Jays vs. Yankees: Two heart-stopping games down, another one still to go

On Bo's breathtaking blast, Semien's record-breaking season, Berríos, Mayza, Gerrit CLOLe, the fraudulent Mariners, the Chokeland A's, Ray vs. Kluber, scoreboard watching, and more!

The Blue Jays won their most important game of the season on Wednesday night, and now have to get set for yet another most important game of the season here on Thursday. So let’s talk about it!

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Wednesday (Blue Jays 6 - Yankees 5)

The biggest game at the Rogers Centre for five years was maybe also the best game at Rogers Centre for five years. Here’s six up…

▲ Semien’s record-breaker

The Blue Jays got off to an absolutely flying start in this one. José Berríos struck out all three of the Yankees he faced in the top of the first, and on the first pitch of the bottom of the frame from Gerrit Cole, George Springer doubled. Up stepped Marcus Semien, who fouled off a fastball, took a slider for a strike, then watched a couple pitches miss badly before getting a 97.4 mph fastball over the heart of the plate.

He made no mistake.

It was Semien’s 44th of the year, setting an all-time record for the most home runs in a season by a second baseman. He now, if you can believe it, grades out as the most valuable position player in baseball according to FanGraphs' version of WAR. His 6.6 wins put him just barely ahead of Washington's Juan Soto (also at 6.6, but fractionally behind) and his teammate Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (6.5 WAR, thanks both to his mini-slump here late in the season, and also the fact that as a first baseman he doesn't provide the positional value Semien does).

I don't want to say that he's done it quietly, but Semien is definitely the yang to some of his teammates' yin. I think they're all incredibly dedicated, professional, focused, etc., but Semien exudes that at all times while his teammates are more noticeable when they’re out there goofing around. It's an energy that I think the team needs, especially as guys like 23-year-old Bo Bichette and 22-year-old Vladimir Guerrero Jr. grow into their careers as superstars. What the team also needs though? Semien's incredible production! A season of 44 home runs, a slash line of .267/.338/.543, 134 wRC+, some of the best base running numbers in the league, and the ability to go out and do it every single day.

Semien might not be the first guy people think of when they think of the 2021 Toronto Blue Jays, but he may be the most important. And now he has an all-time MLB record that will ensure — no matter what happens as he reaches free agency this winter — that his season here will never be forgotten.

What a player!

Now if only the rest of the game had been as easy as this incredible start made it seem...

▲ Getting to Cole

I wrote in the lead-up to Wednesday’s game about some of the struggles that Yankees ace Gerrit Cole has had here in September, and boy were the Jays ever able to extend his month of misery.

Cole's ERA for the month now sits at 5.13, thanks to his being ambushed by the Jays for nine hits and five runs over six innings of work. For a time the Jays' hitters seemed absolutely in control of this one. After Semien cleared the bases in the first, Bo Bichette doubled (though he would not score). In the second, Santiago Espinal doubled and was cashed by Springer's second hit of the night. Bichette homered in the third to put the Jays up 4-0. And after a clean fourth, doubles from Springer and Vladdy produced a run in the fifth, too.

Cole now sports a 3.23 ERA on the season, thanks to the 4.14 mark he's produced since the All-Star break. The Cy Young race was obviously of secondary concern on this night, but it was a thing of beauty to see Robbie Ray's case being made for him in front of our very eyes by his Blue Jays teammates. Now, here on Thursday, he simply needs to go out, be himself, and win the damn thing.

▲ José Berríos

For the first four innings of this one, José Berríos was absolutely magnificent. Four perfect innings in the biggest game of the season, and not a single one of them was a fluke. Whether he was back-dooring his curve or blowing it by guys, the Yankees simply couldn't touch him. Every pitch he threw had an extra bit of life, and that's not even conjecture. His curve had two extra inches of horizontal break, per Statcast, while his sinker, change, and four-seamer all had three extra inches of break. For a while there it seemed as though we were watching something very, very special.

Unfortunately, things went a little bit awry in the fifth and sixth on him. A string of three straight hits — double-single-double, the last of which was just barely out of the reach of Teoscar Hernández in right field — put two Yankees runs on the board in the fifth.

A lead-off double to D.J. LeMahieu in the sixth eventually came around to score as well, meaning that Berríos was responsible for three runs on the night, despite allowing just four hits over six innings, with no walks and seven strikeouts. Ever the competitor, he didn't exactly seem pleased with his performance. But it was just about the best three-run outing you'll ever see, especially considering the circumstances.

