Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays offense overwhelm Twins

MINNEAPOLIS — Pitching to the Blue Jays’ lineup right now must feel like turning the crank on a jack-in-the-box toy. If nothing’s happened yet, you grit your teeth and know it’s coming soon.

Scoreless through five innings Thursday night against the Twins, the Blue Jays blew it open late, the series-opening 9-3 win yet another example of what one of baseball’s most talented group of hitters is capable of when it gets hot together, rather than just taking turns.

“If you can line it up, they all have that damage potential,” said interim manager John Schneider of his new-look lineup. “If you can put guys on base and put the ball in play like we’ve been preaching all year … we had six walks today and five in the first five innings. Nothing came of it, but when you put that combination of on-base and damage together, it’s pretty good.”

For five innings, the Blue Jays couldn’t figure it out. Twins starter Sonny Gray begged them to rally, launching five free passes, but Toronto managed just one hit. The moment Minnesota turned to its bullpen, though, the dam burst.

First, it was Teoscar Hernández, who is showing signs of returning to his Silver Slugger self as one of the game’s more underrated power hitters. Hernández launched a towering blast to left field that landed in the seats 409 feet from home plate. That inning gave the Blue Jays a 3-2 lead, which is typically enough in an Alek Manoah game, but the big one was still coming.

Toronto’s six-run eighth was what this lineup looks like when it’s turned all the way up to 10.

After a single from the red-hot Lourdes Gurriel Jr. brought in the first run, George Springer rolled a bases-loaded single through the left side that looked like it would only score one … until the Blue Jays received their first look at what Whit Merrifield can do on the bases.

Merrifield, who shared prior to the game that he’s been vaccinated and will be eligible to enter Canada with the Blue Jays following this road trip, was on second base at the time. After Springer’s grounder rolled into the outfield, Merrifield rounded third base in a move that looked too aggressive. But then, as he blazed down the line to home and slide in with ease to plate another run, the dynamic he can bring to this lineup was made all the more apparent.

Toronto is an athletic club from top to bottom, but Merrifield is the closest the team has come to having a true burner on the bases. It’s about more than just raw speed, but about making the proper reads and knowing the right situations in which to run — something Merrifield spoke about before the game, the type of topics you only hear discussed by true basestealing threats.

Beyond the fleet-footed antics of Merrifield, though, no big inning is complete without some thunder.

When Guerrero connected on his three-run shot in that marathon eighth inning, it looked like a line drive that would never come down. A scorcher at a projected 115.4 mph off the bat, he stood in awe of his own work, not leaving the batter’s box until his rocket crashed into the left-field bleachers.

“He is really close. He’s pretty damn good even when he isn’t there,” Schneider said, “but it’s just about commanding the zone, getting his pitch and not missing it. It’s just about being a little more selective right now. He’s in a really good spot.”

As this season has gone on, Blue Jays hitters have broken out one by one. First was Alejandro Kirk, shaking off a slow April and earning a trip to the All-Star Game. Since then it’s been Hernández, Gurriel and, most recently, Matt Chapman, who’s been on an absolute tear. No other hitter in this lineup is capable of Guerrero’s peak, though, and if he’s able to rediscover his 2021 form, Toronto’s bats go from scary on a good night to nearly unbeatable.

“It’s great. This is an excellent lineup,” Guerrero said through a club interpreter. “Like I said before, we try to pick each other up here. Whoever is out there and whoever is playing, I know it’s going to be good.”

The bench is a real factor now, too.

Between Merrifield, Cavan Biggio, Raimel Tapia, Santiago Espinal or a superstar getting a breather, chances are that Schneider will have a fantastic option to turn to in a pinch. Whether it’s a bat or a runner, the options are built for October.

Can Toronto’s bullpen be ready on a moment’s notice? Can the starting pitching hold up? That’s still to be determined. But at this rate, nothing will be the lineup’s fault.

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