TORONTO — Paul DeJong had just arrived at his hotel in Toronto, his St. Louis Cardinals bags in tow, and was immediately greeted by Blue Jays fans, who were leaving Tuesday’s game at the nearby Rogers Centre.
“I stopped and took about 10 pictures, signed a bunch of autographs. I couldn’t really sneak in,” DeJong said with a smile, sitting in the Blue Jays dugout on Wednesday, which also happened to be his 30th birthday.
It’s been an eventful 24 hours for DeJong, who was Toronto’s starting shortstop in the Blue Jays’ 4-1 win over the Baltimore Orioles, a day after he was acquired as insurance for Bo Bichette, who was officially added to the 10-day injured list with right patellar tendonitis.
Blue Jays manager John Schneider didn’t have any more details on how long Bichette will be out, only saying the club is taking it “day by day.” Asked if it’s possible Bichette will only be sidelined for 10 days, the manager said, “We’ll see.”
“The quicker we can get Bo back, the better for us, obviously,” Schneider said. “But we got to see how he goes with each day, with each treatment, with each activity.”
For now, DeJong will assume the everyday job. The 30-year-old is considered a gifted defensive shortstop, worth 8 Outs Above Average this season and told reporters, “I value my defence and I really take pride in what I’m doing out there.”
“I’m thankful that they’re giving me a chance to play shortstop and I know there’s a lot of things that can move around in the coming weeks, but just excited to make an impact and try to go out there and do my thing and just be me,” said DeJong, who added he’s comfortable with the idea of playing second base, too. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help this team win.”
DeJong had spent his entire career in St. Louis, but with the Cardinals a clear seller by the deadline, he had an inkling he could be traded. When it happened, it was still a shock, but he said his transition has been smooth with his new teammates welcoming him. It’s also been helped by the fact that two of his former Cardinals teammates, relievers Jordan Hicks and Génesis Cabrera, had been traded to Toronto, as well. The trade has thrust all of them from a losing season in the National League Central into a tight playoff race in the American League East. It’s a boost to play meaningful games again, DeJong said.
“I’m excited to potentially make a run with this team,” said DeJong, who went 0-for-3 in his Blue Jays debut. “We’ve got a great group of guys top to bottom and I’m just excited to see how these next two months go.”
While DeJong will fill in for Bichette defensively, replacing his offence is going to have to be a team effort. Bichette was slashing .321/.352/.494 with 17 home runs while leading the AL in hits (144) and batting average. Losing Bichette for any amount of time is a blow to a lineup that hasn’t converted runs effectively and struggled to hit with runners in scoring position.
“In terms of importance, it’s right up there with the most, I think, on the team in terms of what he brings from an offensive, defensive, playing every single day basically,” Schneider said of Bichette’s impact. “How you make up for it is you look for other guys to step right in and have opportunities whether it’s Brandon Belt, Danny Jansen, Vlad (Guerrero Jr.), George (Springer), (Matt Chapman) guys in the middle. It’s the same group of guys. Everyone has to chip in and do their part.”
And on Wednesday, they did just that, while the Orioles did their part to help the Blue Jays finally beat them after a messy sixth inning undid the AL East leaders.
The Blue Jays opened the scoring in the fourth inning when Springer snapped his 0-for-35 skid — which tied a franchise record — with a bloop single that fell in shallow centre field, scoring Belt, who had doubled earlier in the frame.
For days, it felt like Springer, who had dropped from the leadoff spot in the lineup amid his drought, was close to busting out of it thanks to hard contact, so naturally, the slump-buster was a 68.2 mph blooper. When Springer reached first base, he raised his hands in the air in triumph, while the Blue Jays dugout erupted in celebration, as well.
George Springer gets the friendly bounce to drive in a run. 🙌 pic.twitter.com/C16VjkLaqj
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) August 3, 2023
“That was happiness, genuine happiness,” Springer said of his reaction. “Obviously, it’s no secret, it’s been a hard stretch for me and not the time to go through it, but that’s the game, so I’m just glad I can help in that spot. It felt good to obviously see the ball hit the grass and I’m able to stay on base and obviously to score Belt right there, too, was awesome.”
On his teammates’ reactions, Springer said: “Guys understand that this game is hard and to see anybody kind of go through a stretch like I’ve had, it makes it hard for guys. I’ve been on the other side of it, but to constantly hear all day how much they believe in me and to have my back is special to me and that’s pretty much all that matters.”
Springer isn’t typically superstitious, but he did happen to switch up his routine before the game, the details of which he chose not to elaborate on.
“I’m going to do it again tomorrow and I hope it works because we also won,” he said.
The Orioles tied it in the fifth after a couple of defensive miscues from the Blue Jays. But it was the Orioles who majorly faltered in the sixth.
Starter Grayson Rodriguez issued back-to-back two-out walks to Belt and Guerrero, who fouled off five pitches in a row before taking his free base. The Orioles handed the ball to reliever Shintaro Fujinami, who walked Springer to load the bases. Fujinami then proceeded to hit both Chapman and Jansen with pitches, which drove in two runs. Daulton Varsho followed by hitting a broken-bat shot right to shortstop Jorge Mateo, who booted the ball for the error, putting the Blue Jays up 4-1.
That means that the Blue Jays — yes, those guys who have struggled to hit with RISP — aptly drove in three runs without getting a hit, but Schneider praised the team’s approach in the inning regardless.
“We know that pitcher and you got to be patient,” Schneider said. “It worked out with a couple of hit-by pitches and him not being around the zone a little bit. You take any win you can get. Guys were ready for him and he just wasn’t in the zone and you got to take advantage of opportunities.”
On the mound, Yusei Kikuchi had another stellar outing, attacking the zone early and pitching six one-run innings, allowing six hits with a walk and three strikeouts. It’s the left-hander’s fourth consecutive start where he’s allowed one earned run or fewer. The outing lowers his ERA to 3.67 and improved his record to 9-3 as he continues to author a strong bounce-back season that’s been key to the team’s success.
Relievers Yimi Garcia, Hicks and Erik Swanson followed with three scoreless innings, with Swanson ending the game with a successful pickoff at first base to secure the Blue Jays’ first win at home against the Orioles.
“They’re an extremely good team,” said Springer. “They’re in first place and they play the game the right way, so for us to get a win against them, whether it’s home or away, is big, especially at this point in time of the year.”
(Top photo: John E. Sokolowski / USA TODAY Sports)