Blue Jays use familiar formula to beat Red Sox, but more timely hits are needed

TORONTO — One day after the Toronto Blue Jays were humiliated by the Texas Rangers, who outscored them 35-9 over a four-game sweep that pushed Toronto out of a playoff spot, it was an ordinary day at the ballpark.

Three and a half hours before the game, some players sat around at their lockers chatting, while others filtered in and out of the clubhouse as they went through their pregame routines. Outside, on the field, fielding drills took place before batting practice. The beauty and curse of a baseball season is that a new game is waiting for you nearly every day.

According to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the best way to move on from a series like they just had is “to leave everything in the past,” he said via team interpreter Hector Lebron. “You just forget about it. It’s a new day and be positive and just keep working hard.”

For the Blue Jays, a fresh series against the Boston Red Sox, a team well out of the playoff race, is exactly what they needed to put their last series behind them. It doesn’t erase the stinging memory of the Texas defeat. The Blue Jays still have their work cut out to make the postseason. The Rangers series sweep may come back to haunt them. But Friday, Toronto at least got back on a winning note.

Thanks to a sensational seven-inning shutout performance from starter José Berríos and a third-inning three-run home run from Guerrero, the Blue Jays beat the Red Sox 3-0 at the Rogers Centre, snapping their four-game losing streak.

“Huge,” Blue Jays manager John Schneider said of getting the lead early. “It changes the whole game, really. When you can hit a home run with guys on, with traffic, it’s a momentum shifter, and I think with our pitching staff, it just makes it very easy to maintain that level of focus or that level of energy, I think. That’s been eluding us all the year, is that big swing with guys on. Today we got it.”

With the Rangers’ loss to the Cleveland Guardians, the Blue Jays are 1 1/2 games behind them for the second wild-card spot and a game back of the Seattle Mariners for the third wild-card position, pending the result of their game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday night.

Guerrero, who was wearing No. 21 as the club’s Roberto Clemente Award nominee on the night MLB honours the late Hall of Famer, opened the scoring in the third inning. With two on base, he hit a first-pitch fastball from Red Sox starter Brayan Bello 400 feet to left-centre field to put the Blue Jays up 3-0. It was Guerrero’s 23rd home run this season, and his second in as many nights, although last night’s came in a losing effort.

“His timing looks a little bit better, and his takes look a little bit better,” Schneider said of Guerrero’s recent power surge. “Huge homer from him today and not to be overlooked was Bo’s at-bat beforehand when he had a 3-2 walk to get to that point.”

Meanwhile, on his bobblehead giveaway night, Berríos gave the Blue Jays the shutdown performance they needed after the rotation — and the entire pitching staff — struggled against the powerful-hitting Rangers. Berríos, a Puerto Rican native, who also wore No. 21, pitched seven scoreless innings, scattering five hits while striking out eight Red Sox batters. The right-hander said his fastball command was well executed and that “tonight was one of those nights you have everything working and you’re using it in your favour.”

“That’s a tough lineup to navigate with all the lefties, too,” Schneider said. “He was executing at a really, really high level. So they’re all important (games), we need a really good trip for the rotation, and that start from José was outstanding.”

The standout outing lowered Berríos’ ERA to 3.49 and at the end of the game, he ranked sixth in the AL in innings pitched (178.0) and 10th in ERA, a healthy bounce-back campaign compared to last year when he was the worst qualified starter in the major leagues with a 5.23 ERA. But more than what this start did for his individual stats, this was the exact outing the Blue Jays needed to help climb out of their four-game skid.

“It was huge,” Guerrero said about Berríos’ effort. “Especially when you’re coming from a series the way we had with Texas. He came in and gave everything he got and then lifted the team.”

Blue Jays relievers Jordan Hicks and Jordan Romano followed Berríos and pitched scoreless eighth and ninth innings, respectively, with Romano earning his 35th save of the season.

Now, the Red Sox are out of the playoff race and essentially playing out the string. This is a club that is also a day removed from firing its chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. But these are the same Red Sox who have also beaten the Blue Jays seven times this season, so they’re a team that’s had Toronto’s number, especially in the early part of the season. And a win is a win, of course, and since the Blue Jays have very little margin for error to play with at this point, they’re going to take all the wins they can get.

But the Blue Jays used their familiar formula of relying heavily on a flawless pitching performance to cover for the fact that the offence mustered only four hits, though Bello was excellent and deserves credit for an outing where he struck out a career-high 10 batters. Toronto’s recipe worked this time because one of their four hits was a home run with guys on base, something they’ve not been able to do consistently this season, as Schneider mentioned.

The Texas series showed a glimpse at what happens when their pitching breaks down and the offence isn’t firing — and it wasn’t pretty. Against the Red Sox, Berríos and the bullpen’s perfect performance reminded us why the Blue Jays have been able to win so often, even in low-scoring games. Their third-ranked pitching staff has largely carried them this season and kept them as competitive as they’ve been.

Looking ahead, the Blue Jays would benefit from finally finding that balance of strong pitching with consistent, timely damage-inducing hitting. With only 14 games remaining, it might be too little, too late to expect an offensive breakout. The Blue Jays have shown us all season they’re a team that can hit but can’t score consistently enough. They’ll need to find some offensive consistency, or at least more timely hitting like they had on Friday, in their push for the postseason. And they’ll certainly need it if they do get into the playoffs and want to make noise.

(Photo of José Berríos: Kevin Sousa / USA Today)

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