NEW YORK – The right knee discomfort that’s left Vladimir Guerrero Jr. day-to-day in this crucial final stretch of the Toronto Blue Jays‘ season isn’t something new for the all-star first baseman. Back on May 17, when he sat out a 3-0, 10-inning walk-off win over the New York Yankees, the joint flared up enough for him to undergo an MRI, which also revealed no structural damage. He pinch-hit the next day and then appeared in every Blue Jays game until taking a miss Aug. 6 at Boston. Until this week in New York, the only other games he’s missed were two contests May 6-7 at Pittsburgh, when left wrist soreness forced him to the bench.
Combine that with Guerrero playing in 381 of a possible 384 regular-season games from 2020-22 and it’s pretty clear how much it takes to keep him off the field.
“I wouldn’t say (the knee’s been a problem) all season, the days that they took me out of the game or I didn’t play, most of the time it’s either my knee or my wrist,” Guerrero, speaking through interpreter Hector Lebron, said Thursday while discussing the latest MRI results that again revealed inflammation but no structural damage.
“Obviously, it’s very hard for me not to be in the lineup. But we’re in an OK position right now, we’re holding a playoff spot, so I’d rather take care of this now and not risk losing the rest of the season or playoffs.”
When push came to shove hours later, Guerrero posted for his team as usual, coming up as a pinch-hitter with the bases loaded in the ninth and beating out a fielder’s choice to drive in a run during a rally that fell short in what finished as a 5-3 loss to the Yankees.
Whether he would made have made a difference against an absurdly dominant Gerrit Cole over the first eight innings is an interesting but secondary matter.
As the Blue Jays (85-68) now look to a three-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field beginning Friday, their lead in the wild-card race down to a half-game over the Seattle Mariners (84-68) and Texas Rangers (84-68), balancing the need of the moment against the risk of further aggravating Guerrero’s knee is now the most complicated personnel issue before them.
While Guerrero, understandably, said that “the day that I wake up and there’s no inflammation there, I’ll be in the (starting) lineup,” ensuring that he’s in position to not just dig into the box, but do damage once there, is important, too.
“We knew before the game based on what he did that he was feeling pretty good and then checked in with him, third or fourth inning, and he was good” to pinch-hit, said manager John Schneider. “He hit throughout the game. So yeah, it was pretty much a no-brainer there.”
How to keep it that way is the question and Schneider sounded positive about Guerrero’s chances of being in the lineup Friday versus the Rays, noting that the Blue Jays will still “be careful with him.”
“But he reported feeling good, moved well down the line and we’ll see how he is (Friday),” he added.
Guerrero ripped a 97.4 m.p.h. Clay Holmes sinker at 103.7 m.p.h. to third, where Isiah Kiner-Falefa started a potential inning-ending double play. To prevent it, Guerrero got up the first-base line in 4.88 seconds, far off his season-best time of 4.27, but quick when you consider that before the game he said “when I run, it feels pretty bad.”
“When I’m hitting it feels OK, so-so,” he added, “but when I’m running is when it really hurts.”
Kevin Kiermaier scored on the play and a second run came home when Gleyber Torres threw away a Matt Chapman grounder before Spencer Horwitz grounded to first for the final out.
“They know where we’re at,” Schneider said of the late rally attempt. “Love the effort.”
The Blue Jays beat the Yankees 6-1 on Wednesday in their first game without Guerrero and given how nasty Cole was Thursday – he retired 16 straight to begin the game and allowed just one run, on a wild pitch – it probably wouldn’t have mattered if Hank Aaron had joined Guerrero in the batting order.
Cole sat 96.7 m.p.h. with his fastball, got 10 of his 19 whiffs with a disgusting slider, sprinkled in his curveball, cutter and changeup, and generally put the ball in places where the Blue Jays couldn’t do much with it as he reached the 200-inning plateau. He gave up just two hits and struck out nine over eight innings.
The outing demonstrated why Blue Jays starter Chris Bassitt described him earlier in the week as “the apex of pitching.”
“He can do everything,” Bassitt continued. “He can strike guys out, pitches every fifth day, how deep he’s able to go into games, he is without a doubt, I think, the best pitcher in baseball.”
Jose Berrios started opposite him and took most of his damage in the first inning, giving up a DJ LeMahieu leadoff single, Gleyber Torres base hit and Jake Bauers three-run shot, the outfielder’s first extra-base hit since Aug. 5, all on sinkers.
Berrios settled from there and didn’t allow another run until the sixth, when he surrendered a two-out double to Isiah Kiner-Falefa, was pulled for Tim Mayza, and watched Estevan Florial bring him home with another two-bagger.
“I think they were looking for fastballs, obviously, that’s what we use more two-seamers, we wanted that late movement but they got me that first inning,” said Berrios. “The homer was an inside two-seam and I don’t know if he was looking for it, but he put a pretty good swing on it.”
The Yankees added another run in the seventh on an Aaron Judge RBI double while George Springer’s diving catch on a LeMahieu liner with the bases loaded prevented them from adding more in the eighth before a Yankee Stadium crowd of 37,646.
On a different day, that play, a brilliant sliding catch from Kevin Kiermaier on a Ben Rortverdt liner in the seventh and others might have played differently, but not on this one, not with Cole so overwhelming.
Turning the page after their five-game win streak ended shouldn’t be difficult for the Blue Jays, but now they face the Rays at the Trop, with Guerrero trying to get right physically. He admitted to being “worried about” the knee “but after I found out the (MRI) results, it’s a little bit of relief.”
“Of course I’m sad that I can’t be in the lineup, trying to do my best, but I guess I’ve got to take a rest,” he added. “I’ll be OK.”
His dash up the first-base line in the ninth showed that might be sooner than later and a comfortable-on-his-knee Guerrero can’t arrive fast enough for the Blue Jays.