TORONTO — The start to Whit Merrifield's Blue Jays career has been unideal.
The two-time All-Star got shipped to Toronto at the trade deadline in the midst of his worst season to date, placing him in a new environment during a point where he clearly wasn't himself at the dish. The struggles only compounded north of the border, as Merrifield slashed .182/.239/.227 through his first 71 plate appearances.
In the seventh inning of the Blue Jays' 7-2 win over the Rays Tuesday, 'Two-Hit Whit' found that long-awaited moment of exaltation. Stepping off the bench for just his eighth career pinch-hit appearance, Merrifield drilled a sharp ground ball over the third-base bag.
With the game on the line, Merrifield came through. His one-out double allowed Santiago Espinal to score from third and helped Bradley Zimmer wheel all the way home from first, flipping the score from 2-1 to 3-2 in Toronto's favor.
"Big emotion," Merrifield said. "Like I said, it's a big moment in a big game, the crowd getting loud ... it was nice to break through."
For Merrifield, this clutch hit could be a turning point for the momentum of his season.
"Any time you see a ball kind of go in a hole, and especially in a big moment, it could jumpstart you," Merrifield said. "But what's happened has happened. I'm not concerned with what I've done. I'm just worried about where I am now and what I'm doing moving forward."
After that big extra-base hit by Merrifield, George Springer terrorized Rays reliever Colin Poche once more. The Blue Jays leadoff man ripped a two-run shot over the left-field wall, boosting Toronto's lead to three runs. The blast was Springer's 20th of the season and just his third longball since the All-Star break.
The offensive firestorm in the seventh inning exorcised what had been a dull effort from Toronto's bats to that point. The Jays struggled to move runners over—though Bichette did a good job of that for a run in the sixth—and trailed Tampa for most of the contest. The seventh-inning epiphany continued into the later innings, as Toronto tacked on two more runs in the eighth.
Of course, this Blue Jays victory would've been impossible without some heroics from the man on the mound, starting pitcher Alek Manoah.
Early Tuesday morning, Manoah awoke in the middle of the night with flu symptoms so bad he thought he needed a trip to the emergency room. He barely slept that night, and once he arrived at the ballpark he needed an IV bag to stay hydrated.
Manoah's start was pushed to Game 2 of Tuesday's doubleheader, and the righty entered the first inning lacking a bit of punch. His four-seamer was down to 91 mph; his sinker was down to 92 mph, and his tight slider averaged below 80 mph. But that lack of velocity didn’t rob him of effectiveness.
The right-hander’s first two innings were done after a breezy 24 pitches. Then he faltered just a bit. Ji-Man Choi roasted a no-doubt solo homer to right field in the third for the Rays’ first longball since September 6.
After a game last season, Manoah was asked about a similar velocity dip. He told the media that fastball velo might get you recruited to college, but heat alone isn’t good enough at the major-league level.
The 24-year-old proved his theory on a night when swings-and-misses were hard to come by. Clearly at less than 100% health, Manoah gutted out 6.2 innings, allowing two earned runs on five hits while striking out five.
"My job is not to feel good," he said. "My job is to go out there and compete. No matter what's going on in the circumstances, just gotta go out there and give the team a chance."
The solo home runs bit him, though, as Jonathan Aranda, Tampa’s streaky rookie, raked his first career dinger to lead off the seventh inning. But those two blemishes weren’t enough to dissuade the crowd from showing the big man some love, as the 25,103 fans in attendance clapped Manoah out with a respectable ovation.
Given how most of Tuesday felt, the Blue Jays should be happy to end the evening with a split doubleheader. The afternoon game was slow and sloppy. Thankfully, the nightcap packed a wallop, pushing Toronto to a 6-6 season record versus the Rays.
"To come out with a split is big, especially against [the Rays]," said George Springer. "Obviously, they're an extremely talented baseball team, and we're trying to chase them, and vice versa."
The Jays now hold a half-game lead on Tampa for the second AL wild-card spot ahead of Thursday, the fourth contest of this five-game series at Rogers Centre.