Bo Bichette delivers ‘shot of energy’ to Blue Jays offence as significant stretch begins

TORONTO — In the sixth inning, when Bo Bichette reached second base, he swung both his arms up in the air while looking into the dugout just as every Toronto Blue Jays player does when he reaches base. Bichette did the same celebratory gesture again in the seventh, this time standing at first base. On both occasions, Bichette had just knocked in the tying run.

Bichette’s two-RBI return to the lineup after his nine-game absence with a right quad strain indeed provided a needed boost to the Blue Jays, who came back to beat the Kansas City Royals 5-4 on Friday night at the Rogers Centre. It also reminded us all how irreplaceable the 25-year-old shortstop, in the midst of a career season, is to the Blue Jays’ chances at playing into October.

“It’s impressive what he can do in the box, man,” Blue Jays manager John Schneider said. “It’s just like an instant shot of energy to our offence. He’s really, really good.”

The Blue Jays have been in this position before. For the past two full seasons, they’ve required a red-hot September to keep their postseason hopes alive.

In 2021, the Blue Jays won 22 of their final 31 games, though they still ended up missing the chance to play in a Game 163 by a single win. Last year, the Blue Jays went 22-11 during a September and October that saw them secure the top American League wild-card position and home-field advantage. In both instances, it was the best month or so of games the team had played all season, per winning percentage. They did so when it mattered the most.

As a result of this year’s uneven season, the club has felt off-kilter. The offence, in particular, has struggled, making stranding runners into an art form worthy of its own exhibit to be studied and marveled at. As it stands now, the Blue Jays are clinging to a postseason spot, sitting 1 1/2 games up on the Texas Rangers for the third wild-card berth, though that is in large part thanks to the Rangers’ epic collapse of late, losing 16 of their past 20 games. It’s poised to be a tight finish for wild-card positions, meaning the Blue Jays, once again, have to find their best baseball in the final month of the season if they want to keep their playoff hopes alive. How can they do that?

“It’s been a full season with a lot of thoughts on that,” said Bichette before the game. “I think it just comes down to internally if we’re going to do it or not. I don’t have any key points for you. We just got to do it.”

Make no mistake, Friday’s one-run win was not the Blue Jays’ best — and the days are dwindling for us to see that on a consistent basis — but rather their familiar mix of early-game missed opportunities and too-close-for-comfort late innings. It took a few fortunate strike and ball calls and a significant injury to Royals reliever Austin Cox that led to a four-run rally in the seventh inning that covered up for some shaky performances from Toronto relievers Trevor Richards and Tim Mayza, who have been key figures, but it was enough to get the job done against the last-place Royals.

“Stay focused and keep winning games,” said Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the team’s mindset.

Blue Jays starter Yusei Kikuchi held the Royals to one run — a solo home run by Dairon Blanco — on three hits over five innings with eight strikeouts and a walk. The offence, meanwhile, couldn’t get much going against Kansas City’s cast of relievers until the sixth inning when Kevin Kiermaier led off with a triple before Bichette drove in the tying run with an RBI double. The Royals went ahead 2-1 in the seventh when Richards yielded an RBI triple to Nick Loftin.

Bo Bichette hits an RBI double in the sixth inning. (John E. Sokolowski / USA Today)

After Alejandro Kirk reached base on an infield single in the seventh when Cox was injured trying to make the out at first and George Springer later walked on a checked-swing call that went their way, Bichette followed with a single that again tied the game. Guerrero then followed with a two-run double.

The Blue Jays first baseman is battling a stomach bug that is making its way through the clubhouse, and while there was some doubt he’d start before the game, he told his manager, “It doesn’t matter if I go out there and vomit over there on the field, but I was going to be out there with my team.”

Ernie Clement made it 5-2 with a pinch-hit RBI single. The rally came down to better pitch selection, Schneider said.

“We can get it going in a hurry,” the manager said. “Tonight we did.”

Bichette’s quad injury came on the heels of the right knee patellar tendonitis that sidelined him for 16 games from Aug. 1-18. Bichette first felt pain during the last game of their series in Baltimore on Aug. 24, five days after he returned from his first injured list stint. While he couldn’t say definitively, Bichette said the two injuries were “most likely” connected.

But the shortstop is feeling “great” now, he said, and his return is well-timed as the Blue Jays enter this September stretch drive where they’ll need to play somewhere close to a .600 pace to approach 90 wins and position themselves favourably in the wild-card race.

Once the Blue Jays get through this winnable series against the Royals, the Rangers, their closest competition for the final wild-card spot, visit Toronto for what may well be a postseason-determining four-game series that begins Monday.

While that series looms, given his back-to-back injuries, as well as Bichette’s importance to the club, expect the staff to keep a close watch on his workload in the first handful of games following this IL stint, Schneider said. There is a plan mapped out, which could include a start at DH or even an off day, though Bichette said he hoped the ease-in period would be “finished by the time Texas comes around.”

While Bichette’s return was welcome news, the Blue Jays suffered a blow, losing catcher Danny Jansen for the rest of the regular season after he underwent successful surgery on the fracture in his right middle finger. There is no definitive timeline on Jansen’s recovery, Schneider said, but the team is at least prepared to rule him out for the remainder of the schedule.

“Hopefully we’re playing for a little bit longer than the regular season,” Schneider said.

That’s the goal. Whether the Blue Jays can achieve it will be determined in the next three weeks. They have two years of experience that tells them they can prevail.

“This is when you find out what we’re made of,” Bichette said. “Nothing else matters up to this point. It’s all about now.”

(Photo of Bo Bichette: John E. Sokolowski / USA Today)

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