NEW YORK — Even with lingering right knee inflammation, it was always going to be difficult to keep Vladimir Guerrero Jr. out of a game — especially at this time of the season.
The Toronto Blue Jays first baseman didn’t start Thursday for the second consecutive game, but as the Blue Jays attempted to make a comeback in the ninth inning against the New York Yankees, Guerrero stepped in to pinch-hit for rookie Davis Schneider with the bases loaded, one out and their team down by four runs.
Guerrero hit into a force-out but drove in a run in the rally that would ultimately fall short as the Blue Jays lost 5-3 at Yankee Stadium. The loss snapped Toronto’s five-game win streak and saw Yankees starter and American League Cy Young Award front-runner Gerrit Cole hold them to one run on two hits with nine strikeouts over eight dominant innings.
“Yeah, he’s having a hell of a year,” Blue Jays manager John Schneider said of Cole. “Had his good stuff — fastball, slider, cutter. He was tough today, he really was. Obviously perfect through whatever, it was five (innings), I think. Yeah, he was good.”
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Before Guerrero stepped into the on-deck circle in the ninth, it was unclear when he would return to the lineup. An MRI taken on Wednesday revealed only inflammation and no structural damage to his right knee, the best possible outcome. Before the game, Guerrero was considered day-to-day.
“Obviously, it’s very hard for me not to be in the lineup,” Guerrero said before the game through team interpreter Hector Lebron. “But thank God, I want to say, we’re in an OK position right now — we are holding onto a playoff spot. So I’d rather take care of this now and not risk myself losing the rest of the season or playoffs.”
On the whole, the Blue Jays have been relatively fortunate on the injury front, avoiding any season-altering injuries, and once again they seem to have skirted something more serious with Guerrero.
“He was feeling good throughout the day, and hit throughout the game,” Schneider explained when asked what allowed Guerrero to hit in the ninth. “Everything checked out good. We were just waiting for a spot for him to be the tying run, really, no matter where we were in the order pretty much. (Clay) Holmes is tough, sinking fastball coming in at you, but he felt good so that’s a positive sign.”
Asked if his pinch-hit appearance was a sign that Guerrero could be in the starting lineup on Friday, the manager said, “Yeah, I think so.”
“We got to see how he checks out tomorrow and everything, be careful with him, but he reported feeling good,” Schneider said. “Moved well down the line and we’ll see how he is tomorrow.”
The sore knee is something Guerrero has dealt with occasionally throughout this season, he said. He first felt it flare up again on Monday’s off-day and during Tuesday’s game, he was removed in the ninth inning after he reached base on an error.
Initially, Guerrero was in the lineup on Wednesday as the DH, but he didn’t feel right during his pre-game routine and was scratched. He underwent a precautionary MRI during the game and the results at least gave Guerrero the peace of mind that he wasn’t dealing with anything serious. Already, the knee felt better than it did three days ago and continued to improve enough that he was comfortable hitting in the ninth.
“I was worried about it, but after I found out the results, it was a little bit of relief,” he said.
With each game so meaningful now as the Blue Jays cling to their slim lead — now a half-game advantage — over the Texas Rangers and the Seattle Mariners for the second wild-card spot, it’s a difficult time for Guerrero to miss any opportunity to contribute. Regardless of whether this injury happened now or earlier in the season, Schneider said the team trusts Guerrero to know when his body is ready.
“He knows his body really well. He plays a lot, so he knows when he’s feeling good and when he’s feeling eh or when he can’t go,” Schneider said. “I don’t know — I don’t think it would be much different with him if it was May or if it was right now.”
Without Guerrero and Brandon Belt available the last couple of days, both Cavan Biggio and rookie Spencer Horwitz have received more playing time at first base. Keeping Biggio in the lineup is actually beneficial for the Blue Jays since the utility man has been one of their best hitters of late, with an .880 OPS in his last 14 games before Thursday. Horwitz has received sporadic playing since he was called up earlier this month, but Schneider praised the rookie’s play on Wednesday after he had a three-RBI game.
Meanwhile, catcher Danny Jansen received a good report on his right middle finger fracture after a follow-up appointment with the surgeon who completed the procedure this week. Jansen had his larger cast removed and was instead walking around with a finger splint on Thursday.
Jansen has been ruled out for a return before the end of the season, but according to Schneider, the Blue Jays catcher can begin light rehab activities, though it’s still not clear if the Blue Jays will be playing deep enough into October for Jansen to be able to return to play.
“Doctor said everything looked exactly the way he wanted it to,” Schneider said. “We’ll know more as the coming days go (by) what he’s going to be doing.”
As for Belt, who is also on the IL with lumbar spine muscle spasms, he has been swinging off a tee in the cages over the last three days. According to Schneider, Belt felt pretty good on Tuesday, not so great on Wednesday, but was at least continuing to swing on Thursday. Belt is eligible to come off the IL on Friday, but the Blue Jays manager said he’ll need a few more days at least before he’s ready to return.
While the Blue Jays ultimately fell short of sweeping the series, their two wins against the Yankees were enough to keep them in a playoff spot ahead of their pivotal series against the Tampa Bay Rays, who are still trying to chase down the Baltimore Orioles for a division title, while the Blue Jays attempt to hold onto their wild-card spot.
The Blue Jays have been gearing up for what should be a highly competitive series at Tropicana Field between the two division rivals. It’s a series Guerrero wouldn’t want to miss and assuming he checks out healthy on Friday, now he won’t have to.
“The day that I wake up and there’s no inflammation there,” Guerrero said before the game, “I’ll be in the lineup.”
(Photo of Guerrero: Rich Graessle / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)