TORONTO – When a good team plays to its potential for extended stretches, the lopsided wins can start to look effortless.
They’re not, of course. On contending teams, the effort level stays relatively consistent over six months and if anything more work is required down the stretch, when nagging injuries pile up and outside pressures build. But from afar, it looks so easy. And right now, that’s where the Toronto Blue Jays find themselves.
With a 10-3 win over the Cardinals in which nearly everything went according to plan, the Blue Jays improved to 54-43 Tuesday while strengthening their hold on the top American League wild card spot. They’ve now won seven in a row, eight of nine under interim manager John Schneider and nine of ten overall.
With a week remaining before the August 2 trade deadline, the Blue Jays are the hottest team in baseball. They need more help, and are pursuing it, but still. It’s a good place to be.
Tuesday’s game featured three home runs from the home team, including a two-run shot from Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and a solo shot from Alejandro Kirk, but it was in the sixth inning that the Blue Jays created some much-needed separation. With the bases loaded and two out, George Springer hit a grand slam off Junior Fernandez, delighting the crowd of 39,756.
“When I hit it, it sounded good,” Springer said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I knew it was at least going to split the outfielders and that’s exciting. It’s a big spot right there to put us up by some more runs. That’s the stuff that you enjoy playing the game for. A huge moment.”
“He’s a stud,” added Schneider. “He’s really good.”
But the manager also stressed the importance of the Blue Jays’ willingness to take free passes, highlighting the walks from Santiago Espinal and Cavan Biggio that set up Springer’s grand slam.
“For one, it’s a really talented lineup,” Schneider said. “But I really can’t emphasize enough how much pressure we can put on another pitcher when we get guys on base. Working walks is something we’ve been preaching all year.”
Even beyond the action on the field, Blue Jays fans had plenty to celebrate Tuesday. Making his final trip to Toronto as an active player, Albert Pujols received an extended ovation from Blue Jays fans in the first inning (he started at first in place of Paul Goldschmidt, who, along with third baseman Nolan Arenado, is non-vaccinated and therefore ineligible to cross the Canada-U.S. border).
The ovation for Pujols was later surpassed by the warm welcome fans and players gave Sportsnet broadcaster Buck Martinez, who returned to the booth for the first time since stepping away for cancer treatments in April.
“It’s emotional,” Springer said of Martinez. “There’s so much more to life than the game of baseball. To see him back means he’s doing well and it’s awesome on the human side of it to have him back in the ballpark.”
As for starter Jose Berrios, he was reasonably effective for 5.2 innings in his first start of the second half. He struck out seven despite inducing just eight whiffs on the evening, relying heavily on his curveball and topping out at 96.4 m.p.h. with his fastball. All told, he allowed three earned runs on seven hits including a Dylan Carlson home run.
“We know what we’re capable of doing out there and we’ve started doing it,” Berrios said. “We feel pretty good so far, and we’re still having fun out there. That’s the most important thing.”
On Wednesday the Blue Jays will turn to Kevin Gausman against the Cardinals, but how the rotation develops from there has yet to be determined. Yusei Kikuchi has rejoined the team in Toronto after making a rehab start, and looks to be a leading candidate to start the series opener against the Tigers on Thursday.
On the plus side, Kikuchi would allow the Blue Jays to give their other starters another day of rest. But realistically, his fastball command has been erratic nearly all year. Expecting a single rehab start to change that would be asking a lot of Kikuchi, who was officially placed on the injured list with a neck strain on July 6. Still, this team needs arms, and starting Kikuchi once before the trade deadline would provide the front office with a little more information.
Along those lines, the work is ongoing for the Blue Jays, who have their eyes on deadline reinforcements around the league. Pitching looks like their biggest priority, though the asking price on Luis Castillo, the top starter known to be available, is believed to be extremely high. As you’d expect, the Blue Jays have also been scouting the Cubs this week – a match on paper with trade candidates David Robertson, Drew Smyly and Ian Happ.
For now, though, they’re getting the results they need with the players they have.
“We’ve really slowed things down,” Springer said. “Guys got some time off. We got to clear our heads a bit. Now you’re starting to see guys not do too much … it’s huge to see and it’s awesome so far, so hopefully we can just keep doing that. I like our chances.”
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