Vlad Jr. retakes MLB HR lead with moonshot

Gurriel's 1st career grand slam keys 6-run opening frame as Blue Jays rout O's

June 25th, 2021

Between the extreme highs and lows this Blue Jays team has experienced in 2021, we’ve seen flickers of what they’re supposed to look like. On Thursday night at Sahlen Field in Buffalo, N.Y., we saw what they’re supposed to look like against the Orioles, too.

A series against the division-worst Orioles (23-52) is supposed to represent an opportunity for a team sitting in fourth place in the American League East that is looking to make a run. Thursday’s 9-0 win, which felt like it was over a few minutes after it started, kept the Blue Jays (38-35) moving in that direction, extending their season-high winning streak to five games. It also showcased just how relentless this lineup can be when it’s clicking from top to bottom.

“We grinded out at-bats, and if they didn’t get the pitch, they took the walk and left it for the next guy,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “That’s why we ended up scoring that many runs. That was key today, being patient. If you didn’t get your pitch, just go to first and give it to the next guy.”

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. launched his 24th home run of the season to retake the Major League lead over the Angels' Shohei Ohtani and the Padres' Fernando Tatis Jr., and it looked like a replay of all the others Guerrero has hit at Sahlen Field. It was obvious that the 438-foot shot was gone the moment Guerrero made contact, and once again, the tall netting beyond the left-field wall was the only thing that kept the ball from finding a windshield on Oak St.

Guerrero’s home runs have become so frequent and similar. Whether it’s a 3-2 count or the first pitch he sees, the 22-year-old designated hitter has managed to stay a step ahead of pitchers all season long, and he is showing no signs of slowing down approaching the All-Star break. With 24 homers through 73 games, Guerrero should easily breeze past 40 home runs and set himself up for a run at 50. The Blue Jays’ single-season record belongs to José Bautista, who hit 54 homers in 2010 to surpass George Bell’s 47 in 1987.

By the time Guerrero rounded the bases, though, the Blue Jays were already piling onto the Orioles. Toronto chased Baltimore starter Dean Kremer after just one-third of an inning, working five walks and scoring six runs in a huge first inning that was capped off by Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s first career grand slam.

Having watched four walks in front of him, Gurriel stepped in ready to be aggressive, thinking that Kremer would be looking to get into an 0-1 count. 

“He was kind of wild,” Gurriel said through a team translator, “a lot of walks and not locating his pitches. That’s what I was thinking and what I was looking for -- a pitch right in the zone so I could put good contact on it. That’s what happened.”

It was Gurriel who drove home the eventual game-winning run Tuesday against the Marlins, too, with one of the Blue Jays’ streakiest hitters finally showing signs of a consistent stretch. Gurriel has struggled to carry over his production from 2019 and ‘20, and with George Springer’s return, he’ll need to earn everyday reps in the lineup. The coaching staff knows that Gurriel is capable of changing a game when he’s in a groove, so this might be the time to let him roll.

“One of the best adjustments that I’ve made is that I can just let Vladdy and Teoscar [Hernández] and [Randal] Grichuk do everything,” Gurriel said. “I put it in my mind that I’ve got to help these guys hitting ahead of me, and that’s what we’re doing. Mentally, be ready and help the rest of the lineup.”

Gurriel says that this approach allows him to be more patient, knowing that there’s plenty of talent above him in the lineup and he doesn’t need to carry the offense. Montoyo is always looking for Gurriel to stop chasing bad pitches as the one sign he’s about to heat up, which indicates the outfielder’s aforementioned strategy would seem to play into his favor.

Overshadowed by the Blue Jays’ big day at the plate was Anthony Kay, who was called up from Triple-A Buffalo to make a spot start. Kay has struggled with efficiency this season, both in Triple-A and the big leagues, but he showed Toronto exactly what it has been looking for in Thursday’s win. The left-hander worked five scoreless innings, striking out eight, which will earn him some more looks down the line as either a spot starter or a bullpen piece.

As the Blue Jays figure out their pitching issues, though, the lineup is making things easy. Add Springer on a daily basis after his scheduled day off Thursday, too, and it will only get deeper.