ST. PETERSBURG — It seems there’s no place like home for Bo Bichette, even if he won’t play along.
Playing in front of his parents and at least a few friends not far from where he played high school ball, Toronto’s superstar in waiting belted a pair of home runs and added to his gaudy totals in what was eventually another meaningless Blue Jays loss, 6-4 to the Tampa Bay Rays.
Bichette started the game with as good of a leadoff at-bat as anyone could produce. The star rookie battled through 12 pitches from Rays starter Austin Pruitt before depositing the 13th over the wall.
Bichette wasn’t done impressing either. He made it a multi-homer effort for the second time in his career by blasting a two-run shot with two outs in the seventh to tie the game up.
Though he couldn’t add another hit in the bottom of the ninth, Bichette had gone 5-for-13 here earlier this season with three doubles and a home run not long after being called up, but wasn’t willing to admit to feeling any different when we asked about it.
“No. I just go out there and play hard every day, it doesn’t really matter where I am. Maybe I’m comfortable sleeping in my own bed, but I don’t think I have any extra motivation,” Bichette said.
The shortstop continues to impress his manager.
“It’s amazing. I keep waiting for him to struggle a little bit because he’s only human and he keeps doing what he’s doing,” Charlie Montoyo said of Bichette, who is now batting a cool .329, which would rank him second in the Majors if he qualified.
“It’s been fun to watch. Being in the front row watching this kid break record after record,” Montoyo said.
Bichette now has 25 extra-base hits in his first 34 games, second-best all-time behind only all-time great Joe DiMaggio’s 27.
The Rays evened the game up in the fourth when a poor throw by Bichette was mishandled by Justin Smoak and popped loose. That allowed a runner to score from second.
More less-than-ideal defence led to the second Tampa run when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. could not corral a pop-up behind third base.
The fielding follies didn’t end there as the Rays added a fourth run in the sixth when Teoscar Hernandez had another misadventure in centre field, resulting in extra bases, followed by left fielder Derek Fisher dropping a fly-ball.
Though Bichette had squared the game again, the Rays responded with a mammoth Austin Meadows home run in the bottom of the seventh and added another in the eighth.
Jays starter Trent Thornton cruised early, looking nothing like the pitcher who had given up 14 runs and 23 hits in 11.1 innings this season against Tampa Bay heading in. Thornton said his changeup felt the best it had all season and Montoyo was pleased with his effort.
However, the big start didn’t last and his control abandoned him. Thornton walked three in his 4.2 innings and also hit a pair of batters as the Jays dropped to 55-86, losing a fourth game in a row.
LET THE KIDS PLAY
The call-ups of Anthony Alford and Jonathan Davis presents Montoyo with a bit of a challenge — how to get the many outfielders now on hand enough playing time in the final three weeks or so of the season.
“Yeah, that’s going to be tough so I’m going to have to pinch-hit more than I usually do to do the matchups and stuff to get them in games,” Montoyo said.
“Because I think we’ve got like six, seven outfielders (when Lourdes Gurriel Jr. returns in the next few days), and they’ve all got to play more or less … Everybody is going to get a chance.”
Montoyo said Gurriel, who has been out for nearly a month due to a quad injury, will play a simulated game on Friday and could be back by Sunday, or else when the team returns home.
Gurriel’s previously scheduled simulation for Thursday was scrapped because he was still feeling sore, Montoyo said.
THE AMAZING RACE
The Rays sit just ahead in the thick of a tight race with Oakland and Cleveland for the two American League wild-card spots.
The Rays most recently made the playoffs in 2013 and have made the post-season four times (two AL East titles, two wild card appearances) since beginning play in 1998.
With seven of the final 22 games of the season coming against Tampa Bay, Toronto will have some influence on the race.
“I always tell (his many friends in the Rays organization) I’m hoping you clinch before you come to Toronto the last (few) days. I don’t want to feel guilty and spoil it,” Montoyo said.
“So I always kid around with them, because I want them to do well, (manager Kevin Cash is) my buddy. But we’re professionals, we’re playing to win games.”
Tampa will be bolstered by the imminent return of starter Blake Snell, who won the Cy Young last season and is about to embark on a rehab assignment.
AROUND THE BASES
Only 5,962 fans were on hand, a stunningly low total even for Tampa and one of the worst crowds in franchise history. The NFL opener going on didn’t help matters, but that’s just pathetic, especially considering the standings and the chance to see Toronto’s star rookies. The Rays drew a then-record-low 5,786 against Toronto back in May … Bichette became the fourth rookie Blue Jay with two leadoff homers in a season, joining Rick Bosetti, Reed Johnson and Devon Travis … Cavan Biggio made three stellar plays at second base on Thursday in the early going, including a run-saver in the second. Biggio added another, saving a run or two, with a great stab to end the fifth. Biggio also stole his 10th base of the season without being caught. Only Shannon Stewart also started his Jays career at least 10-for-10 in stolen base attempts … Wilmer Font will open for the Jays on Saturday, with prospect Anthony Kay potentially making his debut behind him. Kay was one of the two players acquired in exchange for Marcus Stroman … Guerrero had perhaps the best slide of the season when he appeared to defy physics to avoid a tag for a triple. The move had his teammates in hysterics.