When the Yankees play the Blue Jays, ‘every game is huge’
By James Wagner
When he stepped to the plate to lead off Monday’s game against the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays center fielder George Springer was greeted with a shower of boos from the crowd at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. He promptly singled.
When he came up to bat again in the third inning, more boos followed. The result that time wasn’t any better for Yankees fans: a two-run home run that proved key in a 3-0 Toronto win.
On Tuesday, the Yankees got a little revenge with a 4-0 win.
While Springer has been jeered in both games for his role on the 2017 Houston Astros, a team that toppled the Yankees on the way to a World Series title that has been since tainted by a sign-stealing scandal, the feeling between the sides isn’t exactly friendly this season.
The rivals — along with the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays — will be duking it out all season in a buzz saw of a division in which three teams reached the playoffs last year. The 92-win Yankees claimed the final American League wild-card spot, which left the 91-win Blue Jays watching October baseball from home.
The odds of making the playoffs have improved this year. The Major League Baseball postseason field was expanded to 12 teams from 10 under the new labor agreement. But the 19 showdowns between the Yankees and the Blue Jays, a trendy preseason World Series pick, are still expected to be tense, competitive and thrilling.
“That’s life in the American League East,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo, whose team is playing its first series of the season against the Yankees, a four-game set, this week (Gerrit Cole was slated to start Wednesday night’s third game for the Yankees, with José Berríos on the mound for Toronto). “All the teams are good. It’s going to be a battle all year. They just played Boston and they’re going to play us, and we’re going to play them and then Boston.”
The first two meetings of the teams this season offered a preview of what may be coming. The scores were close. The stars shined. The crowd and teams understood the stakes.
“They have talent, just like us,” said Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the runner-up for the AL’s Most Valuable Player Award last season. “But obviously, you have to go out on the field and give your best.”
“They’re a great ball club,” Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge said, adding later: “They’ve got guys that hit for power, got good speed up and down, then a great pitching staff. They’re going to be tough all year, but we’re looking forward to it.”
The Blue Jays can indeed hit. Any lineup headlined by shortstop Bo Bichette, right fielder Teoscar Hernández, Springer and Guerrero should have little trouble scoring runs. Even without standout third baseman Matt Chapman, who was added in an offseason trade with Oakland, the Blue Jays led the major leagues in home runs (262) and on-base plus slugging percentage (.797) last season.
Knowing that, Toronto’s coaching staff emphasized another aspect of the team’s play, one that was a weakness at times last season: its defense. To drive home the point, the Blue Jays made a largely symbolic change to the traditional order of pregame drills, having players take ground balls first and then working on their hitting.
“My message was that from the beginning: Pitching and defense is going to win games in this league. It’s tough to hit everyday,” said Montoyo, adding later: “And you cannot give that team, or any team in the American League, any chance — or any second chances.”
The Blue Jays were one of the teams with the most wins in the second half of last season in part because of Bichette’s defensive improvement, Montoyo said. Bichette, who led all MLB shortstops with 24 errors last season, credited the Blue Jays’ coaching staff, as well as retired shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, for the assist. In the offseason, Bichette spent time in Texas further sharpening his fielding with Tulowitzki, a two-time Gold Glove Award winner.
“He just kind of made it simple for me,” Bichette said. “Simple is like catch the ball and make the throw. Play free. Be aggressive. Just kind of allowing myself to be free out there mentally has helped me a lot.”
The effort showed against the Yankees on Monday. Starting pitcher Alek Manoah held the Yankees in check with seven strikeouts over six scoreless innings. (His fastballs were a tick faster than usual, hitting 96 mph frequently. “That’s just New York adrenaline,” he said.) But when Manoah ran into some trouble in the third inning with a bases-loaded jam, Bichette made a stellar play: He ranged far to his right to snare a Giancarlo Stanton broken-bat grounder, then jumped and threw across his body for the third out.
“We learned a lot last year that if we want to win a World Series and be a championship team, we got to be nails on all sides of the ball,” said Bichette, who hit .298 with 29 home runs and 102 RBIs last season. “So pitching, defense, hitting, it’s not going to be perfect every day but the work we’re putting in and the commitment we have to it is definitely paying off.”
In the seventh inning, with Manoah out of the game, Bichette teamed with second baseman Santiago Espinal to turn a slick inning-ending double play with two men on base. With the defense shifted to the left side against Josh Donaldson, Espinal stopped a ground ball to his left and spun around to toss it to Bichette, who used a 360-degree spin after touching second base to fire the ball to first. Guerrero pumped his fist and shouted as he ran off the field.
“I feel like we’re just a bunch of kids going out there and giving it all we got,” said Bichette, adding later about Yankee Stadium: “So honestly it just feels comfortable anywhere we are. I love playing with these guys. It’s lots of fun.”
The Blue Jays’ rise to prominence over the past two years coincides with the development of young stars like Guerrero, 23; Bichette 24; and Hernández, 29. Bichette said the Blue Jays had always been confident in their potential, so “the world is probably a little bit behind what we thought.” And even though the bullpen was largely untouched over the winter and the Blue Jays lost Robbie Ray, the 2021 AL Cy Young Award winner, and second baseman Marcus Semien to free agency, Guerrero said the team was better this year because of the existing and new talent.
The Yankees feel the same way about themselves. Starting pitchers Jameson Taillon, who allowed two runs over five innings Monday, and Luis Severino are healthier now than they were last year. The lineup is more balanced and diverse in terms of skill sets than it was at the beginning of last season because of the additions of shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and Donaldson.
After going 29-19 against the Blue Jays from 2018 to 2020, the Yankees had less luck last year. They were 8-11 against their rivals, but still managed to edge Toronto for the final AL wild-card spot.
“Every game is huge,” Springer said after Monday’s victory. “We learned last year that every game matters. It’s a good start, but there’s a long way to go.”