Blue Jays survive scare to sweep Pirates: ‘It’s not a beauty pageant up here’

Blue Jays survive scare to sweep Pirates: 'It's not a beauty pageant up here'

PITTSBURGH – Beyond the win, what the Toronto Blue Jays really needed Sunday was to unload on the Pittsburgh Pirates, ensuring an easy, low-leverage afternoon for their bullpen ahead of Monday’s significant doubleheader at the Baltimore Orioles.

Early on, they appeared to be on track for precisely that, with Ross Stripling cruising and RBI singles from Whit Merrifield in the second and Alejandro Kirk in the third followed by Cavan Biggio’s solo shot in the fourth opening up a 3-0 lead, with the promise of more.

But, since the 2022 Blue Jays seem to make everything harder than it needs to be, they once again found themselves grinding to the final out. Their lead didn’t survive the fifth, a pair of rallies were generald by double-play grounders and David Phelps, Anthony Bass and Jordan Romano, working out of a major jam, were each needed to make sure Teoscar Hernandez’s RBI single in the stood as the difference in a 4-3 victory.

Regardless, a mostly pro-Blue Jays crowd of 14,903 roared when Romano struck out the side with runners at second and third in a high-drama ninth, preventing a game they needed from slipping away.

“I don’t want to make them look like that every time, but it’s not a beauty pageant up here,” said Romano. “I’ve just got to get the job done.”

Remarkably, he did, maintaining an impressive composure after Jack Suwinski opened the ninth with a single against the shift before Cal Mitchell’s comebacker to the mound deflected off him. Pinch-runner Greg Allen promptly stole second before Romano rallied to strike out Josh VanMeter, Tucupita Marcano and Kevin Newman for his 30th save.

“I’ve got to work on that – I should have just fielded it and threw it,” Romano joked about the Mitchell comebacker. “But I knew where we were, first and third and just had to lock it in and make some pitches. … When you think about the position you’re in – you can win the game, lose the game – that’s not the right thing. Being in those spots a lot, my process is just make pitches until you’re done, win or lose.”

Win it was and in the sweep, the Blue Jays (73-59) moved a season-best 14 games over .500 and head into the series in Baltimore 2.5 games up on the Orioles (71-62), who lost 5- 0 to the Oakland Athletics.

Still, after using seven relievers in Saturday’s 4-1, bullpen-day win, including Yimi Garcia for 1.2 innings, and with Romano, Bass, Adam Cimber and Tim Mayza each pitching twice in the series, their relievers are bit more taxed than optimal for 18 innings Monday.

“We wanted to stay away from either Yimi or Jordan today, so we have had a lot of guys available (Monday),” said interim manager John Schneider. “We feel pretty good about it. We’ve got the 29th man for the doubleheader, too, so I think we’re in a good spot.”

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Julian Merryweather is with the team on the taxi squad and is expected to be added as the 29th man for the doubleheader, and the club may also option Casey Lawrence and recall Zach Pop to give the bullpen two additional power arms to work with.

Kevin Gausman and Jose Berrios are slated to start and the more they can minimize the load on the relievers, the better. The clash in Baltimore opens a 20-game stretch in which they face the Orioles seven times and the Tampa Bay Rays nine times.

“You go in (to Camden Yards) understanding the situation and with the thought of, man, if we win three, we put them 4½ behind us. That’s got to be the motive,” said Stripling. “Obviously you’ve got to take it one at a time, but go in there feeling good about where we’re at and understanding that we’re the better team and we should take care of a team that’s played well against us and be ready to put a stop to that. We’re well aware of how important it is to go out and do it in a big series here.”

Stripling did his part Sunday and could easily have handed over a bigger lead after his six frames. But he issued a pair of walks in the fourth, including a non-competitive five-pitch base on balls with two outs to Mitchell, before a VanMeter flyball dropped in between Merrifield and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., in left-centre to narrow the Blue Jays’ lead to 3-2.

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The next inning Oneil Cruz’s freakish laser beam to center tied the game and the Blue Jays missed one chance to retake the lead in the sixth when Merrifield hit into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded and nearly squandered another in the seventh when Vladimir Guerrero Jr., hit into another twin-kill.

But Hernandez snuck a ball up the middle to bring in the go-ahead run before Bo Bichette was robbed by a Suwinski diving catch in left to end the frame. With little margin for error, it was bullpen time after that.

“Especially coming off a bullpen game, definitely wanted to get deep,” said Stripling. “If I’m able to put up more zeros there, let’s call it a three-, or four-nothing game, I go out for the seventh in the low 90s, trying to push (the pitch count) to a hundred, which I haven’t done this year, but we keep talking about it. I did feel strong and could have gone out for the seventh. The game didn’t dictate that. But I was happy I was able to get through six and we only had to use three relievers.”

Hernandez helped make sure of that with his base hit in the seventh, the latest key hit for a Blue Jays team that’s had to search for them of late. In spite of that, they managed to sweep a series despite hitting only two home runs, instead riding strong pitching with timely hits.

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“For us it’s huge because we understand that we don’t have to hit homers to score runs or win ballgames,” said Hernandez. “That give us an idea how good we are.”

The better test of that comes in the coming weeks stocked with games against both the team they’re chasing in the Rays, and the team chasing them in the Orioles. Their season very clearly hangs in the balance.

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