Blue Jays back in hunt after splitting rare doubleheader vs. Red Sox

Jonathan Arauz singled home the tiebreaking run in the eighth inning as the Boston Red Sox beat the Toronto Blue Jays 2-1 to split the doubleheader.

TORONTO – On the morning of April 16, 2018, a chunk of ice fell from the CN Tower and punctured a hole about a metre wide by two metres long in the thin PVC sheeting that covers the Rogers Centre roof. The impact was strong enough to trip alarms inside the stadium and attached hotel. Smaller shards had caused damage elsewhere on the lid, too, leading to some flooding in the building. Quite obviously, the Toronto Blue Jays and Kansas City Royals were postponed that night, leading to a doubleheader the next day.

The circumstances leading to Saturday’s twinbill, the fourth ever at the dome and first since that ice-storm induced chaos, were markedly different for the Blue Jays, who after sweeping the first three double dips at the building settled for a Saturday split with the Boston Red Sox.

Marcus Semien’s first career walk-off homer ensured a gem from Robbie Ray didn’t go to waste in a 1-0 win in the opener, but they couldn’t capitalize on six innings of one-run ball from Jose Berrios in the nightcap, falling 2-1 in eight innings.

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That stopped their win streak at five games and left them 8-2 since their return to Toronto.

“You’re playing a good team. We’ve beaten them three out of the last four games we played them and if we beat them (Sunday), it will be four out of five. That’s pretty good,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “And really, we only scored two runs today, so I feel good that we split, because the pitching was really good today for both sides. There’s nothing wrong with splitting when you score only two runs.”

The gems from Ray and Berrios – extending a dominant run in which Blue Jays starters have allowed only nine earned runs in 60.1 innings over the last nine games – put them in position to take both games. But Alex Verdugo’s game-tying homer in the sixth inning off Berrios tied the second game 1-1 and after the Red Sox gave away two outs on the bases in a messy seventh inning, Jonathan Arauz’s RBI single to open the eighth provided the winning margin.

Adam Ottavino closed things out in the bottom half to steady the reeling Red Sox (65-48), who won for just the second time in their past 10 outings. That stretch has allowed the Blue Jays (59-50) to close plenty of ground in the standings, leaving them four back of the wild-card leaders and three behind the Oakland Athletics (63-48) for the second berth.

Sunday’s series finale, when Hyun Jin Ryu starts against Garrett Richards, is the final head-to-head chance for the Blue Jays to close the gap on the Red Sox this season.

“We’re kind of clicking on all cylinders,” Ray said after the first game. “That’s something we talked about earlier in the year, it seemed like when we were pitching, the hitting was lagging behind, when we were hitting really well, we were giving up runs. It feels like right now that everything’s coming together. We’re pitching really good. We’re hitting, guys are getting on base, we’re getting them over, getting them in. We’re doing the small things. This really fun. And especially to be able to do it here in Toronto in front of the home crowd is great.”

A crowd of 14,768 watched the first game and 12,659 took in the first split doubleheader at Rogers Centre. The extra game is a makeup of a July 20 rainout in Buffalo, N.Y., and given the option of sneaking in another game onto their Toronto schedule, the Blue Jays immediately seized the opportunity.

Adding to the unusual circumstances is that the Red Sox were hit by some COVID-19 issues, with bench coach Will Venable testing positive and first-base coach Tom Goodwin in quarantine as a close contact. Slugger J.D. Martinez was also placed on the COVID-19 injured list, joining Jarren Duran there, leading to manager Alex Cora and several others to mask up in the visitor’s dugout.

The Red Sox are beneath Major League Baseball’s 85 per cent vaccination threshold.

“We have to be careful, right?” said Cora. “We’ve got to take care of our group. As for now, we’ll do our best to wear masks in the dugout and obviously inside.”

