The timing of Toronto's four-run rally couldn't have worked out better for Blue Jays reliever Neil Wagner on Friday night.
Edwin Encarnacion hit a two-run double to spark the sixth-inning outburst as Toronto dumped the Texas Rangers 6-1 at Rogers Centre. Starter Esmil Rogers worked four innings and four relievers provided five innings of shutout ball as Toronto (26-34) took the opener of the three-game series.
Wagner relieved Aaron Loup with two outs in the sixth and recorded four outs for his first major-league victory. It was a nice reward for the right-hander, who has yet to allow a run in five appearances since he was called up from triple-A Buffalo over a week ago.
"We really liked his arm in spring training," said manager John Gibbons. "But now he's pitching. He went down [to Buffalo] determined. He's more of a pitcher than we saw at spring training. He's got that great arm."
Wagner (1-0), a 29-year-old Minneapolis native, played briefly for the Oakland Athletics in 2011 but has essentially been a career minor leaguer. He earned his callup with the Blue Jays after going 1-0 with a 0.89 earned-run average in 19 appearances for the Bisons.
Wagner, who allowed one hit over one and-a-third innings for the victory, said he scrapped his curve ball in the off-season and has been pounding the strike zone more often.
'We really liked [Neil Wagner's] arm in spring training. But now he's pitching. He went down [to Buffalo] determined. He's more of a pitcher than we saw at spring training. He's got that great arm.'—Blue Jays manager John Gibbons
"I worked pretty hard this off-season on changing what I felt I needed to change from last season to this season," Wagner said. "I've just been repeating that and things have been going well."
He added that it helps when your fellow relievers are in top form.
"Everyone in the bullpen is throwing well," he said. "It's good to know that if you come in and you struggle, you have three or four guys that might come in the game after you that are all just dominating. It's a fun group to be a part of."
Gibbons wanted to keep Rogers — usually a reliever — around the 80-pitch mark so he turned to the bullpen after the fourth inning. Rogers had six strikeouts and the relievers added seven more.
"Everybody was fresh, everybody was basically on four days rest so they all needed to pitch," Gibbons said. "So they were definitely strong. That doesn't always work in your favour. Sometimes when you're too strong you're a little erratic but tonight that wasn't the case.
"But it was nice to watch, that's for sure."
Melky Cabrera hit a solo homer in the fourth inning and had three of Toronto's six hits. Cabrera and Munenori Kawasaki scored two runs apiece.
"We didn't get a lot of hits tonight but it was good fundamental baseball," Gibbons said. "Getting guys in, getting them over, that kind of thing. It was a well-played game."
The Blue Jays loaded the bases with nobody out in the sixth inning and Encarnacion drove a pitch from Rangers starter Nick Tepesch (3-5) into left-centre field to push two runs across. Toronto added two more runs in the frame on sacrifice flies by Adam Lind and J.P. Arencibia.
On top of the American League
Texas (36-24) entered play with the best record in the American League and started strong by opening the scoring in the first inning.
Jurickson Profar hit a one-out single up the middle and moved to second on a balk. A.J. Pierzynski lined out before Adrian Beltre lashed a single to centre field.
Outfielder Colby Rasmus hurried the throw home but it was well offline and Profar scored easily.
The Rangers stranded two runners in the fourth. Pierzynski singled to open the inning and moved to second on a David Murphy walk.
Rogers got Craig Gentry to ground out to Maicer Izturis at third base who stepped on the bag for the force out.
Tepesch retired the Jays in order the first time through the lineup. But Cabrera led off the bottom half of the fourth with a no-doubt solo shot just inside the foul pole in right field for his third homer of the season.
Loup was dominant after coming on in the fifth inning. Four of his five outs were strikeouts.
The Blue Jays added an insurance run in the seventh inning when Kawasaki scored on a single by Cabrera.
Rogers allowed three hits, one earned run and one walk. Brett Cecil worked the eighth and Steve Delabar pitched the ninth inning for Toronto.
"It kind of looked like a spring training game," said Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus. "We saw like five different pitchers and two of the guys were new faces. It's always going to be kind of hard to try to get a feeling or try to get comfortable when you haven't faced a guy."
Tepesch allowed five hits, six earned runs and two walks while striking out six.
Announced attendance was 36,010 and the game took two hours eight minutes to play.