How Blue Jays can navigate pitching in must-win Game 2 of wild-card series

Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher Jordan Hicks throws to a Minnesota Twins batter during the eighth inning in Game 1 of an AL wild-card baseball playoff series. (Bruce Kluckhohn/AP)

MINNEAPOLIS – For the Twins, Game 1 of the wild card series was a celebration 19 years in the making. For the Blue Jays, it was an uninspired loss that seemed all too familiar.

With just one run on six hits, the Toronto offence didn’t deliver. On the pitching side, Kevin Gausman didn’t locate well enough, and Royce Lewis took advantage with two home runs in his first ever playoff at bats. And it didn’t help that Bo Bichette got thrown out on the bases with two outs and the Blue Jays trailing by three.

Afterwards, the clubhouse was predictably quiet as reality set in: unless the Blue Jays win Game 2, their season ends Wednesday. For a team with plenty of talent, a franchise record payroll and reasonably good health, that would represent a huge missed opportunity. But we’re not there yet.

[brightcove videoID=6338348357112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Facing elimination is part of playing in October, and the best teams overcome those challenges with timely wins. So, instead of dwelling on what went wrong, let’s look ahead at how the Blue Jays will navigate the first of what may prove to be many must-win games.

On that front, there’s no better place to focus than the pitching staff, where everyone not named Kevin Gausman will be available behind starter Jose Berrios.

“Going into (Game 2) it sets us up very well,” said manager John Schneider. “Everyone will be available. Jordan (Hicks) will be available, too, as well as some other guys that usually don’t sit down there. It’s all hands on deck.”

More specifically, starters Chris Bassitt and Yusei Kikuchi will be available in relief for Game 2. If both are used, that would turn Game 3 into a bullpen game, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing so long as you get that far.

[brightcove videoID=6338327073112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Kikuchi pitched out of the bullpen after losing his rotation spot last year, so he’s familiar with the role, but it’s been longer for Bassitt, whose last relief appearance came with the Athletics Sept. 29, 2019. Regardless, he described the temporary role change as “not a big deal” and insisted he’s “pretty comfortable” pitching in relief.

“I mean, If we don’t win tomorrow, it doesn’t matter about anything else,” Bassitt said. “So, yeah. Anyone that can throw is going to be in the bullpen, ready to go.”

Of course, the Blue Jays will also have their eight traditional relievers available, even after using five of them in the Game 1 loss. First, here’s a look at who threw Tuesday (pitch counts in parentheses):

Tim Mayza (3)

Erik Swanson (11)

Genesis Cabrera (12)

Chad Green (14)

Jordan Hicks (25)             

Meanwhile, Jordan Romano, Yimi Garcia and Trevor Richards did not pitch Tuesday, meaning there’s an excellent chance we see at least Romano and Garcia in Game 2. According to Schneider, they could even be joined by Hicks, despite the fact that threw more pitches than everyone but Gausman and Pablo Lopez.

Oddly enough, Hicks has actually been more effective on zero days’ rest both in 2023 and for his career. He has limited opponents to a .341 OPS in those situations this year, striking out 33 per cent of hitters. For his career, he’s limited opponents to a .474 OPS after pitching the previous day with a 25 per cent strikeout rate.

[brightcove videoID=6338340887112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

One way or another, the Blue Jays have lots of options and Schneider could use them early. In fact, that would probably have been true even if the Blue Jays had won Game 1. After all, lefties (.774 OPS, 16 home runs) hit Berrios much better than righties (.616 OPS, nine home runs) this year, and the Twins have a lot of lefties.

On Tuesday, Kevin Gausman was pulled after two trips through the batting order when the left-handed hitting Edouard Julien was due up again. It’s conceivable the same logic could apply Tuesday when Berrios faces his longtime team. Don’t be surprised if he’s tasked with facing just 18 hitters before turning it over to the bullpen when Minnesota’s lefties are due to bat atop the order.

“You just want to get the best matchups you can,” Schneider said. “You have to understand we have a very talented pitching group no matter who it is. You’ve got to win (Game 2) to get to the next day and then keep on doing that. You don’t want to have an over-(the-top) sense of urgency, but these guys know it’s going to take everybody to get to Game 3.”

Ideally, the Blue Jays’ offence would create some breathing room, easing some of the pressure around bullpen decisions. But the way this team’s hitting’s going, the Blue Jays can’t count on that.

Instead, the pressure will be on the pitching staff to keep runs off the board. That doesn’t mean forcing the issue if Berrios is absolutely dealing, but it does mean being open-minded if he’s anything less than dominant.

[brightcove videoID=6338338013112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Neutralizing Minnesota’s hitters isn’t easy since they’re pretty balanced with righties and lefties. Maybe that means going pocket by pocket with tons of pitching changes to prevent the Twins from getting comfortable. It definitely means a willingness to be aggressive early and push top relievers harder than usual. 

In a must-win game, different rules apply. And if nothing else, the Blue Jays will have plenty of options willing and able to offer what they can.

“Just win,” Bassitt said. “Just win.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.