Unstoppa-Bo! HR lifts Blue Jays into tie for AL Wild Card lead

September 13th, 2022

TORONTO --  is the moment.

Fresh off being named American League Player of the Week, the Blue Jays’ shortstop continued his September dominance, clobbering a go-ahead two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth to give the Blue Jays a 3-2 victory over the Rays in Monday’s series opener at Rogers Centre.

You could cut the tension with a razor as thin as the margin between Toronto and Tampa Bay in the AL Wild Card standings. But Bichette kept his composure throughout.

“I’m definitely focused,” said Bichette, who drove in all three of the Blue Jays’ runs. “I think the time of the year helps. A lot of big games, and we need all of them. So that’s my focus, to win games.”

The defining home run -- Bichette’s 24th of the season and seventh in September -- came one at-bat after he was hit on the wrist by a 97 mph pitch from Rays reliever Javy Guerra that missed his face by mere inches. The stakes were high enough before that, but the change in the atmosphere was palpable as the 24-year-old slammed his bat on the ground and took first base.

“I just saw my life flash before my eyes,” Bichette joked. “I was scared, that’s it.”

He has never been one to cower, though.

With the Blue Jays trailing by one and two out in the eighth, Bichette worked Jason Adam to a full count, taking the seventh pitch of the at-bat -- and the second slider in a row -- a Statcast-projected 394 feet to left-center field, just enough to sneak over Randy Arozarena and clear the fence.

Amid Bichette’s 24-for-47 stretch with 21 RBIs in September, his teammates and coaching staff are running out of superlatives.

“He’s locked in, man,” said Blue Jays interim manager John Schneider. “He’s definitely the dude you want right now, in any spot.”

Bichette’s heroics also rewarded a solid outing by José Berríos, who covered 6 1/3 innings on the eve of a crucial doubleheader that is bound to be taxing for the Blue Jays’ pitching staff. Berríos allowed just two runs -- one earned -- while striking out four and issuing one walk. Five of his six hits were singles.

Yimi García, Tim Mayza and Jordan Romano -- who earned his 33rd save of the season -- combined for the remaining eight outs, continuing a welcome trend of reliable performances out of the Blue Jays’ bullpen.

“I’m always [looking for] seven quality innings,” said Berríos. “I almost did it tonight, but I’m [glad] to be able to help the team get a win tonight.”

Berríos was issued a warning in the seventh inning for plunking Francisco Mejía after Bichette’s run-in with Guerra. The right-hander stated it wasn’t purposeful, let alone some sort of payback, but he doesn’t deny that there’s a bit of extra motivation to do well whenever he’s facing an AL East opponent.

“For myself, I know that we’re competing [directly], we’re battling for something special,” he said. “So I use that to motivate myself, go out there and do the work.”

Monday’s win put the Blue Jays a half-game ahead of the Rays and tied them with the Mariners for the top spot in the Wild Card standings (Seattle holds the tiebreaker after winning the season series from Toronto, 5-2). But with four more games in three days against Tampa Bay, the postseason picture may look a lot different at the end of this series.

If this was a taste of things to come, there will be no shortage of drama from now until Thursday.

“I just love the competitiveness. I love that everyone kept their composure,” said Schneider. “It says a lot about them. They’re a confident group, they’re obviously a close group and they’re focused on the task at hand. If tensions are running a little bit high, that’s OK. A lot of the guys in there know how to reel it in and still compete, still focus on what they have to do.”

Bichette is at the helm of that movement right now, as the Blue Jays’ offense reclaims its dominance one at-bat at a time. It took a bit for Toronto hitters to get going on Monday, a trend that has become familiar, especially at Rogers Centre.

But there were certainly signs of improvement, namely for Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who seems to be breaking out of a small slump. Guerrero finished 2-for-4 with his 100th career double, something the Blue Jays expect to build on as they try to create some separation in the Wild Card race.

“It’s going to be a long series, and it’s a good team, obviously,” said Schneider. “Every game is going to get magnified a little bit.”