It took getting out of a hole early, but the Blue Jays once again pulled out a nailbiter on Friday night in a very convincing series opener in Houston.
They were in trouble with Ross Stripling taking on Justin Verlander, even with the latter in the twilight of his brilliant career. A three-run third off Stripling opened the hole for them early, as he passed just twice in order for a 4-inning, 3-run, 5-hit line with one free pass against two strikeouts. He really could have benefited from some of Tuesday’s Berrios juju in the stranded runners.
Stripling’s pitches actually looked pretty sharp visually relative to his first two starts, his changeup had a really good finish with a late pitch away from southpaws. His slider looked pretty good too, and she trusted him a lot, especially the second time (the curve not so much, but she didn’t really need it).
However, locating him was more of a challenge and proved to significantly limit his effectiveness when Houston squared the balls he left on the plate. There was a flash of this early, as after two quick, weak outs, he allowed a hard single to Alex Bregman and Yordan Alvarez broke a line drive that was caught, but then caught the next four batters with ease.
The undoing began at the bottom of the order in the third, when Martin Maldonado hit a hard double, followed by a walk to rookie Jeremy Pena. Michael Brantley smoked a single, but so hard that runners had to hang on to load the bases. At least temporarily, when Bregman caught a ball off the end of the bat but squared it for a solid RBI single up the middle.
Álvarez then lined up another ball that Santiago Espinal caught on the fly to save further damage. Once again, though, just getting ahead of things, when Yuli Gurriel cut off a two-run single. It might have been the least impressive contact since Maldonado started the inning, but it worked to put the Astros up 3-0.
Meanwhile, the Jays had little luck early against Verlander in his first outing against the Blue Jays since not hitting them in September 2019. It was actually only his ninth starting stint since then, but in many ways it really feels like a different era. He extended the hitless streak to 12 innings by facing the minimum through three with four strikeouts. Matt Chapman nearly touched him for a home run, but fouled him.
Raimel Tapia led off the fourth inning with the first hit by a Blue Jay off Verlander since Teoscar Hernandez singled after Curtis Granderson’s seventh-inning home run on June 25, 2018. To put that in perspective, Ryan Borucki debuted as The Next Day. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. followed up with a one-out laser beam to put runners on the corners, and the Astros narrowly missed converting two on Lourdes Gurriel to cash in the run.
The Blue Jays tied it in the fifth inning. It appeared to be a quiet inning with the bottom of the order and two quick outs, but Espinal demolished a fastball that trickled over the plate to left-center for a solo shot. He was in the middle of a celebration in the dugout when Bradley Zimmer followed it up with a high, arcing throw to left field, a true Minute Maid special that just cleared the fences to the Crawford Boxes. At 334, a cheap price, but would have been just as interesting if he hadn’t gone, as Brantley tripped going after him.
But the Blue Jays were even, and it turned into a bullpen battle. Trent Thornton had a dynamite smash ball, pitching two excellent innings on 25 pitches (apart from walking 0-2). Adam Cimber followed up with a quick tackle of his own, punctuated by an excellent play by Espinal with bare hands on a two-out rebound. Pena was initially declared safe, which seemed like the right decision to me even after a couple of glances, but the freeze frame showed that Espinal had just beaten him. Tim Mayza entered the eighth and struck out a pair.
Thus, it remained 3-3 into the ninth, with Vladdy leading off and hitting another missile off a long single, but not advancing when Gurriel and Zack Collins came out weakly. But there was no denying Chapman, who lined a ball into the space between left center and allowed Guerrero to puff at home with the go-ahead run.
So, after coming so close to failure in a long time, Jordan Romano was back on the mound looking for his eighth save (in two weeks!). It certainly wasn’t easy, as Yuli Gurriel greeted him by pulling a hard gliner to the left. Romano defeated Kyle Tucker, for his old friend Amedlys Diaz also squared him with a single to put the tying run 90 feet away.
Ultimately, Romano’s speed was too much, and he threw out a couple of pinch hitters to strike out down the side and strand runners. I realize he is the closer with a capital C and optically it could have been seen as a lack of confidence, but given the job he has done I would have thought to let Mayza in after a sharp and efficient tackle. But the W is the W at 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 the WPA, but he easily deserves one for a critical home run, catching the line drive and the big play with his bare hands.
suction: young man (-.165); at the plate Collins (-.144), Bichette (-.188), Gurriel (-.124) posted 0-fers in the middle of the order.
Tomorrow afternoon, the Blue Jays will look to clinch the series behind Alek Manoah when he faces Jose Urquidy. Will two “A’s” trump two “U’s”? Find out at 4:00 EDT…