CLEVELAND — If it weren’t for the pitch timer, George Springer’s at-bat might still be going.
It took 13 pitches, nine swings and eight foul balls for Springer to launch his home run, tied for the longest at-bat ending in a long ball by a Blue Jays hitter since 2000.
It came in just the second plate appearance of the game and was the only offense in the Blue Jays’ 1-0 win over the Guardians at Progressive Field, fresh off a 1-0 loss and a 3-1 win to open the series. These are two baseball teams stuck in soccer scores, which isn’t going to work for the Blue Jays long term, but the signs of life from Springer this past week-plus are encouraging.
“He came in and said, ‘All right, I’m good, that was my three at-bats right there.’” manager John Schneider said. “It’s a combination of approach and talent, obviously. It’s about spoiling pitches and laying off tough pitches. The changeup is probably [Guardians starter Logan] Allen’s best secondary pitch, so he laid off those up in the zone, got a pitch up in the zone and didn’t miss it. That’s a really good player having a really solid approach.”
Springer has been one of several Blue Jays trapped in a power outage this season. Much like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., there’s been plenty of hard contact along the way, but it hasn’t turned into production on the field nearly as consistently. Springer’s .398 slugging percentage ranks near the bottom of the Blue Jays’ regulars, Kevin Kiermaier included.
The marathon at-bat against Allen was a snapshot of Springer at his best, though. His combination of plate approach and power, mixed in with the ability to foul off some pitches, is what has made him one of MLB’s most dynamic leadoff hitters over the past decade. You can hear that leadoff mindset when he breaks down the at-bat.
“After I fouled off so many close balls, I understood that I’d done my job,” Springer said. “I’d gotten deep into the count and was able to give guys a longer look at him to see how he’s throwing, the velocity of everything. Honestly, I was just trying to get to first base. I wasn’t really trying to do too much, but I was able to hit a homer.”
Springer’s identity in that role was always “the leadoff hitter with power.” His 56 leadoff home runs rank him second in MLB history, putting him within striking distance of Rickey Henderson’s 81. The Blue Jays moved Springer out of the leadoff spot on July 28, though, in the midst of a slump that eventually tied a club record by reaching 0-for-35.
Whit Merrifield has filled in admirably and earned the gig, but as Schneider is fond of saying, “George is what makes us go” when the Blue Jays are playing the brand of baseball they want to.
This had to be exhausting for Allen, too, which Kevin Gausman appreciated as he watched on.
“As a pitcher, you usually just get to a point where you’re like, ‘Just get on base already,’” Gausman said. “When they hit a home run, obviously you’re pretty pissed. It ended up being a big run for us and the deciding factor in the game. George has put together a nice week-plus here.”
Schneider hasn’t wavered in his support of Springer, even as he’s shuffled the lineup. Ideally, that’s a temporary thing, and nights like this move him back in the right direction.
“He’s been George for a long time,” Schneider said. “I think it’s just evening out a little bit.”
Zoom out, though, and the Blue Jays need more. Much more.
Gausman was brilliant again, pitching seven shutout innings, but he’s rarely had any form of run support. The Blue Jays have taken two of the first three in Cleveland, but they have scored just four combined runs over those games and couldn’t cash in with the bases loaded and no outs Wednesday. It’s impressive to still steal the win, but offensive performances like that won’t get you anywhere in October.
For all of this to click at the right time, though, the Blue Jays are going to need this lineup working as a living, breathing unit, not a one-man show that leans on its excellent, exhausted pitching staff.