My Sports

28 June 2017

Artificial Turf Blues Games 72-75: Shades of 2015

By // Sports

GAME 72
11-4 Loss at Texas
Season Record: 35-37

What can you say about a team that consistently loses games when they are favoured to win? What do you write about a team whose only serious winning stretch came when it was missing its most expensive players? How is it even possible to lose 9 consecutive games where you have a chance to reach the .500 mark? This Blue Jays team is impossible to define, difficult to like and, frankly, boring to watch. This team doesn’t do anything particularly well, except disappoint.

Rather than adding to this roster at the trading deadline in hopes of a playoff run, Blue Jays G.M. Ross Atkins should endeavour to trade pieces away. His team is too slow, is fundamentally unsound, relies too much on old players, lacks a true #1 starter, is unadaptable and lacks fight. Other than that, I really like their chances. Right now the notion of an extended run through the postseason is laughable. The problem with the notion of a late July roster purge is that the Jays’ ‘best’ players (other than Donaldson and Bautista) are signed to lucrative contracts that make them virtually untradeable (spellcheck doesn’t like that word, but spellcheck hasn’t seen Troy Tulowitzki’s contract details.)

COULDA, WOULDA, SHOULDA
(after each loss, three things that could have made a difference)

Already trailing 3-0, Marcus Stroman had a chance to keep the game within reach and escape the third inning unscathed after a nice play by third baseman Russell Martin to throw out Elvis Andrus at home plate. Stroman began that inning by walking Elvis Andrus on four straight pitches, (which is the baseball equivalent of splitting the atom), but recovered and had two outs with two runners on and an 0-2 count on Carlos Gomez before throwing a looping curve ball that Gomez thwacked against the left field foul pole to make it 6-0 and officially turn this game into a laugher. Stroman COULDA made better pitches in key situations several times today and the Rangers punished him for it each time that he failed to, with all three of the home runs he allowed coming with two strikes and the hitter behind in the count. As a result, Texas gets to be .500 in the standings now, for at least a day. The Blue Jays, however, continue to flail away ineffectively like a salmon flopping around on the deck of a fishing boat, the breath slowly but surely seeping out of their season.

The Jays had rallied for 4 runs in the top of the fifth inning, now trailing just by 3 with runners at first and third with two outs in the fifth inning and a real chance to alter the game’s trajectory. After working a 2-0 count, Troy Tulowitzki then hit (what else?) a weak ground ball to shortstop to end the momentum there. Toronto reliever Cesar Valdez then threw a tidy 1-2-3 bottom of the fifth and Kevin Pillar led off the sixth with a double down the right field line (sic), but Darwin Barney, Dwight Smith Jr. and Luke Maile left him right there, none of them able to even advance him 90 feet. If either Tulowitzki or one of those three guys WOULDA come up with a hit, the game becomes winnable. By again falling short in key situations with runners are in scoring position, the Blue Jays let the Rangers and their weak bullpen wiggle off the hook. (A lot of fish metaphors today for some reason. I’ll let you try to reason why.)

If Steve Pearce isn’t going on the DL after hitting his knee against the outfield wall last night, he SHOULDA been allowed to tough it out and be in the lineup today. The Blue Jays have been absolutely awful vs. left-handed pitching this season, were missing Josh Donaldson with a sore knee (gulp) and Pearce’s calling card for years has been his ability to hit southpaws. Dwight Smith Jr. shouldn’t be facing MLB lefties unless absolutely necessary and his weak throwing arm was evident when he couldn’t even reach the cutoff man from 85 feet away in left field, costing the Jays the game’s first run. It’s not like Pearce’s lack of mobility in left field would have made much difference anyway. If you saw the clown shoes he was wearing on the play he injured himself on in the first place, you know what I mean. As an outfielder, he’s a really nice guy.

NOTES FROM MY COUCH
At first blush it appeared that the Jays had caught a break this week by not having to face any of the Rangers’ four best starters in Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels, A.J. Griffin and Andrew Cashner during this series. Good thing they took advantage of it by beating up on those lesser pitchers, huh?

