Bo Bichette found a productive way to celebrate the 20th Roberto Clemente Day and his distinction as the Blue Jays nominee for the prestigious award that bears the name of the late Pittsburgh Pirates great.
The Toronto shortstop knocked in five runs in the Blue Jays’ 6-3 win against the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday, a day after Bichette was named the Blue Jays nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award, given to the player who “best represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.”
Bichette and several others wore Clemente’s No. 21 in the series finale against the Rays to honour the Puerto Rican Baseball Hall of Famer, including Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo, third-base coach Luis Rivera, pitcher Jose Berrios and slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
“Not only for what he did on the field, but what he did off the field,” Montoyo said, explaining why he chose to switch his jersey number from No. 25 to 21 for the day. “He was a great human being.”
The crowd of 12,153 watched outstanding performances from Bichette and starting pitcher Robbie Ray as the Blue Jays (82-64) took two of three from the Rays (90-56), who have the best record in the American League.
Ray (12-5) struck out 13 and issued no walks in seven solid innings of four-hit ball. His fastball-slider combination kept the Tampa Bay batters off balance.
Ray hasn’t lost since a 7-4 defeat to the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on July 21. That was 10 starts ago. The Toronto lefty has been particularly powerful in his past six outings, striking out a total of 66 opponents.
“He’s fun to play behind because he’s aggressive,” Bichette said of Ray. “He’s not scared of anybody. He’s fearless. He just attacks guys.
“He has no fear.”
Ray’s lone blemish was a full-count slider that Rays catcher Mike Zunino knocked over the left-field fence to lead off the fifth inning. Zunino’s 30th, to make the score 4-1, surprised Ray.
“I felt it was hit too high and that it didn’t have enough to go,” Ray said.
There was no doubt about Bichette’s three-run blast in the first inning, his 25th of the season. With infielders Marcus Semien and Guerrero on third and second, respectively, Bichette belted a change-up from Tampa Bay starter Michael Wacha (3-5) over the left-field fence.
“I was just trying to be aggressive and put my best swing on it,” Bichette said.
With his homer, Bichette joined Guerrero, Semien and Teoscar Hernandez as Blue Jays with 25 or more homers and 90-plus RBIs. It’s the first time in franchise history four Blue Jays have hit the milestones in the same season and the first team to turn the trick since the 2009 Minnesota Twins and Philadelphia Phillies.
In the third inning, a Semien single to left and a Guerrero double to left-centre put runners, once again, on second and third. Semien scored on Bichette’s sacrifice fly to right.
Bichette’s infield bouncer up the middle for a hit scored designated hitter George Springer in the fifth inning. Springer singled to centre with one out and exhibited good hustle going from first to third on a Wacha wild pitch with Guerrero at the plate.
Guerrero, who reached base for a third time with a walk in the fifth, scored on Hernandez’s single to centre.
Joakim Soria relieved Ray to start the eighth. He got into trouble with a lead-off single to Taylor Walls and a two-run Brett Phillips shot to centre field.
But Soria settled down to finish the inning with a three-run advantage, and Jordan Romano finished off Tampa Bay with his 18th save in a one-two-three ninth inning.
The win was the Blue Jays’ 16th in their past 19 outings and allowed them to keep pace in the AL wild-card race.
Berrios said he pitched through soreness in his left side for at least three innings before being removed Tuesday but felt fine Wednesday and expects to make his next start.
Toronto’s next game is at home on Friday in the opener of a three-game series against Minnesota. Lefty Hyun Jin Ryu (13-8, 4.11) starts against the Twins right-hander Michael Pineda (6-8, 3.87).