Reviewing the weekend, previewing game one of the biggest series in five years!
On a tough start in Minnesota, Jansen's health, Springer's health, the inimitable Robbie Ray, Semien's love for Toronto, Manoah, Romano, the week ahead, Ryu vs. Taillon, scoreboard watching and more!
The Blue Jays bounced back after a tough start to their weekend series in Minnesota, now head into their biggest series in five years — with some of their biggest crowds in five years coming out to greet them. So let’s talk about it!
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Friday (Blue Jays 1 - Twins 3)
Uh, not good. Here’s three down…
▼ Losing another crucial game
By the time of this one we had finally reached the point of the season where saying that the Jays “have to” do certain things or “need” to win certain games had become genuinely true statements and not just frustrated venting. The Jays’ destiny is in their own hands still, but with two losses in the first two games against the Twins, coming off a series loss to the Rays at the Trop, it has badly slipped from their grip compared to where it was at the beginning of last week. There are no two ways about that.
The worst thing about it is, we’re all just sort of along for the ride here. The players have to execute, they have to be in the right mindset, they have to catch the ball off the bat or the edge of the zone just so. We can complain about approaches, we can complain about pitch sequences, and sometimes those can very obviously be better, but the game is incredibly hard and incredibly cruel. The Jays may go back to looking like they did in early September at any moment — they have it in them, as we saw then — but they can’t force it. It’s just not the kind of sport where all you have to do is want it more.
This one wasn’t the end of the world. But it could have been the beginning of the end — especially if the following two games hadn’t gone so much better.
▼ The Reese McGuire thing
Reese McGuire is a bad hitter and some of his numbers this season belie his lack of true talent at the plate. Let’s get that out of the way first.
That said, I saw a lot of hue and cry about the decision not to pinch hit for McGuire to lead-off the eighth inning of this one, with the Jays down just two runs, and while it is absolutely not unreasonable to wonder what the hell was going on there, and I don’t expect fans to go running to FanGraphs to find counterarguments to what their instincts tell them, it’s wild to me how eager some fans are to rush to hold something up as more evidence of dumb, unserious Charlie asleep at the wheel.
This is why I thought it was such a mistake last week when Charlie told the Athletic’s Jayson Stark that he doesn’t check the standings — not because it’s true, or it matters, but because it plays right into this criticism that in the late stages of this season has taken on a bit of a life of its own. Charlie shows no urgency to win! He doesn’t even check the standings!
Don’t you maybe think that it’s more that he doesn’t have much of a bench or a bullpen?
Again, McGuire is bad, and the fact that he had come into the game with a 99 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers this season doesn’t mean much. Still, it’s a bit rich insisting that it’s a fireable offence to have not instead turned to Randal Grichuk (87 wRC+ vs. RHP), Breyvic Valera (83 wRC+), or Jarrod Dyson (55 wRC+). The strongest case among the guys on the bench at the time, based on this season's numbers, belonged to Danny Jansen, who has a 117 wRC+ against right-handed pitching in 2021. However, this year's success had, to that point, only brought Jansen's career mark in the split up to an 89 wRC+.
Also, Jansen hasn't started back-to-back games behind the plate since September 11/12 in Baltimore. He missed the entire next series after that, and thanks to an off-day got four full days off before returning to action on the 17th. From the time he came off the IL on August 31 to the end of that Baltimore series, Jansen started behind the plate in seven of Jays' 13 games. Since then he's started just four times in in 13, and heading into Friday had gone 2-for-15 at the plate since Baltimore, with both those hits being singles.
The Jays had rarely been using as a pinch hitter over that time, too. He’d come into games to pinch run for Alejandro Kirk a couple of times, and ended up picking up a couple of extra at-bats that way, but had only been asked to pinch hit once since being activated from the IL, coming into last Wednesday's blowout loss to the Rays to face lefty Adam Conley in place of McGuire with a runner on first and the Jays already down 7-0 in the fifth. Granted, he looked healthy enough in hitting a home run on Sunday, but do you think there’s maybe something not quite right, physically, with Jansen? Based on his usage I’d think that’s possible. He might also not be very comfortable as a pinch hitter, as he's got just two hits in 12 pinch hitting appearances over his career so far (.167/.231/.167) and is 0-for-5 since the start of 2020.
Small samples? Yes. Less compelling numbers than the the ones that show him having success against right-handers in 2021? Probably. I’m certainly not going to insist McGuire was the right call there. But there’s enough there for me to not be bothered by it. And, given the energy it must take to so actively dislike the manager of the team you follow, unbothered by this stuff is a state I truly can’t recommend enough.
