Springer slides down, then steps up as Manoah tosses gem in Blue Jays win

Daniel Vogelbach homered and scored three runs while Alek Manoah struck out seven in seven innings as the Toronto Blue Jays avoided their first sweep of the season by beating the Tampa Bay Rays 5-2.

TORONTO — Inside a quiet Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse Friday night after a 4-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, manager John Schneider called George Springer into his office and told his leadoff man the time had come for a change. Davis Schneider was moving atop the batting order with the four-time all-star, slumping badly at .196/.271.288, sliding to sixth.

The specifics of their conversation, “I’ll keep between us two, but I get it, I understand,” said Springer. “I need to do what’s best for the team and I understand that wholeheartedly. I’m not mad. There’s nothing to be mad about. I play for the Toronto Blue Jays. I don’t play for myself. … At this moment, (Davis Schneider) deserves it. He deserves to do it. He’s been swinging the bat well and there’s no secret that I haven’t lived up to my end of the bargain. That’s OK. I understand. I’m going to be the same hitter. I’m going to think the same way. The only difference is I’m not going to lead off the game.”

Springer collected an RBI single on Saturday and looked even more like himself Sunday, when he ripped an RBI double at 102.1 m.p.h. off the bat during a two-run fourth, walked twice and scored twice in a 5-2 victory that prevented a three-game Rays sweep.

Along with Daniel Vogelbach, who opened the scoring in the second inning with his first homer of the season, and Alejandro Kirk, who drove in his first runs of the month with a two-run double in the sixth, Springer’s efforts helped back a resurgent Alek Manoah, who pitched his team to victory for the first time since last Aug. 4 at Boston.

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The right-hander, so pivotal to the Blue Jays’ trajectory both short- and long-term, allowed just one hit, a walk and two hit batters over seven shutout innings in his most promising start yet.

He topped out at 95.6 m.p.h. with his sinker, manipulated his slider to get five whiffs, seven strikeouts and six outs on balls in play. He used his changeup to keep the four lefties the Rays lined up under control, with Ben Rortvedt chopping one up the middle for the only hit against him. And perhaps most importantly, he commanded all of his pitches, never once experiencing even a hint of trouble.

“A ton of confidence in that pitch right now,” Manoah said of his slider, a key element in his recent progression. “And biggest thing is really not thinking about the vertical or the horizontal on it or anything, just kind of reading swings and manipulating it towards those swings. It’s just being able to attack with it and trust it and whatever happens, happens.”

For the Blue Jays, now 20-25 as they begin a 13-game stretch against the struggling Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Pittsburgh Pirates, to correct, they’ll need sustained rebounds from Manoah, Kirk and Springer, among other players.

Slow starts are not unusual for Springer, although with the club’s issues scoring runs this season, the Blue Jays can’t afford to simply wait for him to come around. Like the team as a whole, he believes he’s been better than his numbers suggest — “It’s been a weird year. Again, I don’t know how to describe it,” he said — and his expected batting average of .254 and expected slug of .373 seem to support that.

Still, his average exit velocity is down to 87.2 m.p.h. from 88.3 m.p.h. a year ago, his launch angle is down 2.5 degrees at 9.5, and his hard-hit percentage is down nearly five per cent at 35.2 per cent.

Getting the ball elevated more has been one focus (he did that on his double) but “I’m not necessarily working on anything in the batter’s box,” he said.

“I’m trying to compete. I develop game-plans for the start of the game and depending on who it is, I’ve had a lot of experience with a lot of these guys so I have to try to navigate it,” he continued. “It’s kind of understanding the situation. I’m trying to get a pitch to hit and when I do hit it, hit it away from guys. I know I’ve done a good job of keeping the ball in the strike zone. I’ve hit a lot of balls hard but that’s kind of irrelevant. I’d rather see it hit 15 miles an hour up and be a hit. I’ve got to stay with it. Keep going. Don’t get frustrated. I understand that there’s a lot of urgency and that I need to hold up my end of the bargain. I understand that.”

The same applies more widely across the roster and the switch atop the lineup is one way manager John Schneider is refusing to surrender to fate while GM Ross Atkins preached urgency and patience with the roster Saturday.

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Springer has batted leadoff in all but 49 of the games he’s started in for the Blue Jays since he joined the club for the 2021 season. The 34-year-old had been a catalyst in the spot for the Houston Astros beforehand, as well, so changing his place in the lineup isn’t something Schneider did lightly.

But when Springer missed three games due to the viral illness that had been circulating through the club in the past week, Davis Schneider moved up and performed well in the role, and combined with the urgency of the moment, led to this weekend’s change.

“We are confident in George and we need him to be who he has been. That’s no secret,” said John Schneider. “Wherever he’s hitting, we just want him to continue to make the progress that he’s making. The walks today, the double, he was excited about the steps that he’s taken. … The guy is too damn good to kind of be in a rut for a whole season. The confidence is never going to waver in him no matter where he’s hitting. But getting him going in the right direction is huge.”

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Especially since the Blue Jays need to act fast if they’re going to leverage a season that still has ample runway in it, but not if they let the hole they’ve already dug get too deep.

“It’s May, there is time, but the more you tell yourself that there is time, the faster you will run out of it,” said Springer. “We’ve played better than our numbers show. We’ve done a lot of good things as a team. We just haven’t put it together. We’ve lost a lot of one-run games and games that have gotten away from us. We also won some games that we probably shouldn’t have. That’s the game. We haven’t done everything together yet.

“The one constant is that guys understand what we need to do. And it’s not like we’re not out there trying. We’ve just got to stick together, and hopefully all aspects of the game come together. And again, it is only May, but you don’t want to use that as a crutch.”

They don’t and they can’t, not if they want the second quarter of the season to look better than the first, not if they want to avoid the more significant changes that will inevitably come without steadier and more consistent positive results.

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