Canadian Tyler O’Neill one of many problems for Blue Jays in Boston

Boston Red Sox's Tyler O'Neill points toward the dugout while celebrating after his three-run home run during the first inning of a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park, Monday, May 13, 2024, in Boston. (Charles Krupa/AP)

A week ago Tyler O’Neill helped the Boston Red Sox push the Toronto Blue Jays into their current free fall and the Canadian slugger will be but one of many challenges they face during the return engagement at Fenway Park, starting Monday night.

Consecutive three-game sweeps against their AL East rivals and the AL Central-leading Cleveland Guardians, along with the 80-game PED suspension of top hitting prospect Orelvis Martinez, have plunged the Blue Jays into crisis.

Their playoff probability is a dismal 5.2 per cent, as calculated by Fangraphs, heading into Monday’s play. Martinez’s ban both strips away their potential for internal impact and prospect currency to make meaningful external adds. The schedule only gets harder, as after the surging Red Sox, four-game home series versus the New York Yankees and rolling Houston Astros loom.

And, perhaps most ominously, the Blue Jays haven’t managed to consistently leverage their talent to play at the level needed to beat the calibre of opponent they are facing. They are 18-27 against rivals .500 or better while their run-differential of minus-50 very much correlates to their 35-42 record, offering no underlying hint of an imminent correction.

Bo Bichette’s possible return from the injured list Tuesday should provide a boost, but even in a three-wild-card world, those are major headwinds to overcome.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, are going the other way, winners in eight of their last 10, suddenly in possession of the third wild card spot, half-a-game up on the Kansas City Royals, and the play of O’Neill has been key.

Cleverly acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals for reliever Nick Robertson and minor-league righty Victor Santos last December, the 28-year-old from Maple Ridge, B.C., has used a needed change of scenery to deliver some peak performance.

Through 54 games, he is hitting .262/.358/.538 with 15 homers and an OPS+ of 147, giving the Red Sox lineup precisely the type of threat needed to help complement Rafael Devers in the middle of the order, and their down-lineup speed-and-contact game.

Against the Blue Jays in Toronto he hit three homers — including a game-tying solo shot in the eighth inning of a 4-3 comeback win last Tuesday — along with a double, two walks and four runs scored.

The Red Sox went deep seven times while hitting .300/.355/.536 en route to outscoring the Blue Jays 18-9 in the sweep — “It takes pressure off everyone when everyone’s contributing like that,” says O’Neill — and Blue Jays starters Chris Bassitt, Kevin Gausman and likely Yariel Rodriguez will try to keep them all at bay now.

O’Neill welcomed a fresh start with the Red Sox after his six-year run with the Cardinals ended following a difficult 2023 that included an uncomfortable relationship with manager Oliver Marmol.

Though he was a two-time Gold Glove winner and had a monster 34-homer, .912-OPS campaign there in 2021, “It all came to a head with St. Louis and it was just time for a change of scenery for me,” he explains.

“Very grateful for the opening of my career there, it gave me a chance as a young 22-year-old to play and see what I had. Spent six years there and it was awesome,” he continues. “I became a husband in St. Louis, became a father in St. Louis. A lot of good things happened for me from a life standpoint and I’m nothing but grateful for my time over there. But nothing but grateful to have that change of scenery and be somewhere like Boston, playing at Fenway every day. It’s just such an unreal feeling to show up to the ballpark and just be in a positive mindset all the time.”

That positivity has fed into his performance as he’s used relative good health — he missed some time with concussion concerns and right-knee inflammation — to leverage his ample abilities. At the 2023 World Baseball Classic, he showed off what he can do in a small sample with the Canadian team, and now with the Red Sox, his mix of power and discipline at the plate has him on track for one of his best seasons.

“I feel like I’m getting better and better, honestly,” says O’Neill. “I’ve learned a lot about myself and how I need to prepare to be successful and what I do that makes me successful. And it just comes down to managing my body on a day-to-day basis and making sure I’m feeling as fresh as I can to go out and perform and not be inhibited by not feeling good or something going on in the clubhouse or anything like that. I can just go and play and compete and focus on the pitcher, focus on making a play out on the field. That’s definitely the most noticeable part this year for me.”

The Red Sox deserve credit for their role in that, both in recognizing the value a clean slate would provide O’Neill while also working closely with him to ensure the physical part lines up. Craig Breslow, their chief baseball officer, said “more than half of the equation with him is just trying to keep him on the field,” something underlined by the outfielder’s nine injuries to different body parts over the past six years.

“When he’s on the field he produces at an elite level,” says Breslow. “He knows his body as well as any athlete knows theirs and when he says he feels good to go out there and play, he generally performs. When he needs a day, we can try to accommodate that. But the underlying skills are incredibly powerful. He hits the ball hard, hits ball in the air, Gold Glove-calibre defender with an above average arm. He carried our team in the first month of  the season. Since he’s been back, the at-bats have been really good, he’s hit the ball hard again. So we anticipate another really successful run here from him.”

At $5.85 million through his final year of arbitration before free agency, O’Neill is the type of stealthy acquisition so difficult to find last off-season. There is without doubt risk due to his injury history, but manager Alex Cora has found ways thus far to make it work.

“That comes with experience,” says O’Neill. “Obviously I’ve dealt with my injuries before, so I know what it feels like when I’m starting to get a little more fatigued than I should. Things happen over the course of a season, things that you have to work through. But I’m able to have an open dialogue with Alex and even with Bres, just to make sure that we’re all on the same page and they’re giving me my rest. That’s the biggest thing for me, keeping me fresh, man. These guys are doing a really good job of keeping me fresh and letting me produce the way that I should be producing.”

That’s something not enough Blue Jays, for a slate of different reasons, haven’t done enough of this season. O’Neill’s production is something they’ll have to deal with this week, one problem among many.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.