ANAHEIM, Calif. — Back in the day, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. romped around Angel Stadium like he owned the place. He’d hang out and take rips in the batting cage with his Hall of Fame father, play all over the field, goof around with Kendrys Morales and Erick Aybar in the clubhouse.
“I pretty much grew up here,” he told a throng of assembled media in the visitors’ dugout before batting practice on Thursday. “Coming back now as a big-leaguer every year is pretty cool.”
Even cooler for Guerrero and the Toronto Blue Jays was getting the best of Shohei Ohtani and the Los Angeles Angels in a 6-3 victory. Facing the 2021 American League MVP, the runner-up for the honour flew out 388 feet in the first, took a third strike 97 m.p.h. heater at the knees in the third and sent his ninth homer of the season off the left-field foul pole in the sixth.
That solo shot brought home the last of five runs off Ohtani, who still struck out 10 in his six frames of work but took damage throughout. George Springer opened the scoring with a leadoff homer in the first before a Santiago Espinal RBI single and Bo Bichette two-run double in the third offered Hyun Jin Ryu a nice bit of breathing room.
It was only the second time in eight starts Ohtani has allowed more than two runs while the six hits against him matched the most he’s allowed this season. Little wonder then that when asked about how to approach the two-way star, Guerrero grinned and replied, “the key to beat him I won’t tell you, because then we won’t. I want to reserve that part.”
Despite the strikeouts the approach worked, and perhaps the Blue Jays are beginning to emerge from the deep freeze their offence has endured through the first quarter of the campaign.
“It’s a process, it’s not going to all happen overnight. It’s going to take multiple games like this for for us to feel right, but it’s a good start,” said Springer. “You’re starting to see guys have a really, really good at-bats, you’re starting to see innings get strung together. We scored three in the third and those are just good at-bats and getting hits with guys in scoring position.”
Guerrero has homers in consecutive games for the first time this season and, not coincidentally, is beginning to become his more selective self at the plate. During pre-game work, the club’s hitting coaches show him video of his swing decisions from the previous game and the slugger uses that to “create a plan for the game.”
“That’s been helping me a lot, especially on the strike zone,” he continued, in comments interpreted by Hector Lebron, “and hopefully it continues that way.”
While he’s by no means alone, Guerrero’s chase rate is up to 31.8 per cent from 24.5 per cent a year ago, in part a symptom of the team’s challenge to put up runs consistently.
“For me, it’s all mental,” he conceded. “Sometimes I will go out there thinking about swinging at everything and then once that starts in your mind, you say no, you’ve got to look for the pitch I’m really looking for. And that’s when everything starts working.”
Everything was working for the Blue Jays on Thursday, as Ryu finessed his way through five innings of two-run ball, both runs crossing in the third on fielder’s choices by Mike Trout and Ohtani.
Ryu might have gone back out for more having thrown just 65 pitches but he reported some tightness in his elbow, prompting manager Charlie Montoyo to pull him early. The veteran left-hander, in his third start since returning from forearm inflammation that landed him on the injured list, said what he felt Friday was unrelated to the previous injury and refused to tie a one m.p.h. dip in velocity to the discomfort.
“I don’t think that’s going to be an issue. I just felt it a bit overall today,” Ryu said through interpreter J.S. Park. “I’m not going to miss my next start. I think it’s just going to be what it is and just carry on from there.”
Ohtani also had a physical issue, saying he felt something in his back on a pitch in the first but decided he could keep going.
The Blue Jays handed a 5-2 lead to David Phelps, who worked out of a two-on, one-out jam in the sixth with some help from Cavan Biggio.
Just recalled from triple-A Buffalo, Biggio fielded a Jared Walsh smash at first base, touched the bag for one out and then relayed over to second where Bichette tagged Max Stassi before Matt Duffy crossed the plate. The split-second of difference mattered because once Biggio touched the bag, the timing of the third out determined whether the run would count.
“It worked out,” said Montoyo.
Yimi Garcia, Adam Cimber and Jordan Romano, who allowed a Brandon Marsh run-scoring groundout after Danny Jansen’s solo shot in the top of the ninth also gave him homers in consecutive games, closed out a relatively low-stress night.
Before the game, as Guerrero respectfully sang the praises of Ohtani, he told the story of how he asked for a picture with him using sign language during the all-star game last year. A blown-up print of it is on a wall in his home, he said.
Better than a souvenir Thursday was another homer and for his team, another win.