TORONTO — It’s standard procedure in baseball that when a team is scuffling, its general manager will hold court with the media to offer thoughts and reflections. It’s done in part to alleviate some tension from the clubhouse and make sure that a manager and players aren’t answering the same questions over and over again.
Brian Cashman met with reporters just a few weeks ago to answer questions about why the New York Yankees were underperforming and, on Monday, prior to the Blue Jays’ 5-4 walk-off win in the 11th inning over the Chicago Cubs in front of 26,473 fans at Rogers Centre, GM Ross Atkins did the same.
However, when asked if he was adhering to that familiar protocol of a team in crisis mode, Atkins shrugged off that notion and said he settled on the decision to eventually meet with media even prior to an ugly weekend that saw the Blue Jays swept by the lowly Los Angeles Angels.
Atkins exuded positivity during his 15-minute conversation in front of the cameras and tape recorders, maintaining confidence that his team will right itself. The Blue Jays entered the day sitting in the third American League wild-card spot, trailing Tampa Bay and Seattle and just ahead of Baltimore.
“We’re coming up on September with our destiny in our control,” Atkins said. “A lot of games against teams that we’re competing for these final [wild-card] spots with and I feel like we’re going to get hot and make a nice run.”
Mental lapses, physical errors, along with poor defence and hitting all contributed to a weekend that saw the Blue Jays outscored 22-3 by the Angels, raising questions about the team’s lack of focus.
Atkins, however, expressed confidence and trust in his club’s overall preparation and internal conversations about accountability, noting that players have been honest with each other in assessing their recent performances.
“How they’re talking about pushing things forward and being better, how they can be better individually and collectively,” Atkins said. “I think that’s the key. If we can continue to focus on our collective success and our collective setbacks and not be finger pointing and focusing too much on when we do have a mental lapse.”
Blue Jays manager John Schneider echoed the sentiment that communication within the clubhouse remains strong, despite what it has looked like at times to outsiders.
“All the confidence in the world in that group,” said Schneider. “The talent, the communication that we’re having both with them as a staff and among players that not everyone sees. It’s still a really tight group and it’s a really good group.”
Such confidence was nicely rewarded with Monday’s spirited victory that snapped a three-game skid and added another high to the roller-coaster that has been the 2022 season for the Blue Jays (69-58).
“It was a big win,” said Schneider.
“We needed this one and many, many more,” added Blue Jays starter Jose Berrios, who earned a no-decision.
It didn’t look promising from the outset, though. The Blue Jays lineup remained quiet early on, largely hypnotized by Cubs right-hander Javier Assad, who was making just his second major-league start. He relied on a cutter that averaged 87.3 m.p.h. and a sinker that averaged 92.5 m.p.h. to keep hitters off balance, allowing just four hits over five scoreless innings, walking none and striking out one.
The Cubs put together a 4-0 lead off Berrios, who was unable to build off his recent string of impressive outings against the Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Alfonso Rivas scored on a fielder’s choice in the third inning to put Chicago up 1-0 and the visitors added another run in the fourth when Nico Hoerner singled to right field to drive in Seiya Suzuki. The Cubs added two more runs in the sixth inning to extend their lead. Berrios, whose fastball topped out at 96.3 m.p.h., allowed four runs on 10 hits (nine singles) over his 5.2 innings of work, walking one and striking out four.
The Blue Jays offence looked poised to face more questions about its listlessness until Danny Jansen changed the narrative by launching an 84-m.p.h. slider from Cubs right hander Erich Uelmen into the left-centre field stands in the seventh inning for a three-run homer that cut the deficit to one run.
“It’s fun to go out there and compete and try to swing at a pitch I can handle,” Jansen said. “And it happened to go over the fence. Something to build off. I was really excited about it.”
The bomb also brought the Blue Jays’ dugout to life by relieving some serious tension.
“I don’t know if the cameras caught it, but [the players] were kind of coming to life there a little bit,” said Schneider. “And, you know, sometimes it takes one inning.”
Matt Chapman, who drew a 10-pitch walk to start the rally in the seventh, tied the game at 4-4 in the next frame with a single that cashed in Cavan Biggio. Blue Jays closer Jordan Romano then tossed a scoreless inning and Yimi Garcia added two more to keep the game tied and set the table for Jansen’s heroics.
Facing Cubs reliever Mark Leiter Jr. in the bottom of the 11th, Jansen lashed a single to left field to secure the win.
And to make that victory even sweeter, there were several sparkling defensive plays by the Blue Jays throughout the game, highlighted by a diving catch by George Springer, an outfield assist by Raimel Tapia and a nifty double play turned by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Jansen.
In all, it was cathartic evening for the Blue Jays that will no doubt add to the resolve of Atkins.
“It can become easy to fall in the trap of expecting perfection from human beings, which just isn’t going to happen,” said the GM, when asked about worries that fans may have about the club.
“We have the benefit of seeing under the hood and you get to see the work that goes in on a daily basis — their preparation, their conversations about accountability.
“And that gives me a great deal of confidence in where this team is.”
• The Blue Jays claimed Bradley Zimmer off waivers from the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday. Atkins said the outfielder, who spent 77 games with the Blue Jays earlier this season following an April trade from Cleveland, will occupy one of the two extra roster spots that will open up on Sept. 1.
• Outfielder Teoscar Hernandez was not in the lineup on Monday as he is dealing with a left foot issue that was visibly evident on a few occasions during Sunday’s game. “Just want to make sure that he is 100 per cent healthy,” said Schneider. “He’s grinding, obviously.”
• Reliever Julian Merryweather, currently on a rehab assignment in Buffalo as he recovers from an oblique injury, could be considered for the other spot. “He’s been bouncing back really strong,” Atkins said of the right-hander. Merryweather has allowed just three hits over 7.2 scoreless innings since beginning his rehab assignment in triple-A, walking four and striking out 10.
• Right-handed reliever Nate Pearson (lat injury) will throw a live batting practice on Wednesday and could progress to a rehab assignment soon after, according to Atkins.