How missed chances over the plate led to Blue Jays’ Game 1 struggles

Toronto Blue Jays' George Springer reacts after fouling out during the third inning in Game 1 of an AL wild-card baseball playoff series against the Minnesota Twins Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023, in Minneapolis. (AP)

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Royce Lewis outhit the entire Toronto Blue Jays lineup in the first game of their wild-card series with the Minnesota Twins.

Lewis hit more home runs (2) than Toronto had runs (1). Thanks to that pair of round-trippers, he also doubled up the Blue Jays when it came to both barrels and extra-base hits.

The way he went about becoming a one-man offence for the Twins in Game 1 on Tuesday was simple: he crushed mistakes by Blue Jays starter Kevin Gausman. The first home run he hit was on a pitch middle-in, while the second was a pure meatball.

Those two poorly placed pitches defined Game 1 of the series. Of course, they weren’t the only ones pitchers wanted back all afternoon. The difference between Lewis and the Blue Jays — as well as most of the Twins lineup, for that matter — is that when the 24-year-old got pitches to hit, he did damage against them.

In his first three trips to the plate, just four of the 16 pitches Lewis saw were inside the strike zone. Two of them he took in 3-0 counts. The other two, he parked over the wall.

The story was a little different for the Blue Jays. Here’s every pitch they hit in play for an out in Game 1:

That’s a lot of pitches in the middle of the plate. Although not every pitch down the middle is going to be converted into a hit, it’s hard to be successful on offence when this many are turned into outs.

Some particularly noticeable misses include Daulton Varsho softly tapping a meatball sweeper to first base:

… and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. popping a similar pitch up to lead off the next inning:

George Springer also made outs on three different centre-cut pitches at three vertical levels of the strike zone — and reached on an error on another hittable pitch.

Hitting MLB pitching is extremely difficult, and it’s not reasonable to expect every hitter’s pitch to get thwacked. The problem for the Blue Jays in Game 1 wasn’t that they failed to mash every pitch in the middle of the plate — it’s that they didn’t put a charge into any of them.

Even their most promising hits of the day were on tough pitches, as Guerrero Jr. drove a pitch on the high outside corner the other way — and Matt Chapman’s near home run came on a tough high fastball at 98 mph from Louie Varland.

Being able to turn tough pitches into offensive opportunities is a great skill to have, but hammering mistakes is a more reliable way to generate extra-base hits. 

It’s impressive that Chapman was able to drive Varland’s pitch in the clip above, but there’s a reason the pitch heatmap for his extra-base hits looked like this in the regular season:

If the Blue Jays are going to put some runs on the board, they need to execute on pitches in the heart of the plate. They got quite a few in Game 1 — particularly from starter Pablo López, who was not at his best on the way to tying his season-low strikeout total (3).

On Wednesday, the Blue Jays might not get as many opportunities as they received in Game 1, especially if Sonny Gray is on his game. If they are not more efficient with them, they could be in for another short playoff run.

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