The 22-year-old’s emergence, along with the solid starts of Bo Bichette and Randal Grichuk, has been an emergency life raft for a team that over the past week has used the regular injured list four times, and the COVID-19 list three times.
Good or bad around him, he’s produced, the way he did on a messy Thursday, when he added three more hits, including his third homer of the season, as the Blue Jays buried themselves early and then fell short trying to come back in a 7-5 loss to the Kansas City Royals.
Guerrero was set up for an even more epic night after the Blue Jays put two on with one out in the ninth against Scott Bartlow. But after Bichette popped out, ending his 11-game hit streak, home plate umpire Roberto Ortiz called a 1-1 fastball well outside the zone a strike to change the at-bat on the slugging first baseman, who struck out three pitches later on a chase curveball.
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Somewhere, Ben Revere is probably shaking his head.
Regardless, even amid more Guerrero brilliance, the Blue Jays couldn’t undo the damage from a pair of Cavan Biggio errors that led to three unearned runs, or the latest slate of troubling injury news to strike the club. Ross Stripling, scratched from his start Wednesday, was placed on the injured list with a right forearm flexor strain and then less than an hour before game-time, Jordan Romano joined him with right ulnar neuritis, an irritation or compression of the ulnar nerve.
A respite came after the game when X-Rays came back negative on Biggio, who was struck on the right hand after Whit Merrifield’s fourth-inning liner first glanced off his glove. Still, his status was unclear, and with reliever David Phelps day-to-day after taking a line drive off the back Tuesday, the Blue Jays’ depth may be stressed even further.
Lefty Travis Bergen, who is on the 40-man roster, and righty A.J. Cole, who is not, are the two remaining pitchers on the taxi squad after Joel Payamps was recalled to take Romano’s spot in the bullpen.
“That’s how it goes,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “And there’s not going to be any excuses. We just took two of three from the Yankees, even though everybody’s getting hurt. Today we almost came back in this game. So, I believe we have enough to win and hang in there until everybody gets healthy.”
Anthony Kay, told a couple of days ago he’d be making the trip, given a heads up Wednesday that he might be starting, and told Thursday morning he would be getting the ball, was recalled to cover Stripling’s spot in the rotation. Since being optioned at the end of spring training, the lefty had starts of four and five innings at the alternate training site, one against the Tampa Bay Rays’ alt site group, the other against his Blue Jays teammates.
While he wasn’t razor sharp, the average exit velocity against him was only 81.7 m.p.h., and his evening was complicated by Biggio’s error on a Merrifield grounder that scored a run, and an unnecessary Lourdes Gurriel Jr. dive for a Nicky Lopez drive down the line in the third. He ended up pitching into the fourth, allowing five runs, four earned, on six hits with three strikeouts.
“I left the changeup up a little bit at times but I feel like I made a bunch of good pitches, a lot of soft contact and they were just finding holes,” said Kay. “Sometimes that’s just how it is. I can live with broken-bat singles or doubles or whatever it is. As long as I’m keeping the ball off the barrel, that’s really all I can do.”
It was 4-0 when he left in the fourth inning and Tanner Roark, banished to the bullpen after a rainout last Sunday erased his scheduled start against the Los Angeles Angels, couldn’t stem the bleeding until three more runs crossed, two of them on the Merrifield liner that caught Biggio’s hand.
Roark settled in to deliver two clean innings from there, but a 7-0 deficit was too much to overcome.
The Blue Jays did make it interesting, with Bichette and Guerrero the catalysts in an attempted rally with a walk and a single to open a four-run sixth that included Joe Panik’s two-run double, Rowdy Tellez’s RBI single and a Josh Palacios sacrifice fly.
Guerrero’s one-out double in the fourth gave him hits in 12 of the Blue Jays’ 13 games so far this season, while his home run in the seventh – at 456 feet his longest in the majors – made it a 7-5 game.
The strikeout in the ninth made for an anticlimactic end, but he’s now batting .413/.526/.674 with three homers and 10 RBIs, his best stretch in the majors since a 15-game run July 27-Aug. 12 of his rookie season, when he hit .387/.433/.726 with four homers and 21 RBIs.
“He’s having a great year so far and it’s great to see,” said Montoyo. “We expected that and it’s great to see that he’s doing what everybody thought he could do.”
Guerrero hit a wall soon after that run in 2019, his conditioning issues of 2020 are well known and now he says the work he put in during the off-season has given him the confidence to finally hit his stride.
“Even though last year things weren’t going that well for me at the beginning, I never had doubts about myself mentally,” he said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “I always was prepared to try to do the best for myself, for my team, regardless if I was 0-for-5 or 4-for-4. That doesn’t matter as long as my team wins. If we’re winning, you will see the smile on my face all the time. But mentally, I’m pretty much the same last year, this year, just trying to prepare myself for the game.”
In unsteady times for the Blue Jays, it’s led to the needed reliability he’s provided.