Vlad's stretch caps thriller as Blue Jays end Yanks' streak

Vlad’s stretch caps thriller as Blue Jays end Yanks’ streak

TORONTO — With the bases loaded and the game on the line, the Blue Jays watched as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. delivered the play of the game. No, not like that.

On a ground ball to third baseman Matt Chapman, the throw across the diamond was low and skipped on the infield grass. Guerrero dropped nearly into the splits, part goalie and part first baseman, and made the catch.

As he secured the ball for the final out, his right hand shot into the air for one giant fist pump, then another. The 2-1 win not only prevented the Blue Jays from being swept at home by the Yankees, but it ended New York’s 11-game winning streak coming off a lopsided game the night before. There was even a late replay review, bringing back shades of Tuesday’s controversies, but the fans quickly had their second shot to roar when the call was confirmed.

“Chappy made a tough throw, but Vladdy made an outstanding play to win,” said Charlie Montoyo. “It’s funny to win a game like that and wait a little bit, but we knew he was out.”

This series was entirely different from the clubs’ first meeting three weeks ago in the Bronx. Then, it looked like a postseason preview with two giants going toe to toe, at or near their best. This week’s series looked more like early-May baseball, but the Blue Jays did two important things on Wednesday that they’ve nailed for most of 2022.

“Pitching and defense, man,” Montoyo said. “That’s why we won this game today. Like Santiago Espinal, he makes plays look easy but they’re not. Chapman at third base, we take for granted every time he short-hops a ball or makes a play like it’s no big deal, but it’s not easy. When you’re not hitting and there’s no room for error, you have to make all of the plays.”

As the Blue Jays hit the road for Cleveland this weekend, followed by series in New York and St. Petersburg, here’s what you can take away from these past three nights against the Yankees:

Bo is back
Bo Bichette was back to his classic form with an early double, racing around first and sliding into second with that max-effort flair that makes him a fan favorite. He scored the deciding run on a Guerrero single a few pitches later. After a rough stretch through the heart of April, the star shortstop has officially rebounded, picking up eight hits over his last five games.

Prior to the game, Montoyo joked that he knows how it feels from his playing days to step into the box and see a .120 batting average on the scoreboard, then try to get your at-bat over with as quickly as possible. Bichette, he said, is wise beyond his years and steady as they come.

“He’s always been like that. He’s been great,” Montoyo said. “That’s not easy to do, being like that at that age. Not many people are like that at his age. We actually have a couple of guys like that, because Vladdy is the same way.”

Big bounceback for Kikuchi
Coming off another tough outing against Houston last week, this looked like a very dangerous matchup for Yusei Kikuchi. It’s not a coincidence that right-hander Casey Lawrence was added to the bullpen prior to the game, giving the Blue Jays some added length if they needed it.

Instead, Kikuchi turned in the single more encouraging individual performance of the series, holding the Yankees to just one run over six innings. The lefty even got to face the top of the Yankees’ order a third time and escaped, taking a major step in the right direction after a very uneven start to 2022. There have been adjustments to his delivery and a hard slider added, but so much of this is mental, too, as he adjusts to a new organization

“I feel like I’ve had a lot of support from everyone on this team,” Kikuchi said through a club translator. “My teammates, my coaches, especially Pete [Walker]. Everyone is there for me, even though my first couple of outings didn’t go the way we wanted them to. Just having their support at all times means a lot to me, and I’m very thankful for them.

RISPy business
Ending the series with a 2-1 win was a great sign, but eventually the Blue Jays need to blow the doors off. This is a lineup capable of giving you a 14-2 blowout rather regularly, and with this level of talent and the nearing return of Teoscar Hernandez, it’s only a matter of time.

It all comes down to hitting with runners in scoring position. The Blue Jays still rank dead last in MLB with a .172 average and .541 OPS in those spots, a combination of poor situational hitting and a handful of players taking at-bats in the four and five spots who aren’t typically there.

The good news? The Blue Jays are off to a 16-10 start despite these numbers, which should be more of a fatal flaw than that record suggests. Pitching and defense have saved them, but when one of those eventually falters — and it always will — the Blue Jays will need to run away from some teams using their bats, which we expected to be their greatest strength all along.

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