▲ Bailing out Mayza

Tim Mayza has been one of the great stories of the season. A pretty effective reliever for the Jays in 2018, his ERA ballooned to 4.91 in 2019 as he had a homer- and walk-prone season that got even worse that September when he tore his UCL in a game against the Yankees and was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery that would keep him out all of 2020. The Jays outrighted him off of their 40-man roster as he rehabilitated, but had him back in the fold this spring, when he pitched well enough to surprisingly earn a job in the big leagues out of camp (beating out veteran Francisco Liriano in the process).

Like many in the Jays' bullpen, Mayza had a terrific April followed by a disastrous May. Of the 20 earned runs he's allowed this season, 14 of them came in that month. His job was hanging by a thread, and yet somehow he turned a corner.

As far as I can tell, he seemed to do this by slightly shifting his placement on the rubber, as well as his vertical release point.

Whatever it was that he did, it worked, and Mayza’s 0.82 ERA June and 1.04 ERA July quickly led to him becoming one of the Jays’ most reliable bullpen arms.

Unfortunately for him and the Jays on Wednesday night, reliable doesn’t necessarily mean perfect.

Mayza wobbled in this one, allowing two runs in an outing for the first time since his awful May. The first of the two runners to come around was definitely his fault, as he hit Joey Gallo to lead-off the seventh. The second? Less so, as Gleyber Torres got on by way of a bullshit little chopper to third that went for an infield hit.

Mayza dug deep after that, striking out Gio Urshela and Luke Voit back-to-back. Unfortunately, on strike three to Voit, the ball bounced away from catcher Reese McGuire for long enough to allow Gallo and Torres to move up 90 feet. Doubly unfortunately, this brought noted Jays-killer Kyle Higashioka to the plate. I will not torment you with the clip, but Higashioka knocked a 0-2 slider through the left side of the infield, and with the runners going on contact, it ended up cashing two runs to tie the game at five.

Though Berríos had maybe seemed upset with himself for allowing a couple of extra runs to sneak across, Mayza left us with no doubt.

Fortunately for Mayza, Adam Cimber did well in getting LeMahieu to line out to end the threat, and also pitched a clean inning in the top of the eighth. He would then hand it off to closer Jordan Romano, who worked around a Torres single to close it out. But, uh, before we got to that point, something rather spectacular had to happen first.

▲ BO BICHETTE

Clay Holmes, who had bulldozed the Jays a night earlier, took the ball to start the bottom of the eighth inning of this tied ballgame. It wasn't looking good for the Jays, who were likely going to have to turn to an inconsistent reliever like Julian Merryweather or Nate Pearson if the game continued at 5-5. Their bullpen simply isn't as strong as the Yankees'.

Bo Bichette had other plans.

After watching a first pitch sinker dip just barely below the zone, Bichette got another one — belt high on the inner half — and gave it a ride out to the opposite field. At first it seemed like maybe he got just a bit under it, and half the building held its breath to see whether Tyler Wade (who had replaced starter Brett Gardner in centre an inning prior) was going to haul it in somehow.

Instead, the ball disappeared behind the right field video board, and the 2021 Blue Jays had their biggest moment yet.

I, uh. I think Bo was pretty pumped about it.

As he should have been!

Bichette is an unconventional hitter with an unconventional approach, but damn if it doesn’t work for him. His wRC+ is now up to 119 on the season. He's slashing .295/.340/.476. At 4.5 WAR, his has been the third best season ever by a Blue Jays' shortstop, and he's now the only player not named Tony Fernández in the top five on that list. And he won't turn 24 for another six months.

This team can beat you in a lot of ways, man.

▲ Getting to do it all again tonight

Are you ready for more, Jays fans? You’d better be, because it’s going to be another heart-stopper here on Thursday, as Robbie Ray looks to go out and show Gerrit Cole what a real Cy Young candidate looks like. Trouble is, his opponent, Corey Kluber, knows a thing or two about that himself.

More on the matchup and the state of the playoff race below!

The day ahead

The Jays may have just won their biggest game in recent memory, but they’re all big games now. As much as that victory was desperately needed and incredible relief, it didn’t move the needle a whole lot as far as the standings go. The stupid Red Sox and the fraudulent Mariners both won their games, meaning that the Jays managed only to reel in the Yankees a little bit on Wednesday — and, crucially, to also keep their playoff hopes still very much alive.

