TORONTO -- The Blue Jays offense doesn’t seem to know how to start games, but it sure knows how to finish them.
Toronto’s lineup has been following a trend through the first 15 games of the season. Next to no production through six innings and then an onslaught of hits over the final three. Sometimes the late-inning rallies have started too late. Saturday’s started just in time.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. hit a two-run double in the bottom of the seventh while right-hander Clay Buchholz tossed six quality innings in the Blue Jays’ 3-1 victory over the Rays at Rogers Centre. Toronto picked up its second come-from-behind win of the season and its fourth victory after the opposition scored first.
“He has a history with hitting,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said of Gurriel. “He only had 40-50 at-bats so it’s coming. That was a big blow right there. Good for him.”
The Blue Jays were held hitless into the sixth inning for the fifth time this season. Earlier this year, David Hess, Matt Moore, Jordan Zimmermann and Trevor Bauer all carried no-hitters through five innings vs. Toronto and the latest one to accomplish it was 2018 American League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell. The Rays No. 1 starter allowed just one hit and one walk while striking out nine over six scoreless, but his bullpen was unable to protect the lead.
Here’s a closer look at the three things that made Saturday’s victory possible for the Blue Jays:
Bats break out
Toronto has barely been able to piece together any kind of offense through the first six innings of games this season. The Blue Jays are batting .157 (48-for-306) through the first six innings vs. .272 (47-for-173) in the seventh to ninth innings. The trend continued again on Saturday afternoon, but unlike some of Toronto’s previous games, the difference this time is that the deficit was not too much to overcome.
Snell was removed after six innings and the Blue Jays immediately capitalized. Justin Smoak led off with a single and two batters later Randal Grichuk doubled to put runners on second and third with one out. That’s when Gurriel came through with a double off the wall in straightaway center field for the two-run double. According to Statcast, Gurriel’s shot off Rays reliever Chaz Roe left his bat at 104.1 mph and put Toronto in front 2-1.
“We all know we’re not hitting very well right now, the whole team,” Blue Jays outfielder Teoscar Hernandez said when asked about the big seventh inning. “Yesterday we almost came back and today we came back and won the game, which gives us a lot of confidence for the next day.”
After taking the 2-1 lead, the Blue Jays seemed poised to give it right back in the top of the eighth inning. Joe Biagini entered out of the bullpen and gave up a little flare to right field off the bat of Mike Zunino. Toronto right fielder Alen Hanson made an ill-advised decision to try and make a head-first diving grab as the ball fell at least two feet in front of him and then bounced underneath his glove.
By the time Hanson got the ball back into the infield, Zunino was standing on third base with nobody out. The tying run seemed inevitable but Biagini struck out two of the next three batters before lefty Tim Mayza entered and then struck out Daniel Robertson to end the threat. All the Rays had to do to tie the game was make contact, but the Blue Jays’ bullpen made sure it didn’t happen.
“That’s why you have to give our pitching credit, to minimize [the damage],” Montoyo said. “We made some errors, but the guys came out of the ‘pen and got the guys out. We made a couple of bad plays, but our bullpen saved us.”
Not to be overlooked in the late-inning heroics was the effort by Buchholz, who was making his 2019 season debut. Buchholz got off to a late start this year because he didn’t sign until early March, but he appeared to be in mid-season form vs. Tampa Bay, at least when it came to command. The veteran right-hander scattered six hits and didn’t walk a batter while striking out two and throwing 45 of his 69 pitches for strikes.
Buchholz is no longer the hard thrower fans would recognize from a 10-year career in Boston. The days of throwing mid-90s velocity are over, and in the game against the Rays, Buchholz topped out at 89.6 mph. Even so, with that pitch being thrown 21 times, Buchholz got three called strikes and five foul balls off the pitch with just four balls put in play. The 34-year-old is trying to prove that location trumps everything else and for at least game, it did.
“I feel good, I feel healthy,” Buchholz said. “I’ve done it a couple of times where you go out and it’s max effort every pitch that you throw. I think hard times come from that. So I used a little bit of what I grasped last year in Arizona. Less is more, sometimes, and I feel better throwing the ball to a certain side of the plate, in a certain quadrant of the zone, throwing it at 85-90 percent instead of 110. Miss the fat part of the bat, get some key ground balls and mishits.”