TORONTO – George Springer’s debut with the Toronto Blue Jays is on the horizon, perhaps as soon as this weekend against the Tampa Bay Rays, which makes Cavan Biggio’s return to the leadoff spot a temporary fix.
For the time being, though, his on-base skills certainly play there, and the flipping of him and Marcus Semien in the batting order Wednesday got both slumping hitters going in a nervous 6-3 victory over the Boston Red Sox, salvaging a two-game split at Fenway Park.
Biggio, back playing after taking a ball off the fingers in Kansas City last week, walked twice, scored once and delivered an RBI groundout while Semien singled twice, walked, stole a base and scored a run as the Blue Jays built an early 4-0 lead and then held on.
While by no means an offensive explosion, the six runs were a 50 per cent increase of the output from their previous three games, all losses. And it ensured that a carefully choreographed, all-hands-on-deck night from the bullpen, starting with two clean innings from Trent Thornton and capped by December waiver claim Anthony Castro’s first career save, didn’t go to waste, even as more shaky defensive play from the left side of the infield could have thrown it all away.
“We need to get better at that, that’s for sure,” manager Charlie Montoyo said of the team’s defence. “Our infield coach (Luis Rivera) knows, our players know and they’re going to keep working hard just to get better. Of course the pitchers deserve a lot of credit that we got big outs after plays that we should have made. But we do need to get better defensively in all areas.”
The only price the Blue Jays paid for their miscues – one poor throw by Bo Bichette, two others from Cavan Biggio and a foul popper allowed to drop amid the swirling winds by Danny Jansen – was in extra pitches, a by-product of some quality relief work and timely offence.
The first four runs came off an erratic Garrett Richards, who sprayed his fastball all around the strike zone over 4.2 scattershot innings. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., cashed in Biggio’s leadoff walk in the first with an RBI single before Rowdy Tellez hit into a double play to arrest a rally.
In the second, Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s sacrifice fly, Biggio’s run-scoring groundout and Bichette’s RBI single opened things up, but Tellez again couldn’t capitalize on a chance to blow things open, grounding out to end the frame and strand runners on second and third.
The offence stalled from there until a two-run ninth, which made the work of Tommy Milone, David Phelps, pressed into mid-game emergency leverage, Ryan Borucki, who threw two innings for the first time since his days as a starter, Rafael Dolis, Tim Mayza and Castro all the more impressive.
While they played in traffic often and allowed Boston to pull within a run in the eighth, they held the Red Sox at 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position, each helping the Blue Jays cover for the absence of several primary leverage arms.
“It’s really always been next guy up last year and this year same way,” said Borucki. “We have a couple of injuries, (Jordan) Romano, Julian (Merryweather) and (Tyler Chatwood), three guys pivotal guys, but it just shows the perseverance that this bullpen has. Castro coming in big for us. (Joel) Payamps, Timmy Mayza, guys just really stepping up to the plate when they need to. Today, coming in, I haven’t gone two innings in a while and it was good it was good to get out there for two innings.”
Thornton, whom Montoyo said isn’t being stretched out to start right now, needed just 25 pitches to get through the first two innings, and said he had plenty left to go further if needed, too.
The Blue Jays have liked his work out of the bullpen, but still see him as a starter long term.
“I just want to be versatile,” said Thornton. “Mentally, physically, I’m good enough to go and then throw multiple innings, whether it’s starting, relieving or whatever. I just want to pitch. I love pitching. So, whatever they need me to do, I’ll do.”
Milone followed, working around a low throw to first by Bichette that gave Bobby Dalbec a generously scored leadoff single in the third, surrendering an RBI groundout to Rafael Devers in the fourth and then had Biggio bounce a throw to first on another Dalbec grounder in the fifth that put two men on.
That forced Phelps into duty earlier than expected – Montoyo hoped to save him for the seventh or eighth – and he surrendered an RBI double to Kike Hernandez before eventually inducing a grounder to short by Xander Bogaerts to escape a bases-loaded jam.
After Borucki followed with two crisp innings, Dolis came on and had Bogaerts turn on a slider headed toward his shins for a solo homer in the eighth that made it a one-run game. A two-out walk to Christian Vazquez scuttled Montoyo’s hopes of using the right-hander again in the ninth and then Biggio’s throwing error on a Marwin Gonzalez grounder to put the go-ahead run aboard.
Dolis recovered to get Dalbec on another grounder to third, Biggio making a clean throw across the diamond for the out.
The Blue Jays capitalized on the reprieve in the ninth, when Alejandro Kirk delivered a pinch-hit RBI single and Randal Grichuk following with another run-scoring base hit to provide some additional breathing room.
The insurance came in handy in the bottom half as Mayza surrendered a leadoff single to Christian Arroyo before getting two outs, prompting Montoyo to call on Castro, making his fifth ever big-league appearance, to retire J.D. Martinez and end it for his first big-league save.
“Coming into Fenway Park to get your first ever save, that’s big, it’s a huge moment,” said Borucki. “Since he’s come up, he’s just so even keel and he just has disgusting stuff. … To see him get his first save is really, really cool.”
An off-day Thursday comes at an opportune time for the Blue Jays, providing a chance for the bullpen to reset ahead of the first meeting of the season with the Rays.
Beyond Springer, they may also get other reinforcements, too, as Chatwood on Friday and Romano on Saturday are on track for activation, while Teoscar Hernandez is eligible to come off the COVID-19 list as soon as Friday, but may need more time to get into baseball shape.
Along with lining up Steven Matz, Robbie Ray and Hyun-Jin Ryu to start the games at Tropicana Field, the Blue Jays may look more whole than they have in a long time. If Wednesday’s win was a step toward getting them right at the plate, too, all the better.