With pitchers rolling, offensive improvement holds key to Blue Jays’ ceiling

Bo Bichette hit a three-run triple, Daulton Varsho hit his sixth home run in 10 games and Yusei Kikuchi was solid pitching six innings to lead the Toronto Blue Jays past the Kansas City Royals 5-3.

KANSAS CITY — As a team, the Toronto Blue Jays are nowhere near where they want to be offensively — where they should be.

It’s been a little more than two weeks since they last scored more than five runs. They’ve done so just three times all year, and only once since their season-opening series against the Rays.

They’ve been out-scored, out-homered and at times outplayed. But at the end of the day, it’s about wins and losses rather than run differential and after beating the Royals 5-3 at Kauffman Stadium Monday night, the 13-10 Blue Jays also continue doing a lot of things well.

“The way we’re competing, it’s really fun to be a part of,” shortstop Bo Bichette said afterwards. “Especially with me not really doing everything I can, and Vladdy as well and George (Springer) too. Guys are stepping up and helping this team win.”

Thanks to pitching, defence and timely hitting, the Blue Jays made the most of the few hits they got against Brady Singer in the series opener. A Bichette three-run triple cleared the bases in the third inning while Daulton Varsho’s sixth home run of the year led to two more runs in the sixth.

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All of Varsho’s home runs have come in the last six games, raising his season OPS to .881. The performance surely makes him the new American League leader in Wins Above Replacement, as he began the day tied with the Royals’ Bobby Witt Jr. at 1.6.

It’s a significant departure from 2023, when Varsho struggled offensively on his way to a .674 OPS, but some who watch him prepare aren’t surprised by his elite defence, or even by his recent power surge.

“(There’s) consistency before the game that nobody sees,” Bichette said. “He’s been unreal and really carrying us, so it’s been fun to watch.”

Starter Yusei Kikuchi echoed that sentiment in comments made through interpreter Yusuke Oshima.

“He works really hard behind the scenes,” Kikuchi said. “Even on our team flight, he’s watching videos, analyzing his own swing and trying to get advice from other players like George and Bo. It’s paying off and I’m really happy to see him succeeding.”

On the pitching front, Kikuchi provided six innings of two-run ball before handing the game over to relievers Erik Swanson, Yimi Garcia and Jordan Romano, who recorded his 100th career save. After a tough finish Sunday that saw Blue Jays relievers walk six, the bullpen did its part this time, with a Kyle Isbel solo shot off Romano the only late damage.

“Awesome for him,” said manager John Schneider. “Personally knowing him for a long time, seeing him as a starter in the minors and getting Rule 5 (drafted) and coming back, a lot of credit goes to him … I’m really glad we won, but I’m really happy for him. He’s really turned himself into a pretty elite closer.”

As for Kikuchi, he carried a shutout into the sixth inning on a night he averaged 94.6 m.p.h. with his fastball and topped out at 96.6. The left-hander struck out four without walking anyone as his ERA climbed to a still-impressive 2.28.

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“He was lights out,” Schneider said. “That’s as efficient as I’ve ever seen him. He was attacking guys (and) getting weak contact.”

The big hits from Bichette and Varsho notwithstanding, there’s still a lot of room for offensive improvement on this team. Now four years into the largest contract in franchise history, Springer’s hitting .198 with a .594 OPS; former MVP finalist Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s OPS is a rather modest .718; one-time Silver Slugger Alejandro Kirk’s batting .179 without a home run.

All three will likely need to produce more if the Blue Jays are going to fulfill their offensive potential, while greater contributions from role players like Daniel Vogelbach would help, too (notably, Joey Votto is nowhere near returning as he isn’t yet facing live pitching due to the ankle sprain he sustained last month).

But alongside those offensive struggles, the team’s defence has been elite (there was a nice play by Justin Turner at first Monday) and this is probably the best the pitching staff has looked all year. Not only is the starting rotation finally rolling one through five, but Swanson and Romano are starting to look more like themselves after returning from the injured list just last week.

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“Absolutely,” Schneider said. “They’re getting a little sharper.”

Then there’s Garcia, who looks like one of the most dominant relievers in the game. He struck out another hitter Monday, lowering his season ERA to 0.79 while retiring the side on 11 pitches.

If they continue at this rate, the Blue Jays would win 92 games — a respectable total that makes you wonder what they’d look like if they can ever get their offence going.

“It really comes down to just reminding people how good they are and what they’re capable of,” Bichette said. “Just helping each other stay consistent.”

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