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Blue Jays' pitching finally backing elite bats – MLB.com

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For nearly two years, the Blue Jays were best known as baseball’s nomads. Calling Dunedin, Fla., and Buffalo, N.Y., home while the Canadian border was closed, and thanks to a handful of 2020 split doubleheaders where they were the “home” team in someone else’s park, the Jays have had six different “home fields” in the last two seasons. (A number that will rise to seven when they do it again in Anaheim on Tuesday.)

For the last two months, they’ve been something far different. Since June 19, they’re 27-15, the best record in the American League. Only four teams in the AL have a weaker remaining strength of schedule than the Blue Jays, who are done with the Red Sox but still have 17 more to play against the Orioles and decimated Twins.

The Blue Jays might be in fourth place in their own division, but they’re just one game out in the loss column from a Wild Card spot, and only two from the first Wild Card spot. All year, the non-travel story of their season has been “run differential,” in that they’ve played like one of baseball’s best teams, yet not had the record to show for it, thanks largely to repeated bullpen meltdowns. Finally, finally, they’re getting the results to go with those impressive numbers, and it’s not too late to find them boosted into October because of it.

Here’s how the Blue Jays have made it back to this point — and what they need to do in order to keep it going.

Let’s start with two charts. The first one is just for fun. This is the win probability chart of Sunday’s wild 9-8 comeback win over Boston, which shows you in visual form just how stunning of a victory it was. Springer’s go-ahead three-run homer in the eighth inning was the single biggest play of the season for Toronto.

The second is the important one. All year long, we’ve talked about their run differential, in that they score many more runs than their opponents do, yet haven’t had the results to show for it. On July 1, for example, Toronto had outscored its opponents by 64 runs, the seventh-largest figure in baseball. The six teams ahead of the Blue Jays were over .500 by at least 15 games. Toronto, meanwhile, was merely 41-38.

As things stand today, the Blue Jays have outscored their opponents by 123 runs, the most in the AL East, and the fourth-most in baseball behind only the Dodgers, Giants and Astros. But more importantly, look at the trend. It was good to start. It’s improved each and every month.

Sometimes there’s a hard-to-find secret to how teams or players turn their seasons around. Maybe it’s a new pitch or swing or team-wide change in approach. And sometimes, it’s pretty simple. This is one of those cases:

The pitching stopped being terrible.

That’s it! That’s the entire trick. Look, it’s not the offense, which is all but tied with the Dodgers as baseball’s second-best run scoring unit behind Houston; after a decent start, Toronto’s offense has been consistently very good.

April: 4.46 runs/game, 11th
May: 5.50 runs/game, 6th
June: 5.46 runs/game, 3rd
July: 5.22 runs/game, 5th

So far in August, they’re holding steady, at 5.33 runs/game.

(If that consistency is surprising, given that George Springer missed almost all of the first three months of the season and has been red-hot in the second half — entering Sunday, he was batting .353/.411/.776 since the All-Star Game, then singled and homered against the Red Sox — it’s because his performance is making up for disappointing second-half lines from Randal Grichuk and Cavan Biggio, as well as the fact that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has been more “pretty good” than “all-world” as he was in the first half.)

It’s not the defense, which was very bad to start, got a little better, but has generally been consistently unimpressive. We’ll use Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric for this look; overall, the Jays are 23rd in MLB here.

April: -10, tied 30th
May: +4, 10th
June: -3, 21st
July: -7, 27th

It is the run prevention, which in most cases is “pitching+defense,” but as we just showed, it’s not really the fielding that’s showing up in Toronto.

April: 3.75 runs allowed/game, 8th
May: 4.61 runs allowed/game, 17th
June: 4.42 runs allowed/game, 13th
July: 3.73 runs allowed/game, 4th

So far in August: Just 3.11 runs allowed/game.

This is, overwhelmingly, it, though it’s maybe not the it you think it’s going to be, because if you’re a Blue Jays fan, or even a baseball fan who has watched at least one Toronto game this year, you know what the team’s primary weakness has been: the bullpen. There was the time Tyler Chatwood walked five as the Blue Jays blew a 4-0 lead to Cleveland. There was the time that Anthony Castro entered with a 5-3 lead and proceeded to go homer, double, wild pitch, strikeout, wild pitch, as they lost 6-5 to the Yankees. There were so many times.

“No one’s panicking,” manager Charlie Montoyo said after relievers Patrick Murphy and Jeremy Beasley allowed five runs in the eighth inning in a loss to Baltimore on June 18, which is definitely a thing managers say when they know everyone is panicking. He was right; note we said above that they have the second-best record in baseball since June 19.