▼ The game itself
One run on four hits against Bailey Ober and a cast of relievers? Uncashed runners in scoring position with fewer than two outs in the first and third? Outs with xBAs of .780 (Vlad in the sixth), .660 (Espinal in the seventh), .640 (Teoscar in the seventh), .620 (Kirk in the fifth), and .500 (Kirk in the second)? Berríos having his three worst moments of the game on consecutive batters?
Saturday (Blue Jays 6 - Twins 1)
Aaaand breathe. Here’s three up…
▲ Robbie Ray
A single, a walk, a stolen base, and a sac fly put the Twins on the board in the first inning. That would be all they'd get, as Ray locked things down from there, allowing no runs on just two hits and three walks while striking out five over his final five innings over work. (Final line: one run on three hits, with four walks and six strikeouts over six innings). The walk total was a bit high, which contributed to Ray needing 104 pitches to get through those six innings, but the good signs outweighed the bad.
Ray's average fastball velocity bounced back from 93.7 mph against the Rays last Monday to a more usual 94.3. I noted after the Tampa start that he'd thrown just three pitches at 95 mph or above, having thrown 28 in his previous outing. In this one the number was 14 (though he threw an additional 15 between 94.5 and 94.9).
“He’s been the Cy Young,” manager Charlie Montoyo told reporters after the game. “He should win the Cy Young.”
If he hasn’t quite wrapped it up yet, Ray — who leads the American League in innings pitched, strikeouts, and bWAR, and is second among pitchers with at least 100 IP in ERA, third in that group in WHIP and SIERA, and fourth in fWAR (and even higher among qualified pitchers, as that cutoff removes the White Sox' Carlos Rodón from the leaderboards) — will get a chance to put the finishing touches on a potentially award-winning regular season against the Yankees on Thursday. (His main competition, Gerrit Cole of the Yankees, faces the Jays and José Berríos on Wednesday).
▲ Taking the lead back immediately
There was a bit of “here we go again” after the Jays went so quickly down 1-0, but Teoscar Hernández erased all that on the second pitch of the second inning, hitting an absolute bomb that got lodged in the foliage that serves as the batter’s eye in straight away centre at Target Field.
Teoscar has been overshadowed at times by his high-flying teammates. His 31 home runs are well off the pace set by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Marcus Semien. But he's had an outstanding season, slashing .302/.351/.533 (136 wRC+) and accumulating 4.2 fWAR — the 33rd best mark among position players in MLB.
Three batters later and Santiago Espinal motored around the bases to score from first as right fielder Brent Rooker bobbled a two-out Randal Grichuk base hit. Grichuk would be thrown out trying to take third on the play, but the Jays wouldn’t look back.
That doesn’t mean it was an easy next few innings though, as the score would remain 2-1 until the top of the sixth.
▲ The big free agents come through
We’ve already talked about Robbie Ray, but the Blue Jays’ big money free agent acquisitions on the offensive side also came through in a big way. First was Marcus Semien, who hit a solo shot in the sixth to give the Jays a bit of breathing room at 3-1.
The blast was Semien’s 43rd of the season, equalling Davey Johnson’s all-time record for second basemen, set with Atlanta back in 1973. And he did so not long on the heels of giving Jays fans some real hope that he might be more interested in returning to the club on a long-term deal than we’ve sometimes let ourselves believe.
Semien was the focus of an in-depth piece from Peter Gammons of the Athletic, in which he strongly echoed the Jays’ stated “get better every day” ethos when speaking about preparation, and in which Gammons noted that Mark Shapiro has taken his cues from the days of Pat Gillick when it comes to wooing free agents. “Gillick would provide real estate agents, restauranteurs and all kinds of service assistance to free-agent players checking out Toronto,” Gammons writes. “Shapiro has adopted the Gillick approach, showing the cosmopolitan nature of the city.”
Evidently, Semien has been impressed.
“There’s so much that’s great about Toronto and playing there,” Semien told Gammons. “I walk to work. The city’s beautiful, the walk is really nice, I really like the neighborhood. It’s very clear that Mark Shapiro wants this to be a great place for players.”
“It’s like a baseball paradise,” he added. “The batting cages are incredible. So is the weight room, all the training facilities. I cannot say enough about the training staff. For me, all that goes into the preparation that’s so important to me. I think it’s a part of the game.”
Pay the man.
The Jays, of course, have a man who has already been rather handsomely paid. George Springer, who was given too many lead-off at-bats this month while clearly labouring through the knee injury that has so coloured the latter part of this season, was finally able to remove his knee brace last week, and finally began to look a bit more like himself in this one. Particularly, when he timed up a Kyle Barraclough slider at the bottom of the zone and belted it out to left field. (Springer would homer once again on Sunday as part of a three-hit day — hopefully further cementing the fact that he’s back to normal.)
