Stairs, McGowan lead Jays to sweep
First baseman laces three doubles; righty pitches into the ninth
TORONTO -- The ear-piercing pinging sound of baseballs flying off an aluminum bat has echoed throughout Rogers Centre this past weekend. Long before fans begin to trickle into the stands, Matt Stairs and a few of his fellow Blue Jays have played pepper with the stadium's upper regions.
Stairs claims to have launched a few batting-practice pitches into the empty seats in the fifth deck above right-center field. The 39-year-old veteran has certainly had no problems sending baseballs ricocheting off the windows of the Hard Rock Cafe restaurant that sits a mere three decks up from the turf.
Wielding the aluminum bat is simply a way for the Blue Jays to keep things loose in the waning months of the season. Stairs said swinging from his heels also helps to forget about mechanics and to just have fun. On Sunday afternoon, Stairs switched to his usual lumber and collected three doubles, backing a strong outing by Dustin McGowan in a 4-1 win over Texas.
"It's just a fun way to break the ice and get in there and not worry about anything -- not think about your swing," Stairs said about practicing with the metal bat. "You just see the ball and see how far you can hit it. It worked. It made my swing nice and free."
There's more to it than that, though.
Temporarily throwing mechanics out the window is fun and all, but Stairs has still spent time dissecting his swing recently with Jays hitting coach Mickey Brantley. Stairs, who hit .226 in July, found that he was standing up too much in the batter's box and his hands were too high in his stance. He made the proper adjustments against the Rangers and immediately noticed a difference.
"I knew after my first couple takes that I was seeing the ball well," said Stairs, who walked and later scored on a single by Frank Thomas in the first inning. "It's a good feeling as a hitter. You step in there knowing, as soon as you see the ball coming out of his hand, you recognize it's a changeup or a curveball or whatever it is."
Stairs, who is a native of New Brunswick, found his swing at an opportune time for the Blue Jays, too.
His appearance against the Rangers marked the 1,500th game of Stairs' career, putting him alongside Larry Walker and Terry Puhl as the only Canadian-born players to reach the plateau. Stairs' three doubles -- the first time he's accomplished that feat in his 15-year career -- and two RBIs helped Toronto (56-54) cruise to a series sweep over Texas (48-63).
The win also represented the eighth in a row at home for the Blue Jays, who moved within five games of first place in the American League Wild Card standings. It marks the longest home streak by the Jays since the club won eight consecutive games in Toronto from April 14-22, 1999. The Jays also moved two games above .500 for the first time since April 18.
Stairs was having so much fun that he even stole third base on Rangers starter Brandon McCarthy. In the fifth inning, Stairs sent the second of his three doubles bouncing into the left-center gap to put the Blue Jays ahead for good, 2-1. The stocky veteran, who hasn't swiped more than two bases in a season since 2000, bolted for third base, catching McCarthy and the Rangers off guard.
"How about that?" Stairs said with a laugh. "[McCarthy] gave a peek, but his peeks aren't really to pick up the runner. I think it's a peek for show. It's no big deal. I stole third base, but unfortunately we didn't score there."
Not that it mattered.
The second run Stairs provided with that fifth-inning double proved to be enough for McGowan (8-5) to work with. The 25-year-old right-hander lasted eight-plus innings, giving up just one run on eight hits with six strikeouts. Texas' lone run came in the first, when former Blue Jay Frank Catalanotto lofted a 1-2 pitch to right for a leadoff home run.
After that shot, McGowan settled in and used a variety of pitches to induce 14 outs via the ground ball. The Rangers threated after Catalanotto's homer in the first, but McGowan struck out the final two batters in the frame to leave two on base. Texas loaded the bases in the seventh, but McGowan forced Ian Kinsler to ground out to third base to end the inning.
"I think Cat tried to make my confidence go down right from the get-go," said McGowan, who is 3-0 with a 1.59 ERA in his past four starts. "After that, I just started to mix it up. I started throwing curveballs on the first pitch, and sliders, and that's what you do with an aggressive team."
Toronto tacked on an additional pair of insurance runs in the seventh, when Stairs doubled home Reed Johnson and Vernon Wells chipped in an RBI triple. Stairs' hit slammed off the wall in center. It might have bounced off Windows restaurant, or threatened a hotel window, had the aluminum bat been in his hands.
"No more of that -- that's just for fun," Stairs said with a grin. "I think it's a little bit of a good way to just forget about making good contact with wood and trying to drive the ball to the restaurant areas, or off the scoreboard, or wherever you're trying to go."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.