PITTSBURGH -- The 2023 Blue Jays live their life to extremes.
Three days after looking lost against the Red Sox, Toronto wrapped a dominant sweep of the Pirates with a 10-1 win on Sunday. The consistency isn’t there just yet, but the highs are almost thrilling enough to make you forget about that.
“It’s a credit to the guys,” manager John Schneider said. “There’s no panic. It is what it is in Boston, then you move on and try to win the next series. It’s always tough to take all three, but we finally got back to what we’re used to doing.”
After a 1 hour, 35 minute rain delay, the visitors blew the doors off Pittsburgh in the finale, starting with a three run blast from Whit Merrifield in the third. Daulton Varsho became the first Blue Jay and 46th player in PNC Park history to hit a ball into the Allegheny River, then Kevin Kiermaier took his turn on the home run train. Toronto fans who made the five-hour drive for one of the best views in baseball got the royal treatment.
This team has layers, and after a wild week with a much-needed off-day on Monday, this is how it turned things around in a hurry:
Up and down go the starters
This part isn’t complicated. The Blue Jays’ rotation was downright ugly in Boston.
In four games, Toronto’s starters allowed 23 runs (20 earned) on 38 hits over just 18 innings. That’s an even 10.00 ERA, and with the bullpen having a couple of unsteady moments behind the starters, the Blue Jays were burying themselves each night.
Then, Pittsburgh happened. Chris Bassitt was excellent, José Berríos was solid and Yusei Kikuchi continued to be one of the best stories of the season for the Blue Jays. Kikuchi delivered 6 1/3 scoreless innings, giving the Blue Jays’ starters a 0.92 ERA over 19 2/3 innings this weekend. Not bad from the No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 starters in the rotation.
“I was disappointed last year, but I’m using that disappointment as fuel this year,” Kikuchi said through a club interpreter. “I learned from everything last year and brought it to this year.”
Reclaiming the bases
The Blue Jays knew the Pirates’ baserunning would be a problem, and there was a heightened sense of awareness given what happened against the Red Sox. Boston stole nine bases over four contests, including a five-steal game, and many weren’t close.
“In Boston, I think that’s the worst thing we did in the whole series,” said Bassitt, who started on Friday. “How many stolen bases we have up in Boston. So many of them were not on the catchers, they were on the pitcher. To control the running game, you have to take a lot of pride in it.”
Pittsburgh was aggressive in Game 1 of this series, but it went just 1-for-2 that night, running into multiple outs on the bases against a Blue Jays team that was looking for it. The Pirates still lead MLB in steals with 46 -- well above the Blue Jays’ 26 -- but Toronto managed to even things out in this series, including Merrifield’s three steals in the opener.
The other guys
Merrifield did more than run. Frankly, he still might be this team’s most underrated player.
Sunday’s three-run home run was Merrifield’s first of the season, but he’s been doing everything else through the first 35 games, posting a .291 average, .750 OPS, seven steals and a solid glove at second base and left field. Before his homer, Merrifield had already driven in the first run of the game with an RBI single in the first.
Brandon Belt had an excellent weekend in Pittsburgh, too. He might not even want to leave.
Belt entered with a .161 average and .509 OPS, but he went a combined 6-for-9 with three doubles and three walks in the set. He’s suddenly pulling the ball, which we didn’t see much of in April, and it’s remarkable just how quickly this lineup can take on an entirely new identity when its bottom half gets going.
“That’s what this lineup is capable of,” Schneider said. “You’re seeing Brandon come around. [Danny] Jansen is having great at-bats and Whit is having great at-bats. Kiermaier today had a couple of knocks.
“It lengthens it out and you don’t have to be so reliant on the top of the order.”