’s good.”
Wednesday afternoon, with Guerrero in the initial Blue Jays lineup for what eventually became a 6-1 win over the New York Yankees, Schneider said his No. 3 hitter was still “good,” but quickly added, “he’s grinding, I think. His knee’s barking a little bit. Nothing patellar or anything. Just kind of dealing with the length of the season. So we got him out of there (Tuesday). Might DH today.”
Guerrero did not DH Wednesday, scratched from the lineup shortly before game-time, and given how reliably the 24-year-old posts, playing in 147 of the Blue Jays’ 151 games before Tuesday, and how much he enjoys playing at Yankee Stadium, some degree of concern is merited.
The club sent him for an MRI, with reads of the results and next steps to be set Thursday.
“He didn’t feel quite right (during) his pre-game hitting routine so we scratched him,” Schneider explained afterwards. “It was just more so the way he felt hitting compared to (Tuesday). Obviously we want to be careful with him. So didn’t want to push it today.”
There’s a lot of pressure and torque on his right knee, be it when he’s loading up in his swing or anchoring on the bag at first base, so any lingering issue will constantly face irritation. Only Guerrero truly knows whether that in turn impacts performance, but his importance is such that the Blue Jays reworked their lineup so he could DH two days in a row “trying to keep him off his feet as much as we can with keeping his bat in the lineup,” said Schneider.
The Blue Jays managed without him as starter Kevin Gausman outduelled an overpowering Michael King, while a Bo Bichette infield single opened the scoring in the third and a five-walk, no-hit eighth plated two more before a three-spot in the ninth pushed the game out of reach.
A fifth straight victory ensured the Blue Jays (85-67) remained a game up on both the Seattle Mariners (84-68), who beat Oakland 6-3, and the Texas Rangers (84-68), 15-5 winners over Boston, for the second wild-card spot.
“Complete 360 coming off the worst series of the year (versus the Rangers), sweeping Boston and obviously coming here and winning the first two,” said Gausman, who with 10 strikeouts over six shutout innings set a new single-season career best at 232. “I mean, it’s been night and day demeanour-wise, clubhouse energy. We had a really bad four days and you could really feel that. To have three really good days in a row after that was huge and put all that on the back-burner. And it’s like, what we did against those teams that we’re chasing or that are chasing us, we have no say on them anymore … but we still control our own destiny in the sense that we just keep winning games, we’re going to be in. That’s the mentality right now.”
Gausman did most of the heavy lifting and with King striking out a career-high 13, every bit of the right-hander’s best was needed. The veteran right-hander was only really in trouble twice, when Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres reached with one out in both the first and third innings, but he efficiently escaped both jams, as well as working around a one-out Austin Wells double, on a splitter down by his ankles, in the sixth.
He allowed just three hits and three walks in his six innings while striking out 10, the second time in three starts he reached double digits, before a crowd of 35,587 at Yankee Stadium.
“We got that one run and in the back of my mind, I kind of said, that might be the difference tonight,” said Gausman, adding later that “especially once we got the lead, there are certain guys that you pick to kind of nibble around and I wasn’t going to let Aaron Judge or Gleyber Torres be the reason why they tied it up. Certain games, you’re not going to do that. I just felt confident with what we were doing against everybody else that I wasn’t going to let those guys be the difference-maker.”
King was just as stingy but got burned in the third when Kevin Kiermaier singled with two out, advanced to third on a George Springer and scored when Bichette ripped a ball at 100.9 m.p.h. off the righty’s glove.
The score remained there until the eighth, when Tommy Kahnle walked four batters, including Spencer Horwitz with the bases loaded, and Ian Hamilton issued another base on balls to Whit Merrifield that made it 3-0, a rally emblematic of the type of approach that’s led to better results at the plate for the Blue Jays.
“It just comes down to being disciplined, really … knowing and understanding when a pitcher is nibbling versus struggling with his command,” said Merrifield. “You can tell. We had an idea that he was not having the best command so we didn’t want to bail him out by chasing out of the zone and getting him back in there. Made him work and it worked out in our favour.”
The score remained there until the eighth, when Tommy Kahnle walked four batters, including Spencer Horwitz with the bases loaded, and Ian Hamilton issued another base on balls to Whit Merrifield that made it 3-0.
The Blue Jays tacked on three more in the ninth when Bichette delivered another RBI single and Horwitz added a two-run single to again give closer Jordan Romano the night off, after Chad Green and Jordan Hicks each threw a dominant inning of leverage relief.
Wells took Erik Swanson deep in the bottom of the ninth for his first career homer but by then it was too little, too late.
Adding to the positive news for the Blue Jays was that Kikuchi, who left Tuesday’s game with a cramp in his left upper trap muscle, said he felt fine and making his next start Sunday would be “no problem.”
Having suggested his cramp was a byproduct of sleeping “only” 11 hours instead of his usual 13-14 hours, a comment that went viral, Kikuchi spent a good chunk of the pre-game replying to queries about his schedule.
He clarified that he sleeps that much “usually just on start days,” he said through interpreter Yusuke Oshima, adding that on days he’s not pitching he gets between eight and 10 hours. “It’s not the fact that I want to sleep, it’s just if I’m awake, I’ll be thinking about baseball too much.”
So it’s a way to manage anxiety?
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he replied in English.
Merrifield was among the Blue Jays to quip about Kikuchi’s sleep routine, lamenting that a night time start for Thursday’s series finale with the Yankees meant the team would have to sleep “on a not-Kikuchi schedule,” in Tampa Bay afterwards.
Though he declined to share, he noted that he’s got plenty of pictures of Kikuchi sleeping in the clubhouse on his phone, saying of his teammate: “He’s the best. He’s a legend.”
For different reasons the same adjectives apply to Guerrero, whose uncertain status comes with its own set of anxieties for the Blue Jays.