TORONTO — One of the first hallmarks of the Toronto Blue Jays’ young season is that their games feature a lot of late leverage, and so far they’ve been thriving with minimal margin for error.
Monday night’s 6-2 win over the Boston Red Sox, sealed on Bo Bichette’s grand slam in the bottom of the eighth, was the latest example of their life as pressure cookers.
Limited to solo shots from Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Nate Eovaldi’s Matt Chapman, an equally brilliant Jose Berrios took the lead until seven before running into trouble in the eighth.
Adam Cimber, who has faced more pressure than any Blue Jays reliever other than closest Jordan Romano as measured by leverage rating entering the game, was called in to clean up a mess at two dead ends. He allowed an RBI single to Kike Hernandez and a sacrificial fly to Alex Verdugo after a sacrificial bunt from Kevin Plawecki, but held the score 2-2.
In the bottom half, Santiago Espinal doubled up one-out against Matt Strahm, Bradley Zimmer followed with a pivot single and after Tyler Danish took over, a George Springer single loaded the bases.
Bichette then delivered a rare decisive blow in front of a crowd of 20,981, lining up a 1-0 lead on the right field wall for a 6-2 lead, giving Julian Merryweather some breathing room in the ninth inning.
“We all know we’re going to get knocked out and have big games that aren’t so close all the time,” Bichette said. “But to win a championship, you have to win these kinds of games against very good teams. We’re thrilled with the way we’re playing, keep playing that way, keep playing hard and just keep competing.
Not having to sweat the final three outs was a nice change of pace for the Blue Jays after six of their previous seven outings were decided by a single run. It was only the fourth time in 17 games this season that the decisive margin was more than three points.
“We look forward to the days when we have a 10-point lead, for sure,” veteran right-hander David Phelps said before the game. “But good teams play leveraged ball games. It is what it is. We knew this first game of the season was going to be a gauntlet for us and it felt more like September baseball than April baseball. It’s fun, but the highs and lows of these leveraged games take you a little longer to get down, but that’s the exciting part of baseball.
The Blue Jays, now 11-6, certainly had their fair share of excitement.
Seven of their games were decided by one point, three by two points and three others by three points. They are 9-4 in those games, including 5-2 in one-point games, an area they struggled with at times last year, particularly in May and June, finishing 15-15 in total.
The experience of a year ago has been on the minds of this group, especially during the recent series of close games that Cimber described as having “a playoff-like atmosphere.”
“It probably goes back to how we finished last year one game away from a playoff spot,” he continued. “We realize how important every game is. And when you’re in a tight game every night, it’s a bit like the playoffs for us, knowing that there’s potentially only one game left. April or September , it matters. It’s the idea of the moment.”
The Blue Jays bullpen, which has recorded 45% of the club’s innings so far, has worn down a lot of the leverage, which manager Charlie Montoyo has largely concentrated around Romano, Cimber, Yimi Garcia, Phelps and Tim Mayza.
Here are their leverage index numbers ahead of Monday’s play.
That Romano’s number is more than double the average pressure a reliever faces when entering a game isn’t surprising. As the closer, his role is to enter games when the stakes are highest.
But there were a lot of tough spots to get around, especially in a condensed period, which can have adverse consequences. It was one of the many reasons why Berrios playing seven innings on Monday was so valuable, while Bichette’s game-changing swing got Romano a break.
Even with that, he still appeared in nine of the team’s 17 games. Cimber, Mayza and Garcia have each appeared in eight, while Phelps and Richards are in seven. The Blue Jays entered the game with the seventh-highest leverage rating in the majors, a stat in which the Red Sox and the Yankees led the way.
As the offense rolls in, that number should normalize over time for the Blue Jays — they finished last season at 1.04 — but in the meantime, they’re building muscle memory in high-stress situations. .
“I just feel like in the bigger spots we’re better prepared to win,” Romano said. “Even in 2020, maybe early last year, some of those games we were losing. Now we’re taking some. It’s going to be big in September. It’s going to add up.
The impact of the club’s defensive gains also adds up.
George Springer made the final contribution to the highlights reel with a brilliant diving take on a Plawecki liner to finish the fifth. Three shots in the bottom half Gurriel pushed Eovaldi deep to open the scoring.
With Espinal and Chapman tightening the infield, and Springer with Zimmer and Raimel Tapia, who made a nice catch near the left field wall on a seventh inning drive by Jackie Bradley Jr., gobbling balls into the outfield , the Blue The Jays are not only making the outs they should be making, but they’re also taking off the hits.
“It’s easier to just throw shots” behind a solid defense, Cimber said. “You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to try to paint the corners. It’s just like, hey, throw it in the box, try to have as low contact as possible and know that someone behind is ready to play.
At the plate too, the Blue Jays have learned to take what they are given.
While Bichette’s grand slam was the decisive blow, it was crucial to building the rally that Zimmer recognized the opportunity and laid down a nice bunt on the first baseline in a tough left-on-left game against Strahm.
“It’s just situational baseball,” Zimmer said. “Our offense is so explosive but sometimes you still have to do the fundamentals. In this situation we had one, we just wanted to keep the line moving. That’s exactly what we did. Espy has a great hit at bat, I get a hit there, so it’s two guys and George gets a hit at bat, just three good hits in a row, which leads to a big hit for Bo. It’s big for us. You can only hit a certain number of solo home runs. Sometimes you have to do the little things.
A steady diet of high-leverage baseball to open the season reinforces that across the board for the Blue Jays, who so far have been up to the task.