TORONTO — The Toronto Blue Jays’ post-season aspirations are now partly dependent on the help of others after a series-opening loss to the New York Yankees, although a Baltimore Orioles victory over the Boston Red Sox helped mitigate the damage.
Still, control over their fate was lost in a 7-2 setback to the wild-card leaders Tuesday night, when they couldn’t contain the Herculean duo of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. The former homered in the third and brought home the go-ahead sacrifice fly in the fifth, while the latter delivered a back-breaking three-run homer in the seventh on a down and in changeup that perhaps only he is capable of launching 421 feet.
In combination with 6.2 innings of strong relief work once Jameson Taillon was forced from the game after re-aggravating the right ankle tendon injury he’d just returned from, the buzz around the first game of playoff consequence at Rogers Centre since 2016 — before a crowd of 28,769 — quickly fizzled.
The mettle and perseverance GM Ross Atkins rightly touted beforehand will now face its toughest test, with the Blue Jays (87-70) three games back of the Yankees (90-67) for the first wild card and still one game behind the Red Sox (88-69) for the second. The Seattle Mariners (88-70) are also a half-game in front, leapfrogging Toronto after a 4-2 win over Oakland.
“Just forget about tonight and be ready to play tomorrow,” manager Charlie Montoyo said of the approach his team needs to take while facing virtually no margin for error. “We’ve done it before so why not do it again.”
Pathways to the post-season remain, but to catch the Yankees, the Blue Jays must take the remaining two games of this series, win out against the Orioles to close their regular season and then count on the Tampa Bay Rays to win at least one game in New York this weekend.
To overtake the Red Sox, who have two more dates with the Orioles before finishing at the Washington Nationals, they’ll need to win two more wins than Boston in the five remaining games both teams have.
Neither scenario is impossible, and there’s the potential for intriguing tiebreakers, but the Blue Jays can’t put themselves in a position to require an unreasonable stumble from the teams they’re chasing.
“We’ve got to come back and try to win our next games — all these games are going to be very important,” Hyun Jin Ryu said through interpreter J.S. Park after allowing three runs in 4.1 innings in his return from the injured list. “I’m just going to get ready and prepare for my last game of the season and I hope that our players are in there to compete and try to do our best to until the very end.”
The Blue Jays seemed poised to begin this pivotal stretch on the right foot as Ryu took the mound with an uptick in his velocity, and escaped a bad-BABP-luck jam in the first by striking out Stanton and popping up Joey Gallo.
George Springer then played catalyst in the bottom half, walking off Taillon, stealing second on a full-count strikeout by Marcus Semien and scoring on Bo Bichette’s single.
The problem Judge and Stanton pose in this series first revealed itself in the third, when Judge axed a 106.4-m.p.h. laser over the right-field wall on a middle-middle cookie that deserved its fate.
The Blue Jays reclaimed the lead in the fourth when Corey Dickerson golfed a double to right on a Michael King curveball to plate Bichette. But Ryu couldn’t hold that edge in the fifth, when Anthony Rizzo dunked a cutter well off the plate into left field with two on and Dickerson’s throw home hit Gio Urshela, allowing the tying run to score.
Adam Cimber took over and induced a sac fly from Judge and the score remained 3-2 until the seventh, when Stanton got to a Trevor Richards changeup headed for his ankle. Most hitters probably foul the pitch off their foot if they make contact at all. Stanton just missed the facing of the third deck.
“I don’t know how you can hit a ball like that,” said Montoyo. “You’ve got to give Stanton credit for that… The ball was almost in the dirt and he hit it out.”
Part of the explanation is that Stanton, like Judge, is on a major hot streak. During the Blue Jays’ sweep at Yankee Stadium earlier this month, the duo went a combined 8-for-31 with one run scored while hitting into two double plays. On Tuesday, they went 4-for-7 with two walks, three runs scored and five RBIs.
If the Blue Jays can’t get them under control, they’re in trouble.
Ryu has one start left — Game No. 162 against the Orioles — and depending on how things play out, the season could be riding on it. Against the Yankees, he topped out at 93.1 m.p.h. — the sixth-hardest pitch he’s thrown this season — and averaged 91.4, a notable 1.4 m.p.h. above his season average.
The Blue Jays expected as much, with Atkins saying before this game that Ryu’s “just in a better position physically” and “about as close to 100 per cent as he can be.” Combined with some “subtle adjustments to his delivery,” Ryu moved closer to the form he showed Sept. 6, when he threw six shutout innings in an 8-0 win at the Yankees.
“Honestly, I didn’t really feel too much of a difference,” Ryu said of the difference he saw in the batter’s box last time versus this one. “I came in and pitched according to the game plan. I gave up a home run which was hanging and just left over the plate a little too much. And even the last hitter (Rizzo), it’s not something that pitchers can really control.”
The same now applies to the Blue Jays’ pursuit of a wild-card spot, one no longer solely in their own hands.