MINNEAPOLIS — In the span of three pitches Saturday afternoon, Chris Bassitt allowed two majestic fly balls to centre field, Daulton Varsho came close to making a pair of spectacular catches and the game turned in favour of the Minnesota Twins.
Until then, the Blue Jays had been well-positioned to win consecutive games for the first time in two weeks. Instead, the game started tilting toward the Twins and — despite a compelling late rally — the Blue Jays fell to 27-26 on the season with a tough 9-7 loss.
“It seems like where we’re at,” manager John Schneider said. “You can’t fault the effort. (Varsho’s) one of the best outfielders in baseball. Any time you get around the wall it’s tough. You’ve got to brace for impact. But he was right there on both.”
With one on and nobody out in the fifth inning, Willi Castro provided Varsho with his first major test of the day. The Minnesota third baseman hit a ball 406 feet to straightaway centre field, and Varsho sprinted back to put himself in position to make a highlight reel catch at the fence roughly 407 feet away.
But while Varsho did reach up and touch the ball, he was unable to grab it. Worse still, by making contact with the ball, he nudged it over the fence for a home run.
“It’s an all-or-nothing play,” Varsho said. “It was in my glove and then I hit the wall and it bounced out.”
A mere two pitches later, right fielder Matt Wallner squared up another Bassitt offering, hitting a 1-0 pitch 409 feet just to the left of centre. This one needed no assistance leaving the yard, but Varsho made a tremendous effort to scale the wall and reach for the baseball in an effort to pull it back. Again he got his glove on it. Again, he just missed.
“You live and die by it,” he said. “Sometimes you come up with it, sometimes you don’t.”
“Both of them are probably catchable,” he added. “I wish I could have caught both of them. It would’ve been great. But obviously it didn’t happen.”
In those moments, the game turned. Either would have been a sensational catch, but once Varsho missed both the Twins were well positioned to even the series, setting up a decisive third game Sunday. A ninth-inning homer from Varsho made the score closer, and a subsequent rally made things interesting late, but too much damage had already been done.
Granted, Varsho wouldn’t have even been playing centre were it not for the lower back discomfort that forced Kevin Kiermaier to the bench in the third inning. After making a pair of max effort throws early in the game, Kiermaier appeared uncomfortable then exited in place of Cavan Biggio, who’d later homer.
Kiermaier’s since gotten treatment from Blue Jays trainers with more to come Sunday. At this point, he’s considered day-to-day.
“It tightened up a little on that (second inning) throw,” Schneider said. “With Kev and how important he is to us, we wanted to be safe and make sure we didn’t make anything worse.”
Bo Bichette also homered for the Blue Jays, going deep for the second consecutive day while also adding a triple. But on a day Bassitt struggled, seven runs weren’t enough.
“Off-speed was terrible,” Bassitt said afterwards. “Location of fastballs was terrible. The life of my fastball was terrible. Everything.”
The right-hander allowed seven earned runs over four-plus innings Saturday, allowing nine hits while striking out five and walking two. Later, Anthony Bass would continue trending in the right direction with two perfect innings of relief work.
Notably, Bassitt was pitching to Tyler Heineman, the backup catcher who was activated Friday when Danny Jansen hit the injured list.
By starting Heineman, the Blue Jays were able to give Alejandro Kirk a partial day off, but the 2022 all-star did spend some time behind the plate after a seventh-inning pinch-hit appearance. That marks four consecutive days catching for Kirk with a fifth likely Sunday after maxing out at three straight days catching last year.
Had the Blue Jays rallied to tie the game in the ninth, Varsho would have been the Blue Jays’ catcher as Kirk was lifted for pinch-runner Nathan Lukes in a bid for more speed. Varsho has yet to catch with his new team, but he’s prepared for the job if needed under unusual circumstances such as these.
“Obviously it’s a different adrenaline rush,” Varsho said. “But whatever happens, happens.”
Regardless, the Blue Jays were outplayed. This game was certainly closer than the score would suggest, but the complete performances that helped the Blue Jays start the season strong continue to elude them right now.
“Everybody’s grinding, but that’s baseball,” Varsho said. “We have to figure out day in and day out how to get there 162 and come out on top more than you lose. Obviously, it’s just a rough stretch right now, but there’s a lot more baseball.
“We’re going to get out of it.”