Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo could tell Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was locked in at the plate as he powered balls out of the park during batting practice Tuesday afternoon. But the Toronto Blue Jays slugger wasn’t satisfied, not with the way he reached for the baseball and pulled the ball.
“He said, ‘No, I’ve got to get back to hitting the ball up the middle,’” Montoyo recalled Guerrero Jr. saying after that hitting session. So when Guerrero Jr. stepped into the box for his second at-bat against Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer and saw the slider left hanging, Guerrero Jr. corrected his earlier habit.
“He hit it up the middle, but out of the ballpark,” Montoyo said. “That was fun. That was a show.”
That swing sent the ball 415 feet, well past the left-center fence, an early grand slam to begin what Guerrero Jr. described as the best game of his career. Guerrero Jr. became the youngest player since 1901 to have three homers and seven RBIs in a game.
With that performance, Guerrero Jr. simultaneously built his own reputation while linking himself with his father, Vladimir Guerrero Sr., even more closely.
“Vladimir was unbelievable,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “I’ve seen this guy hit balls from down on the ground to up over his head. He had unbelievable quick hands. Looking at Vladdy, he has a good eye. He doesn’t chase as much as did Sr. so that’s one big difference I’ve noticed already. He’s up there and he swings at strikes.”
Guerrero Sr. spent much of his Hall of Fame career with the Montreal Expos before departing ahead of that team’s move to Washington. As his career wound down, Guerrero Sr. faced a 24-year-old Scherzer while playing for the Texas Rangers in 2010. He launched a home run off Scherzer in that contest.
The next year, Guerrero Sr. met Scherzer again, this time when the nine-time All-Star played for the Baltimore Orioles. He again took Scherzer deep.
That adds depth to what Guerrero Jr. did against Scherzer on Tuesday, with a grand slam and solo shot off Scherzer — making the right-hander just the second pitcher in MLB history to allow a homer to both Guerrero Sr. and Jr.
Those long balls added to Washington’s woes. Tuesday’s loss — the first game of a two-game series played in Dunedin, Florida, due to Canada’s coronavirus restrictions — kept the Nationals in last place in the National League East.
And while Washington hit four home runs in the contest, much of the lineup has struggled. Josh Bell entered Wednesday hitting .109, and Kyle Schwarber is batting around the Mendoza Line. Those new additions haven’t found their stride yet.
Guerrero Jr., meanwhile, has started the 2021 season at a blistering pace, hitting well above .300. His three homers Tuesday gave him seven in his first 22 games, establishing himself alongside Ronald Acuna Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr. and Juan Soto as one of the premier young players in the game.
“I feel like all of his at-bats tonight were really, really incredible, really, really special,” Washington first baseman Josh Bell said. “We saw [Mets starter Jacob] deGrom work last week, and that was something else. And we saw it here again, just a franchise superstar at work. It’s fun to watch.”
At the end of last season, during which Guerrero Jr. hit .262 with nine home runs in 60 games, Montoyo met with the 22-year-old to discuss his goals. Guerrero Jr. wanted to get in better shape and hit the ball to all fields.
So he lost 42 pounds over the offseason. And as for his hitting, the proof comes every batting practice, as he works to knock the ball all over the park. That’s why Guerrero Jr. wasn’t satisfied with his batting practice display ahead of Tuesday’s game: he pulled the ball too much.
Guerrero Jr. corrected that when it mattered, though. His first homer went to left-center field. His second off Scherzer flew to straightaway center. And his final longball, a two-run shot off reliever Kyle Finnegan, sailed to right field.
Each home run counts the same, but there was something extra special about Tuesday night’s showcase. He showed his ability at the plate, spraying balls every which way. And with his two homers off Scherzer, Guerrero Jr. mirrored what his father once accomplished.
“All this feels great,” Guerrero Jr. said in Spanish through a team interpreter. “I’m feeling very blessed right now. I mean, hitting two homers against a legend like that, it’s unbelievable what I’m feeling right now.”