It was just Springer’s second home run since he belted a pair in Anaheim on August 11, during that disastrous road trip that for him ended when he crashed into a wall.
Obviously Springer’s first season with the Jays hasn’t gone the way that anyone would have wanted. But if he can be the guy we all know he’s capable of over the season’s final six games and — potentially — into October, that will go a long, long way to erasing the memories of his injuries and this recent awful stretch that saw him slash just .157/.247/.241 over 93 plate appearances since returning from the IL in late August.
Sunday (Blue Jays 5 - Twins 2)
Well, the Red Sox certainly weren’t doing the Jays any favours on this day (or the previous two!), but you can only win what’s in front of you, and the Jays at least did that. Here’s three up…
▲ Danny Jansen
Does what Danny Jansen did in the second inning of this one change my thoughts above that there may still be some kind of physical thing he's dealing with? No. His three run homer to give the Jays the lead was his first extra base hit since having a three-hit day in Baltimore two weeks prior. But so what? He did what he did, and if it's a sign that he can maybe take back some playing time from Reese McGuire and start looking more like the guy who returned from the IL in late August, I'd be happy to be wrong.
Over 29 plate appearances from August 31 to September 12, Jansen looked stronger than we've seen in a while, and much more like the bat-first catching prospect we remember from his minor league days. He went 11-for-25 with four walks, with six of those 11 hits being doubles and three being home runs. That kind of success is obviously too much to ask from anyone, but you can count me among those who still isn't ready to believe what what we saw of Jansen's bat in Double- and Triple-A is gone for good. Gabriel Moreno may soon make that a moot point, but nonetheless.
Anyway, the Jays got to a starter that they should have — and needed to — get to in this one, with the bottom of the order doing the early work (thanks to no small amount of luck). Corey Dickerson and Santiago Espinal managed back-to-back bloop singles off of Griffin Jax, and then Jansen made him pay for the misfortune.
Two bloops and a blast? You bet we’ll take it!
▲ Alek Manoah
What's that? Another strong start from Alek Manoah here in his rookie year with the Jays? Damn right it was.
Manoah has allowed more than two earned runs just five times in 19 starts this season. This was not one of those outings, as he made it through 5 2/3 allowing just two, while giving up six hits and two walks while striking out eight.
It wasn't always as easy as his line made it look, though. He allowed the first two batters he faced to reach base, then saw them moved up to second and third when finally recording an out. But two big strikeouts, of Josh Donaldson and Max Kepler followed, to end the first inning and set the tone for the day.
Manoah gave up a lead-off walk in the second, then hit a batter, but managed to minimize the damage by inducing a strikeout, a run-scoring single, followed by an inning-ending double play. In the fourth he left a Miguel Sanó double on second after battling Nick Gordon to an eight-pitch strikeout to escape unscathed. His only blemish from there would be a Byron Buxton solo shot in the fifth, though there were two runners on with two outs in the sixth when Tim Mayza was called in from the bullpen to bail him out.
At his best he can be dominant. At less than his best he still seems to be able to find a way to get it done. What a sensational thing to have arrived fully formed in the big leagues as!
▲ Jordan Romano
Manoah wasn't the only Jays pitcher to get himself into a bit of trouble. Adam Cimber, who has been so good since being acquired with Corey Dickerson for Joe Panik back in June (note: LOL), does still tend to rely on his defence more than most relievers, which can occasionally get him into a jam. That was the case in the eighth, when with two outs Kepler bounced a single up the middle. Mitch Garver then blasted one to the opposite field that landed high up the wall, barely missing a home run that would have cut the Jays’ lead to 5-2.
Still, with the tying run at the plate, this was a tough situation. And given the stakes and the time of year, CharlieCorp (TM) — i.e. the consortium of coaches that collaborate on decisions from the dugout — decided to put the game in the hands of the team’s most reliable reliever.
Jordan Romano struck Sanó on three straight pitches, freezing him on strike three with a 91 mph slider.
He then mowed the Twins down with ease in the ninth. Jays win.
The week ahead
As mentioned above, the Red Sox did the Jays no favours over the weekend, as they were swept by the Yankees. Of course, they did themselves no favours either. And the Jays can have no one to blame but themselves if this next week doesn’t work out for them. It’s all right there, starting here on Tuesday as an enormous series at home to New York begins tonight — and with 30,000 fans (or thereabouts) in attendance at Rogers Centre for the first time since 2019. Let’s gooooo!
Here’s a look at the state of the AL Wild Card race entering play on Tuesday night.