So you might be thinking: “Well, I’ve seen my team make just a ton of bullpen roster moves, and the pitching staff is allowing far fewer runs, so they finally fixed that leaky bullpen, right?”

Sort of, but not exactly. Let’s stipulate that yes, they did make just a ton of moves, understandably, because the April-to-June Toronto bullpen was tied for baseball’s second worst in high-leverage spots.

This is where we’d like to show you that in July and August, the bullpen, reinforced by a ton of new faces, has been markedly better in high-leverage situations. We can’t. Not because they haven’t or haven’t been good … because there haven’t been high-leverage situations, the kind of plate appearances defined by the right combination of inning, score, outs and runners on base.

April-June Blue Jays bullpen: 198 high-leverage plate appearances (14th most)

July-August Blue Jays bullpen: 17 high-leverage plate appearances (fewest, by a lot)

In 32 games since July 1, the Toronto bullpen has seen all of 17 high-leverage situations, an average of barely one every other game. The next fewest is by Kansas City, with 48; the most is Cincinnati, with a whopping 122 such plate appearances. It’s nice, we guess, that the Blue Jays have the second-highest strikeout rate in those spots, but it also doesn’t matter, because we’re talking 17 high-leverage plate appearances.

That, in large part, is thanks to the improved starting rotation. (And the offense, of course, though that’s been good all season). Toronto’s rotation was 22nd-best in April, 19th-best in May, and 18th-best in June, as it struggled to find reliable arms around Hyun-Jin Ryu, Robbie Ray, and at times, Steven Matz.

In late May, rookie Alek Manoah arrived, and he’s been strong (2.57 ERA in 10 starts). José Berríos was acquired from the Twins on July 30 at high cost, and he’s been spectacular (one run allowed in 10 innings.) Ross Stripling, who seemed on the verge of losing his job as his ERA soared past 7.00 in mid-May, has a 3.39 ERA over his last dozen starts. Ryu overcame a June slump, and the July/August rotation has been spectacular: 4th-best FIP, 2nd-best ERA. Blue Jays starters have thrown the 10th-most innings during that span after throwing the fifth-fewest in the first three months.

That’s a good way to get past a problem that was crippling your season, anyway; refuse to allow it to happen in the first place.

That’s not to say that the bullpen isn’t improved, because it is; it would almost have to be, given all the moves they made.

Compare the 14 pitchers on the Opening Day roster to what you have today, and there’s overlap of exactly five names: Ryu, Matz, Stripling, Jordan Romano, and Rafael Dolis. Think about all that’s happened since.

Tanner Roark, T.J. Zeuch, Joel Payamps and Chatwood, all members of the Opening Day roster, have been designated for assignment, as was early replacement Travis Bergen. Julian Merriweather, so incredibly impressive in early April, has been hurt all year. David Phelps got hurt. A.J. Cole got hurt. Tommy Milone got hurt. Tim Mayza got hurt. Castro got hurt. Nate Pearson made one appearance, then got hurt. Trent Thornton and Ryan Borucki, mainstays of past Toronto staffs, got sent down. We joked after the bad Baltimore loss on June 18 that the Blue Jays needed to completely renovate the bullpen, and they basically did.

Meanwhile, veteran relievers Brad Hand, Joakim Soria, Adam Cimber and Trevor Richards were acquired via trade, and those four have posted a 1.76 combined ERA for Toronto.

But that’s not what’s fueling this; not right now. It’s that the offense has been so good, and the revamped starting rotation (Ryu’s clunker on Sunday aside) has been so strong, that even though the bullpen has been almost completely reinvented, the Blue Jays aren’t even giving the relievers a chance to break things, and if “avoid the problem” isn’t the solution you might have wanted, or would hope to have in October, it’s at least working right now.

In their first 10 games back at the Rogers Centre, the Jays went 8-2, capped off by Sunday’s monumental comeback. “It felt like a playoff game,” said Montoyo. As the Red Sox continue to implode, as the Blue Jays start to soar, maybe in two months Montoyo won’t have to rely on things feeling like playoff games. Maybe there will just be playoff games.

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Blue Jays beat Twins; stay two back in AL wild-card race – TSN

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Teoscar Hernández, Marcus Semien and George Springer homered, and the Toronto Blue Jays held their position in the playoff chase by beating the Minnesota Twins 6-1 Saturday night.

Robbie Ray (13-6) scattered three hits in six innings as the Blue Jays ended a three-game slide.

Toronto stayed two games behind Boston and New York in the AL wild-card race with seven games remaining.

Semien hit his 43rd home run in the sixth for a 3-1 lead. That tied him with Dave Johnson of Atlanta in 1973 for the most home runs in a season by a second baseman.

