ST. PETERSBURG -- When summer ends, George Springer season begins.
Springer launched two home runs in Sunday’s 7-1 win over the Rays, the second of which still hasn’t landed, carrying the Blue Jays back to a two-game lead in the American League Wild Card race. Coming off two losses to open the series, Toronto took back control of its own fate down the stretch.
Maintaining the two-game lead was particularly important, too, given that the Rays hold the tiebreaker after winning the season series, 10-9. Tropicana Field is the last place the Blue Jays want to be come October, and with a postseason berth right in front of them, they’re beginning to see the moments for which they signed Springer.
“He’s just so clutch, man,” said starter Ross Stripling. “You go through his whole career, and September and October is just when he turns it on. It’s not that he’s not good the rest of the time, but he takes his game to the next level when his team needs him the most. To hit two homers off basically their best pitcher [Shane McClanahan], he just comes alive when his team needs him. We kind of live and die with him.”
When the Blue Jays signed Springer to a six-year, $150 million contract prior to the 2021 season, he represented one of the final pieces to a puzzle years in the making.
There had been big splashes before Springer, starting with Hyun Jin Ryu, a major move at the time that came a year before many expected. There have been plenty since, too, with the additions of José Berríos, Kevin Gausman and Matt Chapman, but no player on this roster -- and few in the league -- can match Springer’s track record in the postseason.
“He’s been through it,” interim manager John Schneider said. “He’s been through the biggest moments the game has to offer. He doesn’t get too high and doesn’t get too low. He’s the definition of a gamer when it gets to this part of the year. He’s been doing it for a long time, and he’s doing it now, which is great.”
Springer’s view of his late-season success is more muted, though, which might be exactly why he’s able to do this each and every season.
“I’m just trying to slow things down and be consistent,” Springer said. “Obviously, I’d love to be better with guys on base, but it is what it is. I want to slow things down, not try to do too much and get to first for the other guys behind me.”
Now two up on the Rays and 2 1/2 ahead of the Mariners, the Blue Jays have a path to home-field advantage in front of them. They’ve lost their season series to each, so they’d lose a two-way tiebreaker, but this lead allows them to control their own fate to a certain extent.
Home field means one thing in the regular season, but something completely different in October. Stripling has seen the videos from 2015 and ‘16, of Jose Bautista’s famous bat flip and Edwin Encarnacion’s walk-off home run against the Orioles, when Rogers Centre “was going bonkers.” Both he and Springer know the value well.
“It’s everything,” Springer said. “To be in front of your own fans, your own home, your bed. It’s a comfort factor. You get to hit last. That’s huge.”
Springer had help, of course. Alejandro Kirk hit his first home run of September in the second inning, a solo shot and one of three homers the Blue Jays hit off McClanahan. The Rays’ ace is an AL Cy Young contender this season, and he handled the Blue Jays with ease in their first two meetings this season. So this was a welcome turn ahead of a potential Wild Card Series that McClanahan would surely open.
Teoscar Hernández then added insurance in the eighth with one of the biggest blasts you’ll ever see at Tropicana Field, a two-run shot that sailed a Statcast-projected 464 feet over the lower bowl in left field and back onto the concourse. It was the sixth-longest home run hit here since Statcast began to measure in 2015, and Hernández enjoyed every moment of it, standing over home plate until the ball had nearly landed.
At their worst, the Blue Jays can be uniquely frustrating, but at their best, you continue to see a team held up by many as a World Series contender entering this season. Regardless of where that postseason journey starts, it’s Springer who will be leading the way.