TORONTO -- What a difference a weekend can make.
The Blue Jays were coming off a series against the Orioles that did nothing to inspire optimism in the AL Wild Card race, but following Sunday afternoon’s 8-0 win over the A’s at Rogers Centre to complete the series sweep, there are suddenly signs of life in Toronto.
This series had a little bit of everything, from Friday’s walk-off heroics to Saturday’s offensive outburst that was just barely enough to stumble across the finish line late. Sunday, finally, was the Blue Jays’ “normal” win, a rare victory that was never in doubt. This pulls them even with Oakland in the Wild Card race and puts both clubs four games back of the Red Sox, who lost Sunday, for the second AL Wild Card spot. Toronto also now sits just 4 1/2 games back of the Yankees for the top Wild Card spot, putting its upcoming series on the main stage. This was always going to be the stretch of games that would make or break the Blue Jays, and through three games with four in New York on tap, they’re finally doing everything they can to stay alive.
Robbie Ray was dominant, which you’ve already heard 20 times this season. The Cy Young candidate gave the Blue Jays 6 2/3 innings of one-hit, scoreless ball with 10 strikeouts, dropping his ERA to 2.60. With home runs from Marcus Semien and Alejandro Kirk, everything about Sunday’s win was smooth sailing.
“He’s probably the best pitcher in baseball right now from what I’ve seen,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “When he takes that mound, everybody feels it. He’s going to give us a chance. When we give him a lead, hopefully he makes it through seven and we’re thinking about pitch count after that. He does what he does. It was huge.”
Toronto’s offense picked up Alek Manoah from a rough outing in the series opener, but José Berríos was sharp in Game 2 and Ray is one of the safest bets in baseball for a performance just like this one. The Blue Jays’ rotation has quickly become a legitimate strength, but it hasn’t been allowed to shine, because the offense has struggled to put much together. Until now.
“We’re confident, but we’ve got to keep working, keep our heads down and play as hard as we can,” said Bo Bichette, who went 4-for-4 with a double in one of his best games of the season. “The rotation has been amazing, but when we hit like this and they don’t give up a lot of runs, it leads to a lot of wins. It’s been fun.”
Looking ahead to this week’s series against the Yankees, the sweep of the A’s leaves the Blue Jays with three reasons to believe a surprise run in September is still possible:
The bats live once again
It was always a matter of when, not if, Toronto’s bats would wake up. This lineup is too talented to hit like it did through late August, when clutch hits were few and far between. Suddenly, the offense came together to put up 29 runs and 38 hits over three games against the A’s.
This lineup can be streaky, but it was rare to see such a talented group go cold all at once. They’ll need to maintain this form if they want to keep stride with the mighty Yankees this week in the Bronx, but with George Springer at the top, four All-Stars behind him and some timely contributions finally coming from the bottom of the order, there’s reason to believe they will.
Gurriel on a heater
What a weekend for Lourdes Gurriel Jr. With a grand slam on Friday, another home run on Saturday and a two-run triple on Sunday, one of the club’s streakiest hitters is officially hot. Gurriel has been trying to slow down his at-bats and simplify things, which is allowing him to show the heights of his talents.
Sustaining this success has always been Gurriel’s challenge, but at this point in the season, all that matters is the game at hand. Gurriel’s exceptional arm in left field doesn’t exactly match his winding routes to balls, but if his bat stays hot, he has the ability to be a game changer.
Weathering the storm in center field
The Blue Jays need Randal Grichuk in September. They needed him in April and May, too, when they were without Springer. Now, their need for Grichuk isn’t quite as urgent, with Springer back as the designated hitter following a left knee sprain, but Grichuk’s defense in center is crucial from this point on.
Grichuk has looked sharp recently and made one of his best catches of the season in the first inning, racing back to the warning track in left-center field to make the running catch on Starling Marte. Grichuk hasn’t hit much since his strong start to the season, but if the rest of the lineup can make up for his bat while he holds down the defense in center, that will be enough given the circumstances.