BALTIMORE -- The Blue Jays arrived in the Charm City for their three-game series against the Orioles this week knowing it would probably be their last chance to sneak back into the race for the American League East. If they do end up surging to erase what is now a 7.5 game divisional deficit over their final 36 games, they will have begun that sensational stretch run with a bang.
Bo Bichette made a crucial ninth-inning defensive play and Brandon Belt cranked Mike Baumann’s first pitch of the 10th for a go-ahead two-run homer as Toronto secured a critical 6-3 win over the Orioles on Tuesday night at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Toronto received 5 1/3 innings of spotless relief work from its bullpen to grind out just its third win in 11 games against the O’s this season.
“It’s a good start,” manager John Schneider said. “It’s a nice way to start this series, and you look forward to doing it again tomorrow. These guys are in a good spot. You meet teams at different times [in the season], and I love where we’re at right now.”
Tuesday’s extra-inning victory inched the Blue Jays a game closer to Baltimore and Tampa Bay in the AL East and helped them keep pace in the Wild Card chase with the Mariners, who beat the White Sox in Chicago. The Blue Jays trail the Mariners by one game for the final AL Wild Card spot, but Seattle’s lead is effectively larger than that. Since the Jays and Mariners split their six head-to-head matchups this season, the first playoff tiebreaker won’t apply. The next tiebreaker is intra-divisional record, for which Seattle (22-11) holds a significant lead over Toronto (12-23).
The Blue Jays know their struggles against Baltimore this season are an enormous reason for that. And this year’s balanced schedule gives them fewer opportunities to make up for those struggles compared to, say, last September, when Toronto went to Baltimore and quieted the upstart Orioles once and for all, taking three of four in a series that essentially eliminated the O’s from playoff contention.
The Blue Jays do have six games remaining against Tampa Bay in the final 10 days of the season, but this series is their last chance to gain ground directly on the Orioles.
“It’s an intense series,” Schneider said. “They’ve had our number a little bit. Or, a lotta bit. But a win like tonight was kind of a total team effort.”
Said Belt: “When you get to this time of year and you’re on the cusp of the playoffs, you’ve got to have urgency. You can’t put pressure on yourself, but that can make you do things you don’t normally do. But you need to have a sense of urgency to go out there and win ballgames now.”
Schneider took that approach Tuesday, aggressively pulling Yusei Kikuchi with two outs in the fifth and Toronto cradling a one-run lead. The move initially didn’t work; Yimi García allowed a game-tying double to his first batter, Jordan Westburg. But the Blue Jays’ ‘pen was lights-out from there, matching Baltimore’s airtight relief corps pitch for pitch until the offense broke through against Baumann in the tenth.
“They have an excellent, excellent bullpen,” O’s skipper Brandon Hyde said.
Left-hander Tim Mayza might have recorded the biggest out of the night with help from Bichette, who slid to his right to rob Adley Rutschman of what could have been a game-changing hit in the ninth. Mayza went on to retire Gunnar Henderson to end the inning and force extras, paving the way for Toronto’s offensive outburst a half-inning later.
“That’s a game-saver right there,” Schneider said. “That’s a hell of a play by Bo.”
Belt’s clutch homer came on the heels of a two-homer game Sunday, and Toronto’s first runs came via a two-run Dalton Varsho homer, his third in his last seven games. All told, the Jays have homered seven times in their last two games -- a great sign for a high-flying offense that’s been waiting all year to fire on all cylinders.
“That’s what it’s going to take for us to win this thing,” Belt said. “Everybody has to be contributing. It has a lot to do with getting our guys back. It lengthens the lineup, and you’re seeing the fruits of that.”