Here’s how the AL wild card standings look as of Thursday morning.

You had one job, Chokeland!

The Mariners doing what they’re doing is insane. Their win on Wednesday night was especially fraudulent, as their first two runs of the ballgame were the product of absolutely comical defending from the A's.

First, Ty France got on base by way of a misplayed pop up.

Then a tailor made double play ball turned into… this. (The call on the field was overturned, everyone was safe.)

Jarred Kelenic cashed both runners with a double a few pitches later, and the Mariners would go on to win 4-2. Totally ridiculous. But at least they don’t play on Thursday, and so can’t be gifted yet another win.

Actually playing here on Thursday? Once again the New York Yankees and your Toronto Blue Jays. Buckle up!

Pitching matchup

• Thursday, 7:07 PM ET vs. New York (AL): LHP Robbie Ray (13-6, 2.68 ERA, 244 K/49 BB/188 IP) vs. Corey Kluber (5-3, 3.82 ERA, 80 K/32 BB/75 1/3 IP)

Worth noting

• It’s crazy to think, but the next Blue Jays game that won’t be an absolute must-win will either be game one of the ALDS or next April. I’ll take the former! But I know it’s going to be hellacious getting there.

• Robbie Ray has alternated great and not-so-great starts for the entire month of September: no runs over 6 2/3, three runs over 4 1/3, one run over 7, three runs over 4 2/3, one run over 6. Let's hope the pattern stops repeating, eh?

• Rays fastball was back up where it needs to be, averaging 94.4 mph, in his last start in Minnesota, after it took a strange dip the previous outing in Tampa. His velocity will definitely be a thing to keep an eye on in the early going of this one. The Jays could really use not having to go to their bullpen early!

• Ray has faced the Yankees twice this season, allowing two runs on three hits and three walks over five innings back in April, before he found his Cy Young form, and allowing five runs (four earned) on five hits and two walks over 4 2/3 innings at the end of May. Not great results! But that was also not the Robbie Ray who has steamrolled the second half of this season. (He's got a 2.16 ERA since the All-Star break. That start in May helped contribute to him having a 4.60 ERA that month.)

• The Jays have their work cut out for them here on Thursday, as they face the 2014 and 2017 AL Cy Young winner in Kluber. He's been pretty good when healthy this year for the Yankees, posting a 3.82 ERA over 15 starts.

• "When healthy" is the big thing for Kluber, as most of the season he was not. He didn't pitch in the majors between May 25 and August 30 due to a shoulder injury.

• The good news for the Jays is that Kluber hasn't quite been the same guy since his return from the IL. He's averaged just a shade over 4 1/3 innings in his five starts, and sports a 5.73 ERA over 22 innings, as compared to the 3.04 ERA he had when he hit the IL back in May.

• Notably, Kluber's velocity is down about 1 mph since May, with his sinker — his primary fastball — averaging just 90.4 compared to 91.3 earlier in the season. In his Cy Young 2014, the pitch averaged 93.8, and in 2017 it was 92.5.

• Kluber blanked Cleveland over six innings two starts ago, so he's still capable of producing good results. His last outing, however, was a 4 1/3 inning effort against Texas that saw him allow three runs on eight hits.

• The Jays' righty-heavy lineup has a real chance to tee off on the veteran, as right-handed batters have hit him to the tune of a .265/.362/.469 slash line this season.

Scoreboard watching

Once again the eyes of the baseball world will be on Toronto for this crucial game between the Jays and Yankees. The Mariners, as noted above, are off here on Thursday. The Red Sox will conclude their series with Baltimore, sending righty Nick Pivetta (4.52 ERA) to the hill against a third straight Baltimore left-hander, Alexander Wells (7.61 ERA).

Over the weekend it's the Jays who will get the Orioles at home. The Red Sox travel to Washington to face a trap series with the Nats, where on Friday they'll send lefty Eduardo Rodríguez to the hill to face another lefty, Josh Rogers, who maybe — hopefully! — has found something in the second half of this year, as he's pitched to a 2.73 ERA over 29 2/3 innings after being released by the Orioles in June. Meanwhile, the Yankees will host the Rays over the weekend (please don’t lay down, Tampa!), and the stupid fraudulent Mariners host the Angels, who have already announced that MVP-to-be Shohei Ohtani will not pitch anymore this year.

Getting to within a game of the Yankees by way of a win tonight would be a pretty good idea for the Jays, I think! Let's do this!!!