Springer snapped an 0-for-16 skid with a two-run shot in the seventh. It was his 18th of the season and first since Sept. 11.

Ray, who leads the AL with a 2.68 ERA and tops the majors with 244 strikeouts, gave up one run and fanned six.

Minnesota scored on a sacrifice fly in the first and had runners on in four of the next five innings. Ray escaped a two-on, one-out jam in the sixth, ending his outing by getting Miguel Sanó to foul out and Nick Gordon to line out. The Twins were 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position.

Hernández homered and Santiago Espinal scored on a double by Randal Grichuk, coupled with an error by right fielder Brent Rooker, for a 2-1 lead in the second.

Out since Sept. 14 with a left abdominal strain, Minnesota starter John Gant (5-10) came off the 10-day injured list and allowed two runs — one earned — in three innings.

MINNESOTA’S MORNEAU

Former 1B Justin Morneau was inducted into the Twins Hall of Fame.

The native of New Westminster, British Columbia, hit .278 in 11 years with the club. Morneau ranks second on the Twins all-time list in games played at first base (1,124), third in home runs (221), sixth in RBI (860), and eighth in hits (1,318) and walks (501). The American League MVP in 2006 also was a four-time All-Star. He finished his 14-year career with stints in Pittsburgh, Colorado and with the White Sox, and was inducted in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2020. He remains with the Twins as a special assistant to baseball operations and part-time analyst on the team’s television broadcasts.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Blue Jays: RHP Joakim Soria was placed on the COVID-related injured list and LHP Kirby Snead was recalled from Triple-A Buffalo. … Manager Charlie Montoyo said OF Lourdes Gurriel Jr. might not return to the lineup until Tuesday. Gurriel’s hand was stepped on by a teammate during an outfield play Thursday and he received stitches in his middle finger.

Twins: To make room for Gant, RHP Joe Ryan was placed on the family medical emergency/bereavement list.

UP NEXT

Toronto RHP Alek Manoah (7-2, 3.36) and Twins RHP Griffin Jax (3-4, 6.75) are Sunday afternoon’s scheduled starters. Manoah has allowed just two earned runs and six hits over 14 innings across his past two starts.

___

More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Canadiens @ Maple Leafs recap: Most certainly a pre-season game – Habs Eyes on the Prize

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After what felt like an eternity, the Montreal Canadiens were back on the ice for a game. The team they faced was the club they embarrassed in the first round of the 2021 NHL playoffs, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Sure, Toronto blew a 3-1 series lead in the post-season, but it’s a new (pre-)season now and the Canadiens are a much different club.

Of course, this is also the first game of the pre-season, so it’s not like we were seeing the final product for Montreal or Toronto. However, this game was a chance to see the return of the Tyler Toffoli, Nick Suzuki, and Cole Caufield line. It also saw Alexander Romanov playing alongside Jeff Petry, in addition to the debuts of Mathieu Perreault and Cedric Paquette for the Habs after signing in the off-season.

Toronto came out with the early chances, including William Nylander dangling around Gianni Fairbrother, but Cayden Primeau stood tall to deny the chance in tight before the Canadiens drew the game’s first power play.

The man advantage was far from finely tuned, but the top line created a few looks as Toffoli and Caufield worked into the inner slot against the Leafs’ penalty kill. A few errant passes kept the Habs from establishing any sort of real zone time. Toronto continued to amp up the pressure at even strength, but some heady defensive work from Brandon Baddock helped to defuse the Toronto attack.

A Rich Clune hit from behind on Lukas Vejdemo sent Montreal to another power play and Vejdemo to the Habs’ locker room. Dominique Ducharme opted to just roll his lines as the man advantage took effect, but there were no goals to find.

As the play once again returned to five-on-five, Toronto’s top line got a favourable matchup against Montreal’s third pair and took full advantage. Arber Xhekaj drifted off his assignment behind Xavier Ouellet, leaving a swath of open ice for Nylander to feed a pass to a pinching Jake Muzzin. The veteran defender had all day to uncork a laser shot past Cayden Primeau and give the Leafs the lead.

Muzzin nearly added another goal late in the period as he drew out Primeau from his net, but overhandled the puck before firing a weak wrist shot right into Primeau’s pads.

Montreal’s best look came off a big rebound from Michael Hutchinson that Mathieu Perreault swatted back on net. The period ended with Toronto still leading, and the game clearly being the first in a long time for both sides.

The second period start was far from what the Canadiens wanted as Paquette was called for a hook in the offensive zone. On the ensuing power play, it took the Leafs 10 seconds to score on a John Tavares tip in front of the net to double the Leafs’ lead.

