'I love playing here': Chapman erupts at Rogers Centre

July 29th, 2022

TORONTO -- Matt Chapman has figured out his home ballpark.

On a day when the Blue Jays announced major renovations to Rogers Centre, Chapman cemented its symmetric confines as the main stage for his ongoing power surge.

The third baseman homered twice in the Blue Jays’ 5-3 win on Thursday to open a four-game series against the Tigers. It was Chapman’s first multihomer game since Aug. 31, 2021, and his first as a Blue Jay.

It’s becoming pretty clear that he loves to hit at home.

“I feel like I’ve hit most of my homers at home,” said Chapman, who’s smacked 14 of his 18 long balls in Toronto this year. “I always feel comfortable playing here, I love playing here. The fans make it fun and I know our whole team likes playing here. I see the ball really well [at Rogers Centre].”

It took Chapman a bit to get things going this year. A combination of high expectations, bad luck and a self-identified need for small mechanical tweaks made the first half of the season a sort of work in progress for the 29-year-old.

But “progress” has been the imperative word. Chapman has posted a .320 average in July, with 19 RBIs and 11 extra-base hits. He holds a 1.000 slugging percentage since the All-Star break and has reached base in all six games of the second half.

Between slightly adjusting his stance in the batter’s box and gaining trust and comfortability in his new surroundings, he's looking more like himself -- though he never lost sight of his identity in the tough times.

“Stud,” said Blue Jays interim manager John Schneider as soon as he heard Chapman’s name in his postgame media conference. “It’s so funny, because the first half of his year was kind of unlucky. He’s hitting the ball extremely hard. The work, the patience, the approach, I really can’t say enough. … And he makes an impact on both sides of the ball.”

Chapman showed off his glove again on Thursday, converting two challenging ground balls into outs in the ninth with the Blue Jays nursing a thin lead and Jordan Romano on the mound going for a four-out save.

It was exactly the type of all-around support Yusei Kikuchi needed in his first outing back from an IL stint with a neck strain. The left-hander was solid in his return, striking out five hitters in five frames of one-run ball with a homer, a walk and two hits allowed.

Kikuchi was throwing strikes, commanding his fastball and mixing his pitches at an elite level. After a disappointing first half, the Blue Jays welcomed the crisp, confident performance from their No. 5 starter.

“When he’s throwing strikes and we’re preaching, ‘Hey, just go right after these guys and let the defense work,’ it keeps us in the game,” said Chapman. “And we’re able to make nice plays for him.”

Schneider described Kikuchi as “his own biggest critic” ahead of his start against the Tigers. Amid rehabbing a neck strain and fine-tuning his mechanics, Kikuchi also worked on the mental side of his game while on assignment in Buffalo.

“To be honest, I think I’ve been hard on myself my whole life,” Kikuchi said through an interpreter after the game. “But I think that because I was hard on myself my entire career, I was able to push myself and get to MLB. At the same time, being a little bit too hard on myself, I feel like [it] puts me in a difficult spot, mentally, at times. So, just maybe taking a step back, sometimes, can be really beneficial.”

Like Chapman, Kikuchi had some reacclimating to do upon arriving in Toronto this offseason after spending the first three seasons of his MLB career with the Mariners.

“I think it was a little bit difficult this year, coming to a new team, with a shorter Spring Training and working on a few different things mechanically in-season, which resulted in a not-so-steady first half, unfortunately,” Kikuchi said. “But I’m really looking forward to being able to do my part in the second half and contribute to the team.”

The timing of Kikuchi’s resurgence, whether or not it proves to be sustainable, may give the Blue Jays new strategic layers as the league nears Tuesday's Trade Deadline.

Toronto is expected to be active in the pitching market until then, and the urgency to add a rotation arm is certainly still there. But should the club indeed make a deal at the Deadline and see Kikuchi stick in the No. 5 spot, it'll gain some much-needed pitching flexibility through the regular season and beyond.