TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays appear to be peaking at just the right time, piecing together all the elements of their game during this September surge with a level of consistency they sought during the five sometimes trying months previous.
“Our pitching and defence has kept us in every game and we’ve just been able to get timely hits,” said Matt Chapman, who opened the scoring with a sacrifice fly in the first and walked in the fifth to help set up Raimel Tapia’s three-run double in Saturday’s 6-3 win over the Baltimore Orioles. “That’s the kind of baseball you’re going to have to play if you want to win in the playoffs, because not everybody’s going to go out there and just swing the bat. In the playoffs, pitching and defence takes you a long way. That’s the kind of baseball we need to play if we want to go a long way.”
At 13-4 so far this month after a 13-14 August, the wild-card leading Blue Jays (83-63) are beginning to look like a team with the potential to do precisely that. Now seven games clear of the fourth-placed Orioles (75-69), they are nearly ensconced enough in a post-season berth that they can turn their focus on the jockeying for wild-card positioning with the Seattle Mariners (80-63) and Tampa Bay Rays (80-64), who played later Saturday.
Their latest victory, before a raucous Rogers Centre crowd of 44,448, was the product of the formula Chapman described, as Jose Berrios skipped through six traffic-filled innings thanks in large part to the safety net provided him by several tremendous defensive plays.
The first came just six pitches into the game when Cedric Mullins drove a sinker to the wall in left where Tapia leaped to grab it. In the second, Bo Bichette collected a pop up by Rougned Odor despite stumbling over second base and bumping into Terrin Vavra, freezing runners at second and third, Santiago Espinal ranged to collect an Odor grounder in right field to end the third, George Springer made a diving catch on a Ramon Urias flare in the fourth and that inning ended when the Blue Jays alertly noticed a delayed double steal and Bichette relayed home when Mullins broke too far from third, eventually leading to a Chapman tag.
With Berrios forced to work around contact as he allowed seven hits and two walks with only three strikeouts over his six frames, that was the margin between a quality start and an early exit.
Of course, timely hitting brought everything together.
Chapman’s sacrifice fly in the first followed leadoff singles by Springer and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and a Bichette fielder’s choice that put a man on third with less than two out, while Springer’s two-run double in the second made it a 3-0 game.
Gunnar Henderson’s two-run single in the third quickly narrowed the margin, but Berrios managed to hold the lead and in the fifth, Guerrero reached on an error, Chapman and Teoscar Hernandez both walked and Tapia, seemingly in the middle of big spots time and again for the Blue Jays of late, plated them all with a triple.
Interim manager John Schneider noted beforehand how Tapia so often did things, big and small, that factored into the result, saying, “it’s crazy.”
“He’s got a very unique skill-set,” he continued. “We joke that the holes find him, he doesn’t find the holes. He just ends up getting on base. He’s walked a couple times more than usual lately. It’s just a different skill-set component than what we usually roll out every day in terms of handedness and contact ability and all that kind of stuff. He finds himself right in the middle.”
Tapia’s walk in the fifth inning Friday helped set up Springer’s game-changing three-run homer that turned a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 lead, an example of the offensive approach Schneider is hoping his team carries into October and beyond.
“I like when the lineup continues to chug along and get hits, work walks and then, if the home runs happen,” he said. “(Friday) was the perfect storm of damage with a full-count, two-out, George three-run homer with (Jordan) Lyles kind of, is he in, is he not in. Tough decision. I get all that. We have the ability to flip the leverage of a game in one swing. (Friday) was obviously very telling of that. When you’re playing in very meaningful games against really good pitchers, that kind of stuff needs to happen as well as the Tapia walk. All that stuff needs to go the right way.”
Right now, it very much is for the Blue Jays.