Blue Jays’ pounding of Rays cathartic in both style and substance

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Before we get to the Toronto Blue Jays‘ long-awaited breakthrough at the plate — a six-run fifth that was their most productive inning since a six-run sixth on April 9 at Anaheim, chased by nine-run ninth off position players — some easily lost details that made a difference.

In the bottom of the first, George Springer played the hop off the wall on a Luke Raley double perfectly, relaying the ball back in quickly enough to keep the speedy Randy Arozarena at third, preserving a 1-0 lead. After a Harold Ramirez walk loaded the bases, Jose Berrios worked over Taylor Walls, getting him swinging at a high fastball to escape the jam, slim lead intact.

Then, tenacious at-bats up and down the lineup, even when outs were made, like when Danny Jansen and Kevin Kiermaier saw a combined 15 pitches on back-to-back strikeouts to end the second, helped to soften up Taj Bradley for the batters to come.

Add in a smart pickoff at first base, two opportunistic stolen bases plus clean work in the field and Tuesday’s 20-1 pounding of the Tampa Bay Rays was a clinic of how the Blue Jays want to play, even before factoring in Berrios’ dominance and big offensive nights from Springer, Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., among others.

“Everything counts,” said Springer, who had four hits, falling a double short of the cycle, two RBIs and three runs scored. “For us, it’s understanding that stuff that doesn’t show up on a box score is just as big, if not even more important than stuff that does. And it’s just about controlling our effort and stuff like that will hopefully spiral into some more positives.”

In that way, the end of a five-game losing streak before a Tropicana Field crowd of 11,906 was cathartic not only in style but substance. Amid the ongoing struggles that showed up during a 1-7 stretch against the Yankees, Orioles and Rays, the Blue Jays preached process over chasing results, trusting the work to produce results rather than trying to force the issue.

On Tuesday night, that all came together, starting with Guerrero’s RBI single in the first after base hits by Springer and Bichette to open the scoring, followed by the important escape in the bottom of the first, to the grinding at-bats that helped pave the way for Springer’s solo shot leading off the third plus a run-scoring double from Jansen and RBI single by Springer that opened up a 4-0 lead.

There was no let up from there, which “lets everyone take a deep breath, get back to neutral a little bit and just understand that we’re still a really, really good team,” said manager John Schneider, adding later: “I thought that we were just really good, back to our normal selves offensively.”

To contextualize where they’d been, the Blue Jays scored 19 runs in their previous six games before matching the fourth-highest single-game run total in franchise history. All 12 position players to appear in the game collected a hit and everyone to make more than one plate appearance had multiple knocks.

“A little bit of relief,” is how Bichette, who had three hits and scored twice, described watching the runs pour in. “We’ve been, in the last couple games, swinging the bats a little bit better, making some hard outs, but it’s good to get guys across, for sure.”

Added Varsho, who had two hits and three RBIs: “Obviously it’s a good feeling. … We were doing the same thing before, it’s just a matter of balls were falling instead of going right at somebody. Keep doing it, keep following the game plan, keep hitting balls hard and everyone will find their groove.”

That’s how things played out when the Blue Jays took control in the fifth against reliever Zack Burdi, Varsho ripping a 106.2 m.p.h. rocket past Raley for a two-run single, two other runs scored on passed balls, while a Kiermaier sacrifice fly and Guerrero RBI single capped off the frame.

“As the game progressed, guys slowed down and just hit like themselves,” said Springer. “It’s just a good day. It can hopefully spiral into a lot more. But it shows what you can do on any given day.”

The Rays, who burned through three relievers behind Bradley, then tried to preserve arms by having Raley pitch the eighth, when he allowed an RBI single to Matt Chapman, and the ninth, when he surrendered a Guerrero grand slam and Chapman two-run homer. At that point another position player, catcher Christian Bethancourt, came on to relieve him, surrendering a two-run homer to Jansen, before the inning came to a merciful end.

“We needed that, overall for the team,” said Berrios, who allowed one run over seven strong innings, striking out five.

“We’ve been saying the last couple of days, you knew it’s going to happen,” said Schneider. “You never expect … 20 runs, but I think the approach the first five, six innings is what you want to expect.”

And that, as much as the results, is what matters for the Blue Jays.

They won’t always touch green and find mistakes to exploit and have position players on the mound to pound the way they did Tuesday. But they can certainly maintain the level of pressure they put on the Rays, both at the plate and on the field, on a regular basis.

“That kind of just sets the tone a little bit and it keeps the momentum where it should be,” Schneider said of Springer’s hold on Arozarena and Berrios’ subsequent escape. “With where we’ve been in the last week, it kind of led to what you saw tonight. Little things like that, they’re important in one-run games, and they’re going to be important the rest of the season.”

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