Semien’s first career walk-off homer – on the first pitch from fellow all-star Matt Barnes – capped off the first game in which Ray threw six two-hit, two-walk innings with five strikeouts before making way for closer Jordan Romano in the seventh.

Both Ray and Pivetta starters carried no-hitters into the fifth inning and the first real threat came from the Red Sox in the sixth, when Bobby Dalbec opened the inning with a walk and Arauz, after failing to get a sacrifice bunt down, lined a single to left.

Ray recovered to strikeout Kike Hernandez before Verdugo hit into a controversial fielder’s choice, as he beat the throw at first but missed the bag. The Blue Jays challenged and a crowd of 14,768 roared as they saw the replay and then booed when he was ruled safe because Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s foot slid off the bag and he didn’t apply a tag once Verdugo missed the base and time was called.

No matter, Ray promptly induced an inning-ending pop-up from Xander Bogaerts to escape the jam.

“I knew it wasn’t just going to be a cut and dry thing because (Gurriel) missed the bag,” Ray said of the Verdugo play. “It looks like he’s out and it was taking a long time for them to make the decision on it, so something just didn’t seem right to me. I just tried to stay focused through some extra warm-up pitches there to (Alejandro Kirk), kind of get my focus back. When they called him safe, at that point I was already locked in and ready to go.”

Pivetta, the Victoria native, was even stingier, allowing only a Corey Dickerson single in the fifth and George Springer walk in the sixth over his six innings of work.

The nightcap was tight, too, with the Blue Jays breaking through first when a Breyvic Valera single cashed in Bo Bichette with the game’s first run after Tanner Houck, a spinning mess of wiry limbs firing in fastballs sitting at 94.2 m.p.h., had kept them in check for 3.2 frames.

“He’s got really good stuff and his sinker, his fastball moves this much,” Montoyo said, putting his hands about a foot apart. “And of course, he’s got a pretty good sweeping slider. He’s been pretty tough on us the first two times we’ve seen him.”

The Red Sox stymied the Blue Jays from there, with Barnes delivering a clean seventh – helped by Hernandez’s leaping grab of a Vladimir Guerrero Jr., smash against the centre-field wall – to force extra innings.

Berrios deserved better after allowing only five hits with six strikeouts over his six innings of work. The Red Sox worked him over early but he generated more swing and miss the second and third time through, as he was able to use his curveball more effectively.

“I noticed they were being aggressive early in the game,” said Berrios. “I thought about it and made an adjustment, to try to throw better-quality pitches. We created a plan and then we executed it.”

Bichette made a brilliant play to save a run and end the sixth, ranging to his right to snare a 95.8 m.p.h. Hunter Renfroe smash on his backhand, and then one-hopping a throw across the diamond that Guerrero cleverly picked.

Reese McGuire then helped Trevor Richards escape the seventh after the first two Red Sox batters reached, picking off Marwin Gonzalez at second base for the first out and then getting Christian Vazquez trying to steal third on a Franchy Cordero strikeout.

But there was no escape in the eighth for Adam Cimber, who surrendered a groundball single up the middle to Arauz. He limited the damage from there, but the Blue Jays couldn’t bring home Guerrero with the tying run after he advanced to third on a Semien flyout.

One issue to watch is the loss of Tim Mayza, who was placed on the injured list before the game with elbow inflammation. The lefty had become one of Montoyo’s most trusted relievers – since June 1, he’d allowed only three earned runs in 25 appearances while holding opposing batters to a .145/.188/.184 line.

Mayza had been feeling pain in recent weeks but for the time being he won’t get any imaging.

“We’ve given him two days off and then he throws and then he feels it again,” said Montoyo. “We decided it’s time to give him a whole week, 10 days … for him to get better and finish the last month and a half. That was the main reason we put him on the IL.”

The decision wasn’t an easy one, and hours later, he was clearly missed.

“He’s been one of our best relievers all year. He’s been outstanding,” said Montoyo. “But like I always say, somebody else has to pick him up until he comes back.”

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