It was arduous. It was stressful. It felt trembly, tenuous, until the final out.
And they were desperados.
But the Blue Jays did assert themselves in Philadelphia, did extract a win, did drop the hammer on a season-high six-game losing streak, did avert a second consecutive series sweep. Did, in fact — despite the horrors of a very bad week — shrink the magic number for a post-season lock to four, on a club where the magic had been gone, gone, gone since 2016.
The Yankees were dumped by Boston. The Mariners were edged by San Diego.
When the sun rises in Buffalo on Monday, Toronto will still be four games back of New York, but time is running out on the possibility of totally screwing things up. And when the sun sets in Buffalo on Monday, the Jays will be again encountering those same Yankees, chasing them for second place in the American League East, starting a four-game complement that might separate the men from the boys, if not necessarily impacting the playoff inclusion outcome even if worst comes to worst.
With a 6-3 dispatch of the Phillies on Sunday afternoon — the tautness of the contest not reflected in the score — the Jays secured themselves some much-needed breathing room.
“It’s good to be able to get some air,” admitted Jonathan Davis, whose two-out double in the sixth pushed Toronto up 4-1. “It felt great for the group, you could tell by the reaction in the dugout. Guys were, I guess you could say relieved, but at the same time excited for me.”
Teoscar Hernandez, with his 16th home run, subsequently padded that cushion. But it still didn’t feel safe as houses, particularly when Philadelphia put up a pair in the bottom of the seventh that featured errors by Joe Panik and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., although the latter was a bit harsh — couldn’t dig a low bouncing relay to the bag. Travis Shaw replaced Vlad at first base in the eighth.
“It’s funny because when you go through a losing streak, you’re always waiting for the worst,” said manager Charlie Montoyo, although of course there was nothing funny about it. “Then when we made those errors in the seventh inning, it was like, oh my God, what’s going to happen now.”
Nothing catastrophic, as it turned out. For that, the Jays need to thank Taijuan Walker. He did his teammates a solid, providing a muscular six innings of work, allowing only one run on four hits with eight Ks and becoming the only Toronto starter to surpass the 100-pitch plateau this season at 104.
“He was huge,” said Montoyo. “We needed him to go as deep as he did because our bullpen was pretty thin.”
Last time out, in what became a ghastly 20-6 pummeling by the Yankees, Walker hadn’t made it out of the second inning. To be fair, however, of the seven runs racked up by New York on his mound watch, only one was earned.
“It was good to get back out there,” said Walker. “I came into the field today, my only goal was to win the game. I wanted to go out there, set the tone, get ahead, stay in the zone, give us the best chance to win.”
Mission accomplished. Walker infused his team with confidence every minute he spent on the bump, dealing his four-seam fastball aggressively, challenging the strike zone, unleashing his signature grunt-groan on every pitch. The Jays’ energy palpably ratcheted up. They’d been down — allegedly not panicking — since running into the Yankees buzz saw.
“Those are going to happen during the season,” reasoned Walker of the skid mark. “I thought today was a huge win to give us momentum going into the next series. It will be a big series for us.”
But, quite apart from both Hernandez and Bo Bichette (a double and first career triple) relocating their strokes, which is tremendously reassuring, and a tidy four-outs save by Anthony Bass, there were other grace notes revealed Sunday, most crucially confirmation that veteran right-hander Matt Shoemaker, out since Aug. 21 with shoulder inflammation, will start against New York for the series opener.
That means bumping the disappointing Tanner Roark, shunted to Tuesday. Probably. Although Montoyo didn’t sound entirely sold on the plan: “For sure, I think Roark on Tuesday.”
Shoemaker is likely to go only a couple of innings, held to under 60 pitches.
“He’s come a long way in a short time, considering what he’s been through,” pitching coach Pete Walker said in a pre-game Zoom session. “His last live BP was exceptional. His stuff was there, velocity was there, the spin on the breaking ball, the split. He’s pretty much ready to go.”
Shoemaker’s presence opens up intriguing possibilities, lining him up to start against Baltimore on the second-last day of the regular season, then again in Game 3 of a first-round playoff series behind ace Hyun-Jin Ryu and Walker.
The other goodie unwrapped by the Jays was the imminent return of flame-throwing rookie Nate Pearson, who’s been sidelined with a flexor strain. Won’t be restored as a starter, because there hasn’t been time to build him up, stretch him out, but an electric arm out of the straitened bullpen.
The strapping Pearson is scheduled to throw live BP on Monday, with coach Walker and Montoyo watching keenly.
“I’ve seen some video, read the reports,” the pitching coach said of the dispatches from Rochester. “Everything is trending in the right direction. He feels really good, he’s recovering well. If everything is good, he’s someone we can certainly use and he can help us out for sure.”
He even held out the possibility that Pearson could be deployed as an opener. At least, he didn’t shoot down the idea: “I’m not ruling anything out for now.”
See? Quit despairing. God is in his heaven and the Jays universe is unfolding as it should.
Except … Yankees.