Game-changing swing: Varsho's grand slam powers series win

June 16th, 2024

TORONTO -- If at first you make a mess of things, try, try again.

Twice in Sunday’s 7-6 win over the Guardians at Rogers Centre, the Blue Jays had the bases loaded, no outs and their cleanup hitter at the plate. Things went as poorly -- and as well -- as they possibly could have, capturing who the Blue Jays have been and who they’re capable of being.

’s grand slam in the fifth inning broke the game wide open, which is the cleanup hitter’s job. That’s barely happening in 2024, though. Stunning as it sounds, Varsho’s slam was just the second home run by a Blue Jays cleanup hitter this season -- the fewest in baseball.

Every other MLB club has at least six home runs from their cleanup spot. The Blue Jays rank last in RBIs (22) and 27th in OPS (.621) from that spot in the lineup, too, so often squandering the work done by their top three hitters.

It happened again on Sunday in a way that Blue Jays fans have come to expect -- and almost accept at this point -- but nothing will turn this offense around quicker than the heart of the order starting to beat again.

“That’s the growth of a really, really talented player,” manager John Schneider said. “I like him up with the bases loaded and I love the way we came back. We loaded them up in the first and didn’t get anything done, but we came back, scored two in the next inning and then Varsho came through.”

Take 1: Spencer Horwitz looks awfully nice atop this lineup, doesn’t he? After his leadoff single, a Davis Schneider walk and a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. single to load the bases, it looked like Toronto’s long-dormant first-inning offense had come to life. Nope.

Varsho popped up in his first crack with the bases loaded, George Springer went down swinging and Alejandro Kirk grounded out, quickly sucking the energy out of Rogers Centre. It took 20 minutes for the Blue Jays to give everyone a chance to say: “Oh, this again.”

Take 2: After walks from Horwitz and Schneider, Vladdy hit the strangest single of the season. His 401-foot hit off the center-field wall caused Horwitz to hesitate, thinking it might be caught by the outfielder racing back. Horwitz made the wrong move, pivoting back to tag late, which clogged up the bases behind him and left them loaded for Varsho once again.

Varsho worked a 2-0 count and launched a high fastball 398 feet -- three feet shorter than Guerrero’s “single” -- over the wall in right field. Redemption.

“I think I’ve hit him everywhere in the lineup, which isn’t ideal,” Schneider said. “We joke about that almost every day, me and him. That’s a huge swing, obviously. Varsho is getting a better and better understanding of where he can handle the ball.”

This is the beauty of power. Had Varsho struck out, you might be reading a story about Horwitz’s base-running decision costing the Blue Jays two runs. Had he popped out, it sets the stage for another disappointment with Springer. But in an instant, one swing from Varsho changed the game and the series, swatting down so many narratives that could have bubbled up without it.

It’s clear at this point that power isn’t going to be the identity of the Blue Jays, but it needs to be part of it, at the very least.

“We can obviously hit the long ball, but we’ve also got to play some small ball at times,” Varsho said. “That’s what helps us win a lot of ballgames. Isiah Kiner-Falefa does it really well -- I think better than anybody else on our team -- being able to play small ball and move runners. It’s really cool that we’re able to do both.”

This is what Varsho has come to represent to the Blue Jays, even though he hadn’t homered since May 26 and his numbers have dipped since an excellent start in April. Varsho has the ability to flip a game with one play, and for a Blue Jays team too often caught in low-scoring games, that’s incredibly valuable. He can do this at the plate, on the bases or in the field, where he’s one of the sport’s truly elite defenders.

Once again, the Blue Jays are back on the doorstep of .500, a mark they haven’t touched since April 29, when they were 15-15. Moments like Varsho’s grand slam are their best shot at blowing right past it.