Didja notice that after Jose Bautista’s numb-skulled attempt to steal third base with two outs and the hottest hitter in the A.L. up in the third inning, the camera lingered on him longer than usual? It was as though even the director in the production truck had had enough and was like “What the fuck is he doing? Keep the camera on him! Let’s make him feel shame for a few seconds.” It’s actually an interesting motivational tactic. Maybe Atkins and Shapiro should work on a little side deal with the broadcast crew to embarrass guys after they make stupid moves by holding a tight shot of them for 15 seconds. No wide shots, no graphics, no music, no commentary, no unfunny Sportsnet commercials. Just 15 seconds of your egg-covered face filling the screen in absolute silence, so every sports fan in Canada can direct their venom at you on their TV screen without any distraction.

Blue Jays catchers Maile and Martin (known more for their 1970’s Vegas lounge act) have now caught just over 25% of attempted base stealers this season. The only guy they could throw out today was Mike Napoli, who is not exactly an ocelot, and it appeared that only happened because someone on Texas missed a sign. For perspective, the Oakland A’s today released Stephen Vogt, a catcher who’d been an All-Star the previous two seasons, who has had better or equal offensive numbers to both Jays catchers combined and had a career caught stealing percentage of 28%. Just sayin’.

It was almost a revelation to see Smith Jr. score from first on a double to right centre in the fifth inning. I had just assumed whoever it was would be held up at third base, because that’s what so often happens with Toronto’s team full of turtles, and yet Smith was able to reach home plate with relative ease to score the Jays’ first run today. It was a good reminder of how important speed is and also of how little of it the 2017 Blue Jays have.

GAME 73
5-4 Loss at Kansas City
Season Record: 35-38

There are losses that are just losses. Games where your team really didn’t deserve to win, were clearly outplayed and just knew it wasn’t your night. Over the course of 162 games those games are bound to happen and no team can avoid them entirely. They are a recurring part of every single season.

Then, there are games like tonight. Games like this one are also part of every team’s season, but they can often carry more of a residual effect on those seasons. Games like tonight’s can become watershed moments – games that when you look back in October at where the season went off the rails, they come to mind. Your team did a lot of good things, got pretty great starting pitching, fought for some late insurance runs, and then your manager screwed it all up.

Oh, and welcome to the big leagues, Ian Parmley. An overachieving seventh round pick from Liberty University, it doesn’t seem like you’ll get to be here very long, but congratulations nonetheless on making your dream come true. Speed and athleticism are your calling cards and in Toronto we don’t really care for those attributes.

COULDA, WOULDA, SHOULDA
(after each loss, three things that could have made a difference)

There was an article online last week written by Jonah Keri, whose writing I generally quite like and who possesses a bright, insightful and humorous baseball mind. The article posited that now might be the perfect time to trade Roberto Osuna. While I fully disagree, Keri’s rationale is cogent enough – Osuna is a proven young reliever who is still a few years away from free agency and there are a few playoff-hopeful teams desperate enough for a closer that might be willing to surrender a number of top prospects in return for him. Games like tonight prove just how wrong-headed that logic is. Whichever role he is used in, Roberto Osuna is an elite level, established MLB pitcher who is only 22 years old. Those don’t grow on trees – in fact, they are almost unicorns. There is almost zero chance that any of the player(s) the Blue Jays would receive in a trade who will be as good as Osuna at any point in their careers, and certainly not right away. It would be miraculous if those three prospects became as valuable in total as Osuna, and that still weakens the Blue Jays soup, rather than thickening it. Nothing is as overrated in modern baseball as prospects that teams are willing to part with. There is a sub sect of baseball pundits who want to reduce baseball down to a series of numbers and boldly, coldly trumpet that pitching in the ninth inning of a game is just the same as pitching in any other. Tonight’s game COULDA served as Exhibit A of how bloodlessly wrongheaded that notion is. As though an overtime penalty kill is the same for an NHL goalie or a fourth quarter drive is just the same for a quarterback when he’s down by six points and two minutes remain. Numbers cannot tell the story of how things fell apart tonight or of just how valuable a pitcher like Osuna is.

