Verdugo pays back teammates with 9th-inning heroics

Red Sox take series in Toronto, move to 6-0 against Blue Jays this season

July 2nd, 2023

TORONTO -- Alex Verdugo’s vision went into split screen as he made his game-winning throw to home plate.

All that stood between the Red Sox and a series win against the Blue Jays on Saturday was Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who stepped up with two out and runners on second and third in the bottom of the ninth inning at Rogers Centre. Tasked with preserving Boston’s two-run lead, Kenley Jansen watched as Guerrero swatted a 96 mph cutter to right field for a single.

By the time Verdugo got to it, George Springer had already scored from third to cut the lead to one run. But while Bo Bichette hesitated as he rounded the bag on his way home, Verdugo was decisive in his throw to catcher Connor Wong.

“Once I throw it, man, it's kind of like, your eyes do like this,” Verdugo said, quickly pointing at different directions. “You're looking at home plate, trying to find the ball to make sure it's online, and then you're going to the runner and you're like, ‘Oh God, oh God.’”

Verdugo didn’t really need to hold his breath. The throw was right on target as it one-hopped in front of Wong, who easily tagged Bichette to seal the Red Sox’s 7-6 win over the Blue Jays.

“He's one of the best, if not the best, defensive right fielders in the American League,” said manager Alex Cora of Verdugo. “That was a great throw.”

The magnitude of the moment made it even better.

Verdugo’s heroics ensured a narrow win in a game that saw the Red Sox build a 6-2 lead in the middle innings. The visitors never surrendered the advantage, but as Josh Winckowski allowed three unanswered runs, things got way more interesting than expected.

“Today was everybody picking up each other,” said Jansen, who labored for a four-out save after Winckowski ran into trouble with two out in the eighth. “I picked up Winck and then Dugie picked me up. So, it’s a great team win.”

The way Verdugo sees it, he was just paying back his teammates’ kindness. The 27-year-old went hitless on Saturday as part of a seven-game stretch in which he’s posted a .247 batting average with a .637 OPS -- far from the impressive numbers he’s sported this season overall.

“I can't hit water if I fell out of a boat,” Verdugo joked. “I'm grinding up there, but the boys are out there, just doing what they have to do, putting up good at bats and really picking me up [while] I'm a little bit off right now.”

Leading the charge offensively was Rafael Devers, who hit a two-run homer in the third inning to give the Red Sox the lead, then added another two hits and one RBI.

Cora’s plan was to give Devers the day off on Saturday, since the Rogers Centre turf can be a bit taxing on players’ knees and backs. But the third baseman wasn’t interested in sitting this one out.

“He asked me if I wanted the day off, and I said that I didn’t, I was fine,” Devers said, in Spanish. “I’ve always had a good time here. I hit well and I see the ball well here.”

Devers entered the game with a .913 OPS in 33 contests at Rogers Centre. That third-inning homer -- his 20th of the season -- travelled a Statcast-projected 418 feet to left-center field after a seven-pitch matchup with lefty starter Yusei Kikuchi.

He later singled to right and doubled to center en route to his fourth three-hit effort of the season.

“He's controlling the zone, and when you start hitting the ball to left-center, good things happen,” said Cora. “It’s fun to watch.”

Boston ended up needing all of Devers’ production to come away with its first series win since sweeping the Yankees at Fenway Park on June 18. After struggling against AL East opponents last year, the Red Sox were set on improving within their division this season.

Toronto has experienced that first-hand. With Saturday’s win, the Red Sox tied a franchise record against the Blue Jays by reaching a 6-0 mark against them.

“The biggest thing for us is playing better in our division,” said Verdugo. “When we win those games, it’s meaningful. The division makes some steps, we actually catch ground, things like that. … It’s big. It's something that we know we need and, you know, just have to step up against our own division.”