Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo loves to say that hitting is contagious. That has been aspirational for his club through April, with inconsistent lineups leaning on one or two bats each night, but something clicked early Friday night against the Rays.
Tampa Bay ace Tyler Glasnow started out like you’d expect him to, striking out the first two hitters he faced, but then Vladimir Guerrero Jr. found a way to sneak a single through the infield, extending his on-base streak to 20 games. A double, a walk and a projected 413-foot Marcus Semien home run later, and the Blue Jays had jumped out to an early four-run lead.
On a normal night, that’s good. In a 5-3 win against Glasnow, one of baseball’s best pitchers who entered with a 0.73 ERA, it’s a jolt of life that can wake up a lineup.
“That first inning was amazing,” Montoyo said. “Glasnow has got good stuff. If he’s not the best pitcher in baseball right now, he’s one of the best. He has four above-average pitches because he throws a changeup to right-handers, so for us to score those four runs was huge.”
Glasnow -- who struck out four in the first inning because of a third-strike wild pitch to Lourdes Gurriel Jr. -- settled in and cruised until Randal Grichuk’s solo home run in the sixth, but any sign of the Blue Jays stringing together consistent at-bats is encouraging at this point. Guerrero has carried the Blue Jays offensively at times, but this lineup has lacked the length that was expected to be its strength in 2021. This timing is encouraging, too, as the Blue Jays are nearing the debut of an outfielder by the name of George Springer.
Springer was playing in an intrasquad game nearby in Dunedin, Fla., on Friday night as he checks off the final boxes in his rehab from a quad injury, and the $150 million man could make his debut this weekend. He went 1-for-4 in that rehab game and took a few extra at-bats when it was finished, along with playing the field.
Teoscar Hernández should be close behind after recovering from COVID-19, and the Blue Jays hope that this lineup will finally take the shape they’d envisioned. With Springer at the top and power bats stretching down through the Nos. 6 and 7 spots in the order, at least on paper, this shouldn’t be a lineup pitchers look forward to facing. Even pitchers of Glasnow’s caliber.
“We’re coming along very well. Everybody is getting there,” Gurriel said through a club translator. “Of course, we’re all waiting for George. We’re very anxious to have him in the lineup. We all know he is going to help us a lot.”
Having Springer atop the lineup for the remainder of the season should also mean that Guerrero comes to the plate with runners on base more often. The leadoff spot has not been a strength to this point, but Guerrero certainly has. With a walk and his single in the first, Guerrero is hitting .381 with a 1.147 OPS.
In the bigger picture, the Blue Jays need this consistency from their lineup because of how poor their infield defense has been. In a perfect world, Toronto would have all three phases clicking with its lineup, defense and pitching staff, but until it figures out its fielding, two out of three will have to work.
It was the left side of the infield causing problems again on Friday, with Bo Bichette at shortstop and Joe Panik at third. Panik had a ground ball skip past him early for a double and was charged with a throwing error in the fourth after skipping a throw past Guerrero at first, something that has become a common scene in April. Bichette then made two errors -- one fielding and one throwing -- to give him six on the young season. The right side is holding up its end of the bargain, but the left side has been a different story.
“Marcus Semien has been incredible. He's been one of the better defenders at second base,” general manager Ross Atkins said Thursday, “and I know that Cavan [Biggio] and Bo are just going to get better and better. Vladdy has looked pretty good at first base. They're young players, and with young players, we're going to see some extreme highs. We’ll be patient with some of the inconsistency and very confident that's going to shift to very good defense and a lot more consistency.”
Wins like Friday’s are an example of how the Blue Jays can work around their defense. But if they expect to compete down the stretch, they’ll need all three phases working together.