MINNEAPOLIS — Head down and expression neutral, Marcus Semien rounded the bases at Target Field.
As he turned toward home, he exchanged a brief handshake with third base coach Luis Rivera without breaking stride. Only once he touched home plate and turned toward a beaming Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was there any hint that this home run was anything other than ordinary.
And in a sense, these home runs have become routine for Semien — they even look similar as they fly over the left field wall one after another. But make no mistake: what Semien’s doing is exceptional.
That sixth-inning home run, his 43rd of the year, tied an MLB record for homers by a second baseman in a season. More importantly for the Blue Jays, it expanded on a narrow lead, giving Cy Young candidate Robbie Ray some breathing room on the way to a much-needed 6-1 win over the Twins.
“Tonight I just felt like — not angry, but I want us to play better,” Semien said afterwards. “I’m never satisfied until that last out is made. I had a couple good at-bats and of course I’m happy with them, but I just want us to keep going. Until we’re in that playoff spot, I’m going to be the same way.”
Of course, there’s still plenty of work ahead for the Blue Jays if they’re going to claim one of the two American League wild-card spots. Now 86-69, they remain 2.0 games behind both the Yankees and Red Sox with seven left to play. Still, ending their three-game losing streak was a necessary step forward.
“This was pretty much a must-win ballgame,” Ray said. “For us to stay where we are, to stay in this thing, it felt like tonight was a must-win for me.”
For the Blue Jays to reach the playoffs, they’ll need more from some of their struggling hitters, but thanks to Ray they didn’t need all that much offence Saturday. The left-hander held the Twins to just one run over the course of six innings while walking four and allowing three hits. Along the way, he lowered his AL-best ERA to 2.68 and raised his AL-best strikeout to 244.
Ray may now be the favourite to win the AL Cy Young over Gerrit Cole. The way manager Charlie Montoyo sees it, Ray should win.
“When our team needs a win we want him on the mound,” Montoyo said. “That tells you everything.”
Regardless of how that race ends, it’s clear how much Ray elevates the Blue Jays as a team every time he starts. He’ll pitch once more in the regular season – likely Thursday against the Yankees – and would then line up to pitch the wild-card game if the Blue Jays advance.
As for Ray, he was quick to point out the contributions of Semien, who tied Davey Johnson’s record for homers by a second baseman set in 1973.
“It’s almost unheard of in today’s game and it’s just a credit to the work he puts in every single day,” Ray said of his teammate. “The guy doesn’t take any time off and it’s really impressive to watch. He’s earned it. He’s earned the credit. He’s earned every bit of the acknowledgement that he’s getting.”
Soon, Semien will be earning more than credit. Like Ray, Semien will be a free agent when his one-year contract expires after the season ends. At that point, they’ll be among the most coveted free agents available, but because of how well both are playing, the team is winning and all other conversations are secondary for now. With a pennant race unfolding, it’s the status of the team that takes precedence.
But within the context of his contract status, Semien’s comments about tying the all-time record for homers hit by a second baseman were certainly interesting.
“That’s great,” he said. “I still see myself as a shortstop. I’ve been playing the position for so long. Now I go over there to second and I’m hitting more home runs, so it’s all good. I’ve never had my name in any record book so it’s really cool.”
After 104 pitches from Ray, the Blue Jays turned to the bullpen and got one scoreless inning from each of Adam Cimber, Tim Mayza and Trevor Richards to close out the game. With a day off looming Monday, all should be available for Sunday’s series finale if needed.
While Semien’s home run was the one that made history, the Blue Jays also got two other homers one night after being held to just four hits. Teoscar Hernandez hit his 31st of the season to lead off the second inning and George Springer hit a two-run homer to add to the Blue Jays’ lead in the seventh. Considering Springer had a .482 OPS in September entering play Saturday, that home run was an especially welcome sign for the Blue Jays.
“It was huge for him,” Ray said. “He’s been grinding. It’s not a secret … To hit a home run like that – it was amazing.”
Remaining on the bench was Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who got stitches on his throwing hand after Randal Grichuk stepped on it in Thursday’s series opener. At this point, the Blue Jays plan to rest Gurriel Jr. for the remainder of their series against the Twins before potentially welcoming his bat back into the lineup after Monday’s day off.
In the meantime, the Blue Jays have one more game against the Twins Sunday while the Yankees and Red Sox face off once again at Fenway Park. For starter Alek Manoah, arguably the biggest start of his career awaits. And for the Blue Jays, it’ll be a chance to salvage a series split and gain some meaningful ground on whichever team loses in Boston.