NEW YORK -- What’s the opposite of Murphy’s law? Anything that can go right has gone right for the Blue Jays in September.
Tuesday’s 5-1 win over the Yankees at Yankee Stadium was the Blue Jays’ sixth in a row, and with nine wins in their last 10 games, they now sit just two games back of the Red Sox for the second American League Wild Card spot and 2 1/2 back of the Yanks for the first. Toronto is suddenly the team that nobody wants to face. Not tomorrow, and not in October.
The spark that started this September fire was Marcus Semien, and he just kept rolling on Tuesday night with his 38th home run of the season, a solo shot that looked like a carbon copy of 30 others, pulled over the wall in the left-field corner. By the time Semien homered, though, the Yankees had already been dealt their biggest blow of the game when their ace, Gerrit Cole, exited with left hamstring tightness in the fourth inning.
Looking at the scheduled starters for this series, Cole facing Steven Matz didn’t scream, “Advantage, Blue Jays.” That’s why Toronto can take even more energy out of the win after beating the Yankees when they had their best on the mound.
“Momentum goes with your starter the next day,” said manager Charlie Montoyo, trying to keep a focused view after the wild week. “That’s what we have right now. Our starters have been lights-out. [Robbie] Ray and Matz probably have the best ERAs after the Trade Deadline. That’s outstanding. Matz today was facing one of the best pitchers in baseball on the other side, so there’s no room for error. He’s got to give us a chance and he did.”
With a 2.78 ERA, Cole is the slight favorite in the AL Cy Young race, with Ray inches behind. Any time missed would open that door, of course, but the larger impact here is on the Wild Card race. The focus among Blue Jays fans now lies on the rival Red Sox and Yankees, but with the Mariners and A’s still very much involved in the race, any stumble sets a team up to be blown past. New York is talented, but losing one of the best pitchers in the sport for any amount of time would have major implications.
When Cole was on the mound, the Blue Jays fought fire with fire. With seven balls put in play with an exit velocity over 100 mph in just 3 2/3 innings against Cole, Toronto was matching his aggression and hunting his fastball. That’s exactly what happened when young Alejandro Kirk launched his sixth home run of the season in the second inning. Kirk came back up in the eighth and launched his second of the game, another to the opposite field, to give the Blue Jays an insurance run, something they’ve needed so often this season.
“I’ve been trying to stay calm in every big at-bat, stay relaxed, trust in myself and my hands,” Kirk said through a translator. “Of course, I’ve been working every day with [hitting coach] Guillermo [Martinez] in the cage, and it’s been helping me a lot. Thankfully, I’ve been able to help the team.”
A 22-year-old isn’t supposed to be taking a pitcher of Cole’s caliber deep to the opposite field on a 99.4 mph fastball, but Kirk’s feel for hitting is rare and he continues to show that the moment is not too big for him. There will be times when the Blue Jays want Danny Jansen behind the plate -- especially with Hyun Jin Ryu -- and Reese McGuire will get his reps, but it’s clear that Kirk’s bat needs to be in the lineup as often as possible.
Five runs isn’t always enough when facing this Yankees lineup, but Matz made sure it was. The left-hander has pitched some of the best baseball of his career since the beginning of August, and he turned in another gem with six innings of one-run ball. Matz is a “feel pitcher,” and he admits it’s hard to describe the intricacies of when he does or doesn’t have his best feel, but it’s clear he’s got it lately. The timing couldn’t be better.
“It’s exciting,” Matz said. “Coming into New York, we knew this was a big series. You’ve got a little extra adrenaline coming in. Everybody is having fun, we’re playing good. You can sense it. We’re playing important baseball in September, and that’s what you want to do.”
Two weeks ago, this Blue Jays team was playing an uninspiring brand of baseball that looked the same every day. They’ve done a 180 since, with nearly every single player contributing, and the rest of the league can suddenly sense them gaining.