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LONGLEY

All-star Smoak leads Blue Jays to triumph over Red Sox

By Rob Longley, Toronto Sun

Toronto Blue Jays' Justin Smoak is congratulated by Kendrys Morales after his solo home run during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on July 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Toronto Blue Jays' Justin Smoak is congratulated by Kendrys Morales after his solo home run during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on July 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

BOSTON — Early in a steamy matinee, the gloom hung around the Blue Jays as thick as the humidity at historic Fenway Park.

And then the Smoak show really turned up the heat.

Another terrific day at the plate from Blue Jays all star first baseman Justin Smoak helped salvage a game and a series on a road trip that was careening towards disaster.

Two home runs and another RBI single by Smoak helped the Jays overcome an early 3-1 deficit and race to an 8-6 win over the AL East leading Red Sox and thus earn a 2-2 split in the four-game Fenway affair.

“It’s exciting,” Jays reliever Dominic Leone said of Smoak’s sizzling season. “He’s clearly hot, he’s seeing (the ball) well. It’s always good for us to have a guy that’s really swinging it and produce runs at any point. Any time he comes up he’s a threat

“We have a ton of those guys in the lineup. We’ve got to get them rolling and hopefully they follow Smoak’s footsteps.”

While not necessarily meant as a challenge by Leone, the pitcher had a point.

The Jays offence is a mere minnow compared to what it once was — especially when it comes to power — and if the team is going to a launch a meaningful winning streak, it will need the bats of Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista to boom once again.

Smoak is the lone semblance of consistency in a weak Toronto order, one that has been held to measly one run or less 15 times already in July. Entering Thursday’s game, the Jays had a shockingly bad run differential of minus 74, tied with Oakland for the worst in the American League.

But switch-hitting Smoak continues to be the outlier in that offence. He hit one shot over the wall in right field and another over the Green Monster in left, once again showing his tremendous versatility. Home runs 25 and 26 continued his personal best season in that category and three RBI gave him 62 setting another personal best.

“It’s just one more good (day) in the season,” Smoak said. “I’m just going to try to keep my head down and keep going.”

It was the sixth multi-homer game of Smoak’s career and the second of the season, the only Jays hitter who can make that latter claim. His 20 multi-RBI games rank Smoak second in the AL in that category and on Thursday, the outburst couldn’t have came at a more crucial time for a reeling Jays team.

Trailing 3-1 early on after a sketchy start from Francisco Liriano, the Jays were in danger of losing three of four to the Red Sox and falling 11 games behind the AL East leaders.

Even after assuming a 7-3 lead in the sixth, the Jays couldn’t stand that rare bit of good fortune. A Dustin Pedroia three-run homer off of Danny Barnes in the seventh made it a ball game.

The leadoff homer by Smoak in the ninth was a big one then, giving some breathing room for closer Roberto Osuna, who had a 1-2-3 inning for his 24th save of the season.

“That was a big, big game it really was,” said Gibbons, who was clearly worn down from tough defeats the previous two nights. “Any time the starter comes out earlier, it’s going to turn the game and everyone’s going to have to pitch.

“It didn’t start out really good, but the bullpen stepped up.”

ARM IN ARMS

The less said about Liriano’s dodgy effort the better, but there has to be serious concern about the state of the Jays starting rotation right now.

Liriano had thrown 54 pitches and given up three runs (two earned) and wasn’t even out of the second inning before Gibbons went to Leone.

Liriano, who left a game in Detroit with neck pain earlier this weekend said he felt fine physically, but his season-long struggles continued.

“I thought he looked good in the first inning then he struggled,” Gibbons said. “We need innings out of him.”

That they do.

The Jays aren’t going to move themselves into any realistic playoff discussion until they start getting some series wins. And what unfolds with the starting rotation remains a big concern.

Liriano, who exited a weekend start against Detroit with neck pain on the weekend, pronounced himself fit to go against theSox, but once again struggled. The effort came on the heels of the five he allowed in two innings in that 11-1 loss in Detroit.

Obviously, there remains concern for Aaron Sanchez who left Wednesday night’s game with a recurrence of the blister on the middle finger of his throwing hand. Though the Jays feel they caught the problem in time to avoid serious damage - Sanchez was pulled after four innings - it isn’t known whether he will be able to make his next scheduled start against the Angels next week in Toronto.

After the game, Gibbons said Sanchez will be further evaluated after he plays catch on Friday in Cleveland.

And then there is Marco Estrada who will attempt to reverse his struggles in the series opener against the Indians.

The offensive struggles are one thing, but if the Jays can’t string together a series of solid starts, there will be no making up ground.

GAME ON

It didn’t hurt their efforts on Thursday that the Jays found a starter equally out of touch with his command in the Red Sox’ Doug Fister who threw 100 pitches in his 4.1 innings of work and facilitated the Toronto comeback … Remember the Jays got a break that they even had the opportunity to face Fister. Thursday was the scheduled next start for Sox ace Chris Sale. Fister allowed seven hits, four walks and six earned runs and is headed to the Boston bullpen … Despite the slow start from Liriano, the Jays actually took a 1-0 lead in the first on a Josh Donaldson RBI double. Though the Jays third baseman hasn’t been hitting for power lately, he has driven in seven in his past nine … It was, however, Donaldson’s first RBI vs. an AL east opponent since June 4 … Leone was credited with the win, improving to 2-0 and his ERA has been lowered to a tidy 2.68.

rlongley@postmedia.com