Unfortunately for the Jays, the Astros dropped the ball and the Rays have wrapped up top spot in the AL. Not only will the wild card winner eventually get a bunch of dates at the Trop, but the Yankees may get an easier time of things over the weekend because of the Rays resting players. I’d still probably rather play the Orioles than the Rays at 75% — or even 50%! — but it’s an issue. The Jays, of course, have to get there first.
• Tuesday, 7:07 PM ET vs. New York (AL): LHP Hyun Jin Ryu (13-9, 4.34 ERA, 133 K/35 BB/159 2/3 IP) vs. RHP Jameson Taillon (8-6, 4.41 ERA, 136 K/42 BB/138 2/3 IP)
• Wednesday, 7:07 PM ET vs. New York (AL): RHP José Berríos (12-9, 3.48 ERA, 197 K/45 BB/186 IP) vs. Gerrit Cole (16-8, 3.08 ERA, 237 K/41 BB/175 1/3 IP)
• 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)
• Weekend: vs. Baltimore
• If you were a neutral fan this would have all the makings of a scintillating series. If you’re a fan of either of these teams, this is absolute madness. A playoff series in everything but name.
• We'll look at the second and third game's pitching matchups as the series progresses, but for now will focus on Ryu vs. Taillon.
• Taillon theoretically has had a better second half than his first half, posting a 4.90 ERA before the All-Star break and a 3.70 mark after it. However, He struggled through August (5.52 ERA) and has only pitched once so far in September due to a partially torn tendon in his right ankle. This will be his first start since September 6th (though he did have a rehab outing in Triple-A last Wednesday, allowing two earned runs and striking out only two over three innings).
• In his last outing he didn't go to his curveball against lefties, giving them a heavy dose of fastballs (71%) with the odd changeup (21%) and occasional slider (7%). Against right-handers his arsenal is more varied, with his fastball usage way down compared to lefties (41%), with his slider, sinker, and curve all getting looks.
• He can really spin it, but overall his numbers this season have been mediocre — a product of his inconsistency.
• Before Jays fans get too chuffed about the possibility of teeing off on an injured and less-than-effective Taillon (whose only big league start in September was a seven inning effort against these very Jays back on this sixth), might I remind them that Hyun Jin Ryu is also injured and less-than-effective. He's started three times this month: once in that game in the Bronx on the sixth, in which he outdueled Taillon, allowing no runs on three hits and no walks over six innings. His next two starts, however, saw him give up 12 earned runs over 4 1/3 innings combined. Not great!
• The Jays, for what it’s worth, claim that they were encouraged by Ryu’s most recent bullpen session.
• As I noted a couple of weeks ago, Ryu similarly hit a wall back in 2019 with the Dodgers, and after a similar layoff to the one he’s had these last 10 days or so, he bounced back very effectively. Does that make me feel great about which version of Ryu we might see here on Tuesday? No. But it’s not nothing. And he’s definitely a guy who benefits from a little extra rest. This is evidenced by the fact that in 12 starts on four days of rest this season, batters have slashed .273/.322/469 against him. In 11 starts with five days of rest they've slashed just .242/.274/.657. (In six starts at six or more days of rest he's landed somewhere in the middle, for whatever that's worth.)
• In an excellent piece last week, Paul Berthelot of Blue Jays Nation tried to figure out what the issue with Ryu has been over the last couple months, and the answer simply seems to be command. Ryu's curveball, he tells us, produced a grotesque opponents' batting average of .500 over his rough stretch, and a slugging percentage of 1.250. Digging into the location data, he finds a mess — a lot more pitches in hittable places in the zone, and not just the curve but everything he throws. Hopefully with some time to deal with his "neck tightness" (or whatever it might have really been that he was pitching through) will allow him to better repeat his mechanics and rediscover the edge-of-the-zone form that made him an ace until just a couple months ago.
• Evidently the Jays aren’t expecting a ton of length from Ryu tonight.
All eyes in the American League should be on the Jays and Yankees tonight, as this series means more to the playoff picture than any other that remains. However, there are still games to keep our eyes on. In Baltimore, the Red Sox look to bounce back from a godawful series with the Yankees and have a great chance of doins so as they send Chris Sale to the hill to face Orioles lefty Bruce Zimmerman. Then later tonight in Seattle, the Mariners hope to continue their ass-stupid chase of a wild card spot (despite a Royals-esque run differential) sending lefty Tyler Anderson to the hill to face Oakland's Chris Bassit (who has miraculously returned to the mound this month after getting hit in the head by a comebacker in a scary incident back in August).
After this it’s Cole vs. Berríos tomorrow, so strap in folks, and take your damn heart medication!