Blue Jays: Brandon Belt (finally) turns a corner against the Yankees, hits his first home run

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees
Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees / Elsa/GettyImages

The two-run homer that put the Blue Jays up 4-1 in the sixth inning Friday night in the Bronx helped silence the Yankee faithful, gave starter Yusei Kikuchi some breathing room, and was a massive weight off the shoulders of the man who hit it.

For the first three weeks of the season, the Blue Jays had been waiting to see the Brandon Belt that they saw blossom into an All-Star and World Series champion in San Francisco. What they got instead was a 35-year-old coming off knee surgery, who barely played in Spring Training and looked every bit like it in his first games in a Blue Jays uniform.

Belt started his Blue Jays career 1-for-23 with 15 strikeouts. He went 19 consecutive at-bats without a base hit and had been just 2-for-12 over his last four games. He had one RBI in 11 games. Then he stepped to the plate to face Yankees right-hander Domingo Germán in the sixth inning, the Blue Jays tenuously hanging on to a one-run lead in the first of a three-game series at Yankee Stadium.

Germán threw Belt a 92mph fastball on the first pitch of the at-bat. Belt sent it 416 feet into the New York night, watching as it landed in the bullpen just out of the reach of center fielder Isiah Kiner-Falefa. It was his first homer as a Blue Jay and snapped a 37-game drought dating back to last July, his longest in more than a decade.

Belt wasn’t done there. Two innings later, he hit a 97mph heater from reliever Albert Abreu that Aaron Judge, despite his 6-foot-7 frame, couldn’t jump up and grab. Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. came in to score to cement a 6-1 Blue Jays victory, while Belt ran to second base for a double. It marked his first game with two extra-base hits since Sept. 25, 2021, a span of 87 consecutive games that was the longest of his 12-year career.

Belt finished the game 2-for-4, raising his average on the season to .186. He drove in four runs. And he evoked images, not of the struggling, aging slugger it appeared he had become, but of the player who was one of the best hitters in the game just a few short years ago.

In 2021, Belt hit a career-high 29 home runs in only 97 games. His home run rate would’ve led the league over a full season, while his OPS would’ve ranked fifth. From 2020-21, he had a higher OPS than Judge, Freddie Freeman, Shohei Ohtani, and even Guerrero. He did it while playing in the cavernous Oracle Park along San Francisco Bay, the third-hardest ballpark to hit homers last season.

As the 2022 season progressed, though, Belt began to develop a problem. He battled inflammation in his right knee that pestered him all season. He tried to have it drained and play through the discomfort, but, finally, on Sept. 3 he decided to have season-ending surgery.

Belt signed a one-year, $9.3M deal with the Blue Jays in January, insisting that his knee problems wouldn’t persist into 2023. But the powerful swing that had served him so well in 2021 was gone. His strikeout percentage ballooned to above 44 percent; it had never been above 27 percent in his other 12 seasons in the big leagues. He was swinging at 33 percent of pitches outside the zone, the highest rate of his career. His contact rate was the lowest of his career.

Belt had gone through slumps before; every major leaguer has. But this was different. It seemed like time and age had finally caught up to him. Belt tried to make things happen on the field like he used to, but the production just wasn’t there.

"You go through slumps in baseball. It’s part of it," Belt said on Mike Wilner's podcast earlier this week. "I think part of it was just me going outside of my zone trying to make something happen. I wasn’t getting a whole lot of pitches to swing at, so I tried to force the issue and put myself in a bad spot."

Then came Friday night in the Bronx, when Belt began to look like the player Giants fans got to see for all those years. It came at a good time as the Blue Jays played a team they’ll battle in the AL East for the rest of the season. Blue Jays designated hitters came into the game ranking 22nd in the league in OPS; if Belt has indeed found his power again, the Blue Jays lineup just got a lot more balanced and dangerous.

It was just one game, but for a struggling Belt, it’s what he needed to serve as a turning point in what had been a disastrous start to his Blue Jays career. The first 11 games are over with; Belt is looking to start over with the Blue Jays, and it began on Friday.

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