'Big city and big stage' set scene for Blue Jays' sweep

June 4th, 2023

NEW YORK -- On Sunday afternoon at Citi Field, the Blue Jays decided that the job wasn’t finished after Saturday’s thrilling victory. Good vibes flowed forth from the visitor’s clubhouse: High-fives were aplenty and Danzel’s 2004 track “Pump It Up” blared from the speakers, as Toronto celebrated its fourth sweep of the season after completing a 6-4 win over the Mets.

The franchise’s first sweep over New York was punctuated by a complete team victory. Bursts of power from the club’s stars fueled the victory, as Jordan Romano, rested from an off-day in Saturday’s win, shut the door in the ninth for his 15th save of the year. The victory provided the Blue Jays with necessary momentum heading into their pivotal series with the Astros.

Here are three key components of the satisfying victory:

Yusei finds a return to form
Squaring off with his compatriot Kodai Senga for the first time in the Majors, thoroughly outdueled his Japanese counterpart, delivering one of his best starts of the season. He tossed five solid innings, allowing two runs on two solo homers by Tommy Pham. Kikuchi only gave up four total hits and walked one batter, striking out eight.

“I thought overall today, he threw the ball extremely well,” said manager John Schneider. “A lot of swings and misses, and the breaking ball was on point.”

Kikuchi induced 19 whiffs through his five innings -- a season high and one short of his career high -- with 11 of those coming off of his slider. Even though the average velocity (88.7 mph) was down on the slider from his season average, the spin rate, vertical break and horizontal break were all up, exhibiting a more effective version of his primary weapon.

“I was getting ahead with the sliders and curveballs,” Kikuchi said through translator Yusuke Oshima. “We were working on the shape as well in the bullpen, so I think that played really well today.”

Kikuchi has been working to find consistency this season after a rough 2022. He started off hot to begin 2023, but his final starts in May were plagued by control issues and loud contact. On Sunday, the version of himself that he’s been striving to recapture began to peek through.

“These last three, four starts, the spin hasn’t been working as well,” Kikuchi said. “So, yeah, we were able to make the adjustment today and I think it went really well.”

Vladdy’s heating up
After ’s clutch double on Saturday, Schneider hoped that the big moment could provide a spark for the young star, who has had a quiet start to the season (by his standards). On Sunday, he broke out in a major way, crushing a solo homer to left field off Senga as part of a 2-for-4 day.

Guerrero pulled off an impressive swing, turning on a 94.1 mph heater that was high and inside, and sending it deep into the bleachers at 108.3 mph off the bat. The loud homer was the beginning of the end for Senga’s outing in the third, as Matt Chapman followed up with a double to get himself into scoring position with two outs and eventually scored from second on an errant throw by Francisco Alvarez on a back-pick.

Guerrero’s contributions didn’t end there. He singled with one out in the seventh, then crushed a go-ahead two-run blast to center to put the Blue Jays in front for good. Staying back on a 1-2 slider that caught far too much of the plate, Belt hit his third homer of the season was his second blast in New York in 2023, displaying a penchant for big-game dramatics.

“Vladdy and Belt? Big city and big stage,” joked Schneider. “We got the superstar in Vlad and the salty vet in Brandon, who’s kind of ‘been there and done that.’ It’s nice to see those guys come through.”

Patience is a virtue 
Much of Toronto’s success sprang from running up Senga’s pitch count and forcing him to throw strikes. The Blue Jays drew five walks against the Mets’ righty, who threw just 34 of his 68 pitches for strikes. They only whiffed on the vaunted “ghost fork” twice over Senga’s 2 2/3 innings, letting the pitch drop into the dirt for most of the outing. 

That approach set the stage for a successful day, and a sweep that could be a turning point for a squad looking to kick into gear. 

“I couldn’t be more proud of this team [during] this series,” Belt said. “You know, they came and tied it late, and we just kept battling. We never thought that we would lose the game. It’s just really impressive about this team.”