Blue Jays open high-stakes Rangers series with a dud: ‘We know what’s at stake’

TORONTO — Before Monday’s game between the Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers, which kicked off their all-important four-game series that carries serious playoff implications, Toronto manager John Schneider spoke about the team’s approach to taking this week one game at a time, an old baseball axiom you’ll hear plenty at this time of the season.

“The sky’s not going to fall if we lose tonight, you know what I mean? And it’s not going to be ‘OK, we’re automatically in (the playoffs) if we win tonight,’” the manager said. “It’s just taking it one day at a time is what we’ve been telling the guys.”

Indeed, our celestial sphere remains fully intact, even if the Blue Jays let a nail-biter turn into a clunker after a five-run seventh inning from Texas led to Toronto’s 10-4 loss. For a game that opened with playoff intensity early — Toronto’s defence, in particular, was exceptionally sharp — it fizzled into a deflating dud by the end.

Even if the sky isn’t falling, losing by six runs isn’t how the Blue Jays wanted to start a crucial series. They’ll have to flush it quickly, lest they give a desperate yet dangerous team like Texas some momentum to climb out of the hole it dug itself.

“You take it one game at a time, like I said before the game,” Schneider said. “It’s a big series, yes, sure, but we’re playing really well. I love the way that the guys are going about it. And today’s one game. It doesn’t matter if you lose by six or if you lose by one.

“We’ve been doing some really, really good things. And you move on to tomorrow, and you take tomorrow for what it is, and you keep moving on to Wednesday.”

The win moves the Rangers to a half-game back of the Blue Jays, who were in sole possession of the second wild-card spot pending the outcome of the Seattle Mariners’ game later in the evening. Not only do the Blue Jays want to hold on to their playoff spot by the end of this series with Texas, but winning three out of four games would also secure the season series over the Rangers, which is used as the tiebreaker should both clubs finish with identical records.

The Blue Jays entered the series with some momentum on their side. They were coming off a sweep of the last-place Kansas City Royals and had won eight of their past 10 games. The Rangers, meanwhile, arrived in Toronto trying to halt what’s been a precipitous fall in the standings. Before Monday, they’d lost 16 of their past 22 games and fallen from first in the AL West to third and outside of a wild-card spot in that span.

Even with the Blue Jays leading in the standings and the vibes lately, Schneider said before the game his team wasn’t entering the series feeling as though it was in the driver’s seat.

“It’s a really big four-game series, but I think that’s the same for both teams. It is nice that we have a little bit of a lead — I mean, a little bit — but yeah, I think it’s the same atmosphere for both teams,” Schneider said.

The Blue Jays came into the matchup with the edge in pitching with the best staff in MLB, while the Rangers have one of the best lineups in the American League. And hitting trumped pitching Monday in front of an oddly sparse Rogers Centre, with a season-low announced attendance of 23,451.

The Rangers opened the scoring on a head-scratching play from Blue Jays starter Chris Bassitt in the second inning. With two out and two on base, Bassitt disengaged twice from the rubber. Mitch Garver took a healthy lead off third base, and third baseman Cavan Biggio played well back to be in the best position to make a play. Bassitt stepped off the mound and ran at third base. Garver retreated, but Bassitt was called for the balk because of his third unsuccessful disengagement, which allowed Garver to score anyway.

“Big shift, no one was holding him on. I was pretty much just watching him to see how far he was going to go,” Bassitt explained. “He wasn’t stopping. So it got to a point where it was — I’ll have to watch the video and kind of figure that out — but it got to a point where if he breaks, I can’t get the ball to home. He’s going to steal home, so yeah, that’s the reason why I did it.”

The Blue Jays went ahead in the bottom of the second inning, scoring on RBI singles from Alejandro Kirk and George Springer. But the Rangers tied it in the third with the first career home run from rookie left fielder Evan Carter.

The Rangers went ahead again in the fifth inning, but the Blue Jays had a chance to tie it shortly after. Centre fielder Kevin Kiermaier opened the bottom of the inning with a leadoff double. On a Springer single, Kiermaier was waved home by third-base coach Luis Rivera, but Carter made a precise throw to home to nail the speedy Kiermaier, and the Blue Jays couldn’t capitalize in the frame.

“KK is one of the best base runners in baseball, and I think when you’re coaching third, you trust that,” Schneider said. “I haven’t really looked at it closely, but I think when Kevin Kiermaier’s on the bases, you trust him to make some things happen.”

There was an argument to be made to not let Bassitt return for the sixth inning since he’d allowed 10 batters to reach base through five and had escaped some jams, thanks in part to great play from his defence, including a 3-6-1 double play to end the fourth and a 5-3 double play from Biggio in the fifth. But the Blue Jays kept him out there, and with one out in the sixth, Bassitt allowed three consecutive hits plus a wild pitch to the middle of Texas’ lineup, resulting in two more runs to make it 5-2, ending his night.

“Just wasn’t as sharp as he has been. But kind of a typical Chris outing where he just gave it everything he had,” Schneider said.

After the Blue Jays could only score on a sacrifice fly in the sixth, the Rangers put the game all but out of reach in the seventh. Chad Green allowed a leadoff walk before he was replaced by Génesis Cabrera, who eventually surrendered a two-out grand slam to Rangers catcher Jonah Heim, making it 10-3.

Biggio homered in the ninth, but the game was out of reach by then.

“The first five innings or so it was a very competitive game, definitely back and forth,” Biggio said. “I thought they had some good at-bats. They laid off some tough pitches to put them in good hitters’ counts, and that one swing really put the nail in the coffin, but it’s almost like a playoff game here right now. Both these teams, we know what’s at stake here and just pick our heads up and get after it tomorrow.”

Asked whether that’ll be easy to do, Biggio said, “That’s the way baseball works.”

“My dad would always say, ‘The sun will always come up tomorrow, no matter what,’” Biggio said. “I’m looking forward to that, and we’ve got (Max) Scherzer tomorrow and just got to put this one behind us and keep moving forward.”

(Photo of Kevin Kiermaier being tagged out by Jonah Heim: Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press via Associated Press)

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