Kurtis Gabriel brought the temperature of the game to a mild simmer as he drilled Brandon Baddock with his head down in the offensive zone. Baddock didn’t take kindly to the hit, springing up and tossing Gabriel to the ice along with his gloves, and for his trouble was given an extra stay in the penalty box.

The Habs were able to fend off the power play, but it wasn’t long before a J.-C. Beaudin slash sent them right back to the penalty kill. Primeau did well to fend off a strong Toronto attack, but by the time the kill was over the shot advantage had grown to 19-5 for Toronto.

Montreal made a switch in net at the game’s midpoint, giving Michael McNiven some well-earned game time. McNiven was tested immediately as Toronto nearly bounced a shot off the end boards and then the back of McNiven’s pads, but the netminder was able to flop back and stop the puck.

Not long after that, Michael Bunting broke in alone, but McNiven tracked him well and denied the forward with a nice pad stop. The Habs somehow managed to find themselves in a three-on-zero situation shortly thereafter. Cole Caufield fired his shot, but wide of the net.

With that miss the Canadiens went to the second intermission trailing by three and looking to find a few positives in the final 20 minutes.

The start to the third was much better than the previous 40 minutes. Toffoli fed a perfect cross-zone feed to Caufield, but new goalie Ian Scott was able to get across and blocker the puck out of play.

Montreal as a whole was much stronger as it peppered Scott with chances, but the young goalie stood tall on all of them. Then, with was later revealed to be a groin injury, Scott left the game, with Hutchinson once again popping up in the net.

At the other end, McNiven put together a highlight reel of great saves. Josh Ho-Sang was able to sneak behind the defence on a breakaway, but McNiven met his challenge with a shoulder save to keep Toronto’s lead at three.

Then it was Jake Muzzin finding space in front of the net again, but McNiven got his blocker on that for another outstanding stop on the Leafs’ veteran blue-liner. Unfortunately for McNiven, he also ended up with the biggest blooper of the night when he came out to play the puck, but set it up on a tee for Gabriel. The Leafs’ tough guy had no issue launching it into the open cage to put the game well out of reach late in the third period.

Montreal was able to get themselves on the board late in the game thanks to Toffoli. Romanov fired a pass from his own zone that Suzuki bumped along to Toffoli. The Habs’ leading goal-scorer from last year buried it past Michael Hutchinson to break the shutout bid.

That was the only goal the Canadiens ended up scoring, as Toronto saw the game out in Montreal’s zone. The Leafs also “won” the post-game shootout for the fans as Ilya Mikheyev bested McNiven in the fourth round, while Mathieu Perreault could not solve Hutchinson at the other end.

The Habs have their annual Red vs. White scrimmage today at 3:00 PM EDT, and their next actual preseason game is a rematch against Toronto on Monday evening.

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Lewis Hamilton wins 100th GP, becoming first F1 driver to hit century mark – Sportsnet.ca

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SOCHI, Russia — Lewis Hamilton became the first Formula One driver to win 100 races with victory in the Russian Grand Prix on Sunday to retake the championship lead from Max Verstappen.

Hamilton dropped to seventh place when he was boxed in at the first corner but fought back and passed Lando Norris for the win when the McLaren driver stayed out on slick tires in late rain and slid off the track.

“It’s taken a long time to get to 100 and at times, I wasn’t sure it would come,” Hamilton said. It was Hamilton’s fifth win of the season and his first since the British Grand Prix in July.

Hamilton turned Verstappen’s five-point championship lead into a two-point lead of his own as the Dutch driver finished second after a dramatic drive from last on the grid. Carlos Sainz was third for Ferrari.

Verstappen started last after a penalty for an engine change in his Red Bull but sliced through the field and had Hamilton in sight by the halfway stage. Hamilton’s Mercedes worked better on the hard tires in the second half of the race and Verstappen’s charge seemed to have stalled when he was overtaken by the Alpine of Fernando Alonso and stuck in seventh.

But then the rain came and Verstappen switched to intermediate tires early, allowing him to claim an unexpected podium finish and limit the damage to his hopes of a first title.

“We didn’t lose so many points today, so that’s really, really good,” Verstappen told his team over the radio.

Norris trailed in seventh after his gamble to stay on dry tires against the advice of his team failed. If not for the rain, Hamilton said, “it would have been tough to get past Lando. He had great pace.” Norris had been aiming to give McLaren back-to-back wins after Daniel Ricciardo took victory at the last race in Italy when Hamilton and Verstappen collided.

Hamilton has now won the Russian Grand Prix on five of eight occasions, and his victory Sunday continues a clean sweep of victories in Russia for Mercedes cars.

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