TORONTO — An opportunity to exorcise lingering Game 2 demons during this weekend’s visit by the Seattle Mariners? Nah, the Toronto Blue Jays are intent on moving beyond the past, not falling back into it. “There is no sense in looking back,” said Kevin Gausman, who started that berserk wild-card game last fall. “It’s like a breakup – you don’t want to hear someone break up with you again.”
“Yeah, who cares?” concurs centre-fielder George Springer, who was carted off the field in that game after a frightening collision with Bo Bichette in the outfield. “New year. New teams here and there. Last year was last year. You move on.”
There’s no undoing that 10-9 loss, no matter how this rematch series between the 1977 expansion cousins plays out, only a measure of progress from then to now, which began well for the Blue Jays with a 3-2 victory before a rocking crowd of 41,414 Friday night.
Narrative parallels were everywhere to be found, from Alek Manoah and Luis Castillo squaring off again the way they did in Seattle’s 4-0 Game 1 win last October, to Cal Raleigh hitting an early-game homer, to J.P. Crawford lofting a lazy popper into centre field’s no-man’s-land in the third.
The outcomes were different all around this time, Manoah limiting Raleigh to a solo shot instead of a two-run drive and allowing just two runs in five battled-his-heinie-off innings, helped by some attention-to-detail plays. There was Matt Chapman’s clever third-to-first double play with the bases loaded to end the second, Alejandro Kirk throwing out Julio Rodriguez trying to steal in the fourth, and Kevin Kiermaier making a great throw to keep Jarred Kelenic from tagging at first on a Eugenio Suarez flyout in the fifth. That Crawford flare also settled uneventfully into Bichette’s glove.
“Something that we prioritized this off-season was run prevention,” said Manoah. “I feel like those little things are kind of showing. Obviously, Chap’s the best third baseman in the league, when in doubt just throw sinker and let them hit it to him. KK, platinum glove out there. Just pretty big IQ plays. That’s huge. When you need a little pick-me-up, those guys are there to do it.”
Castillo, meanwhile, was grinded over his five frames and fortunate to surrender only Kirk’s solo shot in the second and Chapman’s RBI double in the third.
Also different, a Springer RBI single in the sixth opening a 3-2 lead, with Tim Mayza, Yimi Garcia, Erik Swanson and Jordan Romano retiring 12 straight batters to close out the win.
Swanson’s eighth inning included a leverage showdown against Teoscar Hernandez, the beloved slugger swapped out for the late-game righty, which ended in a lazy fly ball to right.
“It was cool,” said Swanson, who has allowed only two runs in 13 appearances. “Being able to face the guy that you were traded for in a pretty big deal was really fun. It was fun to see the video they put on for him before the game, obviously he meant a lot for the city, so it’s fun to be able to face the guy that was once here and is the reason that I’m here now.”
That deal marked the start of the Blue Jays’ post-collapse transformation, focused on addressing the on-field lapses and roster vulnerabilities that had undermined a whole that never seemed the sum of its parts. Swanson helped bolster the bullpen and financial savings in sending Hernandez to the Mariners were then partly reallocated to the signing of fellow outfielder Kevin Kiermaier.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. was packaged with top prospect Gabriel Moreno for Daulton Varsho, allowing Springer to shift to right. Combined with Kiermaier, the outfield became far tighter defensively, and along with trade deadline addition Whit Merrifield, made the Blue Jays lineup both quicker and more diverse.
“In every single detail, we’re just a little bit more crisp,” said Gausman. “We’re not walking as many guys right now, really pounding the zone. As starters, we’re going deep in the game, so we’re giving those bullpen guys a break when they need it. … Our defence is a little bit better, specifically in the outfield. How that’ll translate, we’ll see.”
Added Springer: “We’re a little bit more consistent earlier. Last year we started off a little bit up and down. Guys are older, guys are a lot more mature and understand what has to get done. There’s a long way to go to get to September. I don’t expect us to be the same now as at the end of May. We’ll just have to see what happens.”
The Blue Jays celebrated Hernandez with a pre-game video tribute – former manager Charlie Montoyo, in town earlier in the week as bench coach with the Chicago White Sox, barely got a nod – and his departure was a polarizing one. While there’s been chattering-classes speculation about the trades of him and Gurriel and the elimination of the home run jacket, the reality is both players were on expiring contracts, making their positions the easiest to turn over, extensions for either were unlikely and the Blue Jays found ways to both change and keep the assets alive.
Had there been more contractual runway for them, the club’s transformations may very well have come elsewhere.
“It was not a surprise,” Hernandez said of the trade. “I was seeing a lot of tweets on social media that might happen in the off-season. I wasn’t thinking it was going to be that quick, but it happened right away. … I was here for six years, and spent a lot of time with the boys. But it is what it is. It’s a business. They do the best that they can to make the team better. That’s the way they feel so they traded me.”
Now 17-9 following their fifth straight win, the alterations appear to be paying dividends for the Blue Jays. The Mariners (11-15) were a nemesis for them last year, taking five of the seven games between them during the regular season and sweeping another pair in the playoffs.
“We’re rolling right now,” said Swanson, experiencing the rivalry from the other dugout now. “Our starting rotation is putting us in position to win games, our lineup is scoring runs and our bullpen is coming in and keeping the game where it’s at. It’s fun when everybody is clicking like that.”
All that is giving the Blue Jays a lot of different ways to win games during their current run.
“It’s a credit to the character of the group of guys where one night it may be a one-run game like this and then you can have games where you’re swinging the bat really well and scoring seven or eight,” said manager John Schneider. “Starts with starting pitching, always. If that’s in a good spot, it puts you in a spot to do something good. It’s a confident group of guys in there.”
On Friday night, it all showed.