It took digging out of an early hole, but the Jays once again pulled out a nail-biter Friday night in a highly compelling series opener down in Houston.
They were in tough with Ross Stripling going up against Justin Verlander, even with the latter in the twilight of his brilliant career. A three run third off Stripling dug them the early hole, as he went just twice through the order for a line of 4 innings, 3 runs on 5 hits with a free pass against two strikeouts. He could really have benefitted from some of the Berrios juju from Tuesday in stranding runners.
Stripling’s pitches actually looked quite crisp visually relative to his first couple starts, his change-up having really nice finish with late dive away from lefties. His slider also looked pretty good, and he relied on it heavily especially the second time through (the curve not so much, but he didn’t really need it).
Locating it was more of a challenge however, and proved to significantly limit his effectiveness as the Houston squared up balls he left over the plate. There was a flash of this early, as after two quick weak ground outs he gave up a hard single to Alex Bregman and Yordan Alvarez smashed a liner that was caught, but he then got the next four batters handily.
The undoing started at the bottom of the order in the third, as Martin Maldonado crushed a hard double, followed by a walk to rookie Jeremy Pena. Michael Brantley smoked a single, but so hard the runners had to hold up to load the bases. At least temporarily, as Bregman got a ball off the end of the bat, but squared it up for a solid RBI single up the middle.
Alvarez then lined another ball that Santiago Espinal snared on the fly to save major damage. Again though, just forestalling things, as Yuli Gurriel chopped a two run single. It might have been the least impressive contact since Maldonado got the inning started, but it worked to stake the Astros to a 3-0 lead.
Meanwhile, the Jays had little luck early against Verlander in his first outing against the Jays since no hitting them in September 2019. It was actually only his 9th start period since then, but in so many respects truly feels like a different era. He extended the no-hit streak to 12 innings in facing the minimum through three with four strikeouts. Matt Chapman almost touched him for a home run, but just hooked it foul.
Raimel Tapia led off the 4th with the first hit by a Blue Jay off Verlander since Teoscar Hernandez chased him with a single after a Curtis Granderson home run in the 7th inning on June 25, 2018. To put that in perspective, Ryan Borucki debuted the next day. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. followed by smashing a one out laser beam to put runners on the corners, and the Astros just missed turning two on Lourdes Gurriel to cash the run.
The Jays drew even in the 5th inning. It looked to be a quiet inning with the bottom of the order and two quick outs, but Espinal demolished a fastball that leaked out over the plate to left-centre for a solo shot. He was in the midst of celebrating in the dugout when Bradley Zimmer followed with a high arcing shot to left field, a true Minute Maid special that just cleared the fences into the Crawford Boxes. At 334, a cheapie, but it would have been equally interesting if it didn’t go as Brantley got tripped up going after it.
But the Jays were even, and it turned into a battle of the bullpens. Trent Thornton had a dynamite breaking ball, working two excellent innings on 25 pitches (other than issuing a walk from 0-2). Adam Cimber followed with a quick inning of his own, punctuated by a terrific barehanded play by Espinal on a two out bouncer. Pena was initially ruled safe, which looked to me like the right call even after a couple looks, but the freeze frame showed Espinal just beat him. Tim Mayza came on for the 8th and struck out a couple.
Thus is remained 3-3 to the 9th, with Vladdy leading off and just hitting another missile of a long single, but not advancing as Gurriel and Zack Collins weakly popped out. But Chapman was not to be denied, lining a ball into the left-centre gap to allow Guerrero to chug home with the go-ahead run.
So after coming as close as he has in a long time to faltering, Jordan Romano was back out on the mound looking for his eighth save (in two weeks!). It certainly didn’t come easy, as Yuli Gurriel greeted him by pulling a hard gliner into left. Romano blew away Kyle Tucker, by old friend Amedlys Diaz also squared him for a single to put the tying run 90 feet away.
Ultimately, Romano’s velocity was too much, and he blew away a couple pinch hitters to strike out the side and strand the runners. I realize he’s the Capital-C closer, and optically it could have been seen as lacking confidence, but given how much work he’s shouldered, I would have thought about leaving Mayza in after a sharp and efficient inning. But the W is the W in the end!
Jays of the Day: Chapman (+.349 WPA), Romano (+.176), Thornton (+.133), Zimmer (+.117), Mayza (+.098) and Vladdy (+.094) by the numbers. Espinal (+.052) falls short in WPA, but easily merits one for a critical home run, snaring the liner, and the great barehanded play.
Suckage: Stripling (-.165); at the plate Collins (-.144), Bichette (-.188), Gurriel (-.124) all posted 0-fers in the middle of the order.
Tomorrow afternoon, the Jays will look to secure the series behind Alek Manoah as he faces off against Jose Urquidy. Will two “A”s trump two “U”s? Find out at 4:00 EDT...