TORONTO — There was almost an air of expectancy during that plate appearance in the third inning, when Ryan Mountcastle came up to bat with two Orioles runners on base. He’s done this sort of thing before — against this same opponent, facing this same pitcher, in this same building.
So when the ball leaped off Mountcastle’s bat and sailed over the left-center fence, it was hardly a surprise. He’s made a habit of this, particularly against left-hander Yusei Kikuchi, and in a way, Rogers Centre in Toronto is practically the Orioles first baseman’s second home.
On this occasion, Kikuchi’s fastball caught too much of the plate — and then too much of Mountcastle’s bat. The three-run home run early in Friday’s 6-2 victory against the Toronto Blue Jays continued Mountcastle’s dominance against the American League East foe and started the three-game weekend series against the Orioles’ divisional rival on the right foot.
For as well as Baltimore (29-16) has played thus far, these next two series against the Blue Jays and New York Yankees will exemplify how this team can compete in a powerful division. All five clubs in the AL East are above .500, and with two fewer series a year against each of them, the 13 divisional games each might only increase in importance.
“You don’t want to make or break one game, but it means a little bit more,” manager Brandon Hyde said Friday afternoon.
Through that lens, then, what Mountcastle did against an opponent he’s well-versed in facing was even more important than usual. When Mountcastle faced Kikuchi in two games last season, he clubbed three homers. In a June 2022 series in Toronto, the 26-year-old popped three homers in the span of two games.
And with Mountcastle’s third-inning blast Friday — made possible by Joey Ortiz’s single and Adley Rutschman’s walk — his 15 career homers against Toronto are five more than he has against any other team. He has six homers at Rogers Centre, which is double his total at any other opposing park. And his four homers off Kikuchi are his most against any pitcher.
So, Ryan, what is it about hitting in Toronto?
“I had a feeling this [question] was coming,” Mountcastle laughed. “It’s just a good place to hit. I like it here. I don’t know what it is.”
Once Mountcastle’s homer established a lead for Baltimore, right-hander Kyle Gibson put aside the hard contact that defined his first two innings and spun what could be his best outing yet as an Oriole. He lasted seven innings, allowing one run on five hits and two walks.
Gibson, who has made a career as a pitch-to-contact hurler, struck out five Blue Jays batters and escaped trouble in the fourth with a much-needed double play. To end his evening, Gibson retired his final 10 batters, leaning on his sinker, cutter and changeup.
Over Gibson’s last three starts, he received zero run support. In those shutout losses, Gibson wasn’t at his best — allowing a combined 10 runs to the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates (but he did hold the Rays to 2). Friday night, he completed seven innings for the second time this year and lowered his season ERA to 4.27.
Before the game, Hyde figured the best-case scenario to help a bullpen that covered four innings Thursday would be for Gibson to complete seven. But Gibson never asked; each time out, he hopes to eat seven innings.
He did it by turning in several quick innings midway through the game, and the command of his cutter especially helped.
“They weren’t swinging at many sliders away,” Gibson said. “I don’t know if that was just their plan or what, so for me, it’s trying to throw pitches that either look like a fastball or look like that slider on the outside, especially to the righties, and I was able to get a lot of takes on it. And then we threw enough sinkers away early that I think it gave me a little room to work with that cutter away and get some early outs.”
And to assist Gibson and the pitching staff further, outfielder Anthony Santander snuck his eighth homer of the season beyond the right-field fence to continue a strong May. Then Adam Frazier sent his fifth homer of the season over that same wall to plate two more runs in the eighth.
Those runs covered for the rarest of blips from right-hander Yennier Cano, whose scoreless streak ended at 21 2/3 innings and 18 appearances. Cano has been virtually un-hittable, allowing just four hits without a walk entering Friday. But the Blue Jays finally got to Cano with Kevin Kiermaier’s leadoff single and George Springer’s ground-rule double.
Still, Cano shut the door from there, striking out Vladimir Guerrero Jr. on his elite changeup after nine pitches before forcing Daulton Varsho to ground out, ending the eighth. With that run, Cano’s ERA creeped to an infinitesimal 0.40.
When asked whether Cano figured it was a matter of time for his scoreless streak to end, he laughed: “Of course, without a doubt. I’m not a robot, you know. It was bound to happen.”
But he was especially pleased with the way he bounced back against Guerrero. “That was the out that I really needed to get,” Cano said, and with it, he proved a critical skill of being a reliever: limiting the damage.
As it turns out, Frazier’s two-run homer left closer Félix Bautista to finish a non-save situation, and even without those late runs, Mountcastle’s continued success in Toronto would’ve gotten Baltimore over the line.
If Mountcastle himself doesn’t know the secret behind his Toronto breakouts (or is astute enough not to share it for Blue Jays pitchers to read), Hyde is at a loss.
“I have no idea,” Hyde said. “But I’m happy about it.”