Healthy Belt ready to help Blue Jays down stretch

Toronto Blue Jays designated hitter Brandon Belt (13) in the eighth inning of a baseball game Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, in Denver. (David Zalubowski/AP)

TORONTO — Brandon Belt stepped to the plate in the ninth inning on Tuesday representing the tying run. With the New York Yankees up 2-0 on the Toronto Blue Jays and closer Clay Holmes working with a runner on first, this was the type of plate appearance that almost seemed like kismet. 

Belt was activated from the injured list on Tuesday afternoon after being sidelined with lumbar-spine muscle spasms and a game-saving home run hours later would have made for quite the storybook return. 

Things didn’t play out that way, though, with Belt popping out to shortstop before Daulton Varsho flied out to left field to end the game. However, while the result wasn’t what he had hoped for, Belt’s return is a major step for the Blue Jays and something worth monitoring this week as the club nears a post-season berth.  

“I feel pretty good, actually,” Belt said after the game in which he went 0-for-3 with a walk. “I feel pretty loose right now and I feel like I got a good shot at doing some damage when I’m at the plate. That’s the most important thing.”

The 35-year-old last played on Sept. 11, when he got two at-bats against the Texas Rangers. Before that, he hadn’t played since Sept. 2 due to back issues coupled with a stomach bug. 

Once his body allowed for it, Belt got to work in the cages hitting off high-velocity pitching machines in the lead up to Tuesday’s reinstatement. 

“I can for sure say I feel better coming back today than I did the previous time against Texas,” said Belt. “I feel like my normal self, whereas last time I feel like I had no shot (at the plate). My body was super slow and stiff.”

That’s a good sign for the Blue Jays as Belt figures to be key to the lineup in the coming days. The club is in control of a wild-card spot with five games remaining and if it can hang on, a series against either the Tampa Bay Rays or Minnesota Twins appears likely. 

Both those clubs feature a bevy of right-handed pitchers, whether it’s the starting trio of Zach Eflin, Tyler Glasnow and Aaron Civale on the Rays, or the excellent duo of Sonny Gray and Pablo Lopez atop the Twins rotation. Additionally, from Pete Fairbanks to Jhoan Duran, the bullpens on either side are stacked with power righties. 

The Blue Jays signed the left-handed hitting Belt this past off-season to balance a lineup that was far too right-handed. And while the 13-year veteran and two-time World Series champion has had a productive 2023, there’s a chance his true impact is yet to come. 

“Patience, power, good approach against right-handed pitching,” Blue Jays manager John Schneider replied, when asked before Tuesday’s game what Belt brings to the lineup. “I think since probably May, he’s been as consistent as anybody when it comes to hitting right-handed pitching. So, excited to have him back and the quality of at-bat that he brings.”  

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Belt didn’t get many plate appearances during spring training as he eased himself into action following a return from knee surgery. He endured a rough start in April but is hitting .263/.392/.521 with 15 home runs, 17 doubles and a 153 wRC+ against righties since May 1.

Belt noted that there’s no set number of plate appearances he’s aiming for this week in order to lock in to that form. 

“I think as many as possible right now,” he said. “But I think the main point for me is I feel like I can be productive on the field and help the team with my at-bats. Getting hits or taking my walks and getting on base and let somebody drive me in. Taking good at-bats up there. That plays a huge role. And so, I think, as long as I’m productive, I want to be in there as many at-bats as possible. It’s always going to help, going into the post-season.”

His work against Holmes in the final frame on Tuesday certainly represented the type of at-bat Belt desires. He went down 1-2 before fouling off a couple of tough pitches and working a full count against the hard-throwing closer. 

Sure, the end result didn’t go his way. But for Belt, it’s the process that matters, too. 

“If I’m feeling like I’m quick at the plate and know I catch up with a fastball, that’s when I’m good,” he said. “Right now, if I can do that, it allows me to lay off pitches outside of the zone a lot easier — I don’t have to cheat. So, I feel like I’m pretty close to being there. I’m like, ‘Hey, maybe get the timing a little bit better over the remaining games.'”

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