TORONTO – All it took was about 15 minutes for the Toronto Blue Jays to go from disappointment to elation and right back to disappointment.
With two out in the top of the ninth inning Monday night, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit a game-tying home run over the Green Monster at Fenway Park. It was his fourth consecutive game with a homer, his MLB-leading 22nd of the season and further evidence that what we’re witnessing is not just an unusually hot start but rather the emergence of one of baseball’s best players.
At this point, with Guerrero Jr. making a legitimate triple crown push and leading MLB in WAR mere months after his 22nd birthday, it’s hard to overstate how exceptional this is.
But minutes after the homer, with Rafael Dolis on the mound, a grounder eluded the grasp of Cavan Biggio, setting up a Red Sox walk-off win on a Rafael Devers single to deep centre. And just like that, the Blue Jays’ chances at a memorable comeback win disappeared and they had split the series with Boston 2-2. Painful – especially in such a closely-contested American League East race.
“Vladdy does what Vladdy does,” starter Alek Manoah said afterwards. “It was a crazy ride of emotions. Just ready for the next series now.”
The Blue Jays were competitive in this game thanks in large part to Manoah, who continues pitching well despite facing some of the toughest offences in baseball. That Manoah keeps impressing in these situations reinforces his importance to the Blue Jays – not just in the future, but right now.
“His first time in Fenway Park. That isn’t easy,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “No room for error. He was outstanding. He’s not scared.”
While Nathan Eovaldi outduelled Manoah by holding Toronto scoreless for 6.2 innings, the rookie right-hander still did his part with six innings of one-run ball. The only blemish was an Alex Verdugo RBI double that scored Enrique Hernandez in the third. Otherwise, Manoah attacked the Red Sox effectively with a fastball that topped out at 95.2 m.p.h., an effective slider and the occasional change-up.
“Honestly I really haven’t had complete control of everything my past three outings,” Manoah said. “Just the fact that I can go out there and compete as hard as I can and give my team a chance has been a huge blessing.”
Even so, he struck out five, including the last three he faced: Verdugo, J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts. Watching that inning, it would have been easy to forget that Manoah was drafted two years ago this week. Yet here he is facing the Yankees, White Sox and Red Sox on the road with competitive starts each time.
“That’s the biggest test you can get. It doesn’t get more high-leverage than that,” Montoyo said. “In those three ballparks against three good teams. And he’s passed the test.”
Of course, for a team looking to assert itself in the playoff picture, developmental success stories are nice, but wins are necessary.
With the loss, the Blue Jays fall to 33-31 ahead of a three-game series in Buffalo with the scuffling Yankees and miss the chance to win three in a row for the first time since May 15-18. That’s nearly a month without a winning streak of any real length – too long for a team still hovering around .500.
But even so, this series against the Red Sox showed how many building blocks are in place for the Blue Jays. With capable starts from Ross Stripling, Steven Matz, Robbie Ray and Manoah, the starting rotation is doing its part. The eight-home run, 18-run outburst Sunday reinforced just how scary this team’s lineup is.
With just four hits Monday night, the Blue Jays did very little offensively, but now that George Springer’s set to begin his long-anticipated rehab assignment Tuesday, further help is on the way.
By now it’s clear the Blue Jays’ injury-depleted bullpen isn’t good enough, and with that in mind the front office will explore trades for relievers in the weeks ahead. Even Dolis, who was such a valuable contributor in 2020, has faltered of late with blown saves in each of the Blue Jays’ two latest losses at Fenway Park.
Had the Blue Jays taken the lead, Jordan Romano would have pitched but with the score still tied manager Charlie Montoyo went to Dolis, and the Red Sox rallied. While a reasonable case could be made for using Romano in a tie game, the reliever was dealing with forearm tightness earlier in the series so some caution is also justifiable.
“If you’re at home, you bring the closer in,” Montoyo said. “If you’re on the road, you bring the other guy in.”
Regardless, this is a group worth reinforcing, one clearly capable of closing the 5.5-game gap that now separates them from the Red Sox in the months ahead. That potential doesn’t bring with it any guarantees, but it adds intrigue each step of the way.
Next up, Hyun-jin Ryu gets the ball against the Yankees Tuesday, but further uncertainty awaits later in the series as the Blue Jays still don’t know who will start Thursday with Matz now on the COVID-19 injured list.