I was going to dissect Kevin Pillar’s terrible at-bat in the eighth inning with one out, but I feel like that’s just kicking a guy when he’s dead. So, in fairness, AFB’s man crush Josh Donaldson was retired to end the first, third, fifth and seventh innings tonight, striking out swinging three times before finally hitting an opposite field RBI single in the ninth inning to salvage his night at the office. It is absolutely unfair how high our expectations for Donaldson are, but if he WOULDA been able to come up with a hit a few key situations tonight before the ninth inning, the Jays likely don’t find themselves in the ‘tight’ position they were in. For an unheralded rookie pitcher like Jake Junis to nullify Donaldson so definitively four consecutive times was an unlikely sight and certainly a major factor in the game’s outcome.

John Gibbons SHOULDA done almost everything differently from what he actually did in the eighth and ninth innings tonight. With Osuna mysteriously unavailable tonight (hopefully not for long) and Joe Smith on the Disabled List, Gibbons turned to Ryan Tepera to finish this game off in the ninth inning. Armed with a 4-1 lead and having pitched well for most of this season, he was certainly a defensible choice. Except that Gibbons brought him in with two outs in the eighth inning, replacing fellow righty Danny Barnes, who’d thrown just 18 pitches. From there it went to Hell. Tepera struck out Lorenzo Cain to end the eighth, but in the ninth the Royals hitters battled Tepera hard, forcing his pitch count over 30 because he’d been prematurely called into the game. With runners at the corners, two out and lefty Alex Gordon due up, Gibbons was forced to summon Aaron Loup to get the third out. As I wrote very recently (like, yesterday), despite being left-handed Loup is actually much batter against righties than lefties (.220 BA vs. .333) and clearly should not be used as a specialist against fellow lefties. In fact, he should be doing the opposite. Almost comically predictably, Loup surrendered a first pitch single to Gordon to put runners at the corners again and reduce the Jays’ lead to just one. Then, instead of leaving Loup in to face righty Whit Merrifield (who name sounds like something from the St. Louis Browns roster in 1911), Gibbons summoned Jason Grilli. Yes, that Jason Grilli, who began by throwing Merrifield four consecutive awful pitches, managing to get him to chase just one, before being forced to groove a 3-1 pitch that was stroked over Dwight Smith Jr.’s head in left field for the game-winning two run double. Gibbons panicked three times in just over an inning, pulling Barnes, Tepera and Loup prematurely, for the wrong reasons and for the wrong replacement, costing his short-handed team a game they could easily have had. And God help Gibbons if he has a close scoring game late tomorrow afternoon, because he probably won’t have an overused Tepera available then.

NOTES FROM MY COUCH

Maybe instead of ever reaching .500, the Blue Jays’ role this season will be to play just badly enough to allow other teams to get there instead. That seems pretty Canadian and polite. Tonight the Royals won their 10th of their last 12 games, reinvigorating their season. Playing in the weak American League Central, K.C. can now realistically consider themselves playoff relevant again at this point.

Watching Kevin Pillar struggle mightily and the Jays being forced to start Parmley and Smith in the outfield corners in the same game makes it clear how unfortunate the timing of Dalton Pompey’s injury-riddled 2017 is. His switch-hitting, speed and defence would have been upgrades over any of those players and would have almost by necessity given him the chance to solidify himself in the Major Leagues without having to worry about getting in the lineup every day. It really is a shame because the Mississauga native’s skill set would have been a welcome tonic on the Blue Jays, too, even without their rash of injuries.

GAME 74
3-2 Loss at Kansas City
Season Record: 35-39

And the hits just keep on comin’.

After I spent yesterday’s column praising how preternaturally unflappable and tough Roberto Osuna is for such a young man, it turns out he’s not bulletproof after all. Anxiety disorder is something I know about all too well and there’s nothing more to say about it here except that I’m sure I can speak for everyone who is a Blue Jays fan by telling him we support him 100% and that we’re proud of him for coming clean about it so that he can get himself some help. Osuna’s surprising revelation yesterday that he is struggling with anxiety is a good reminder that there are plenty of things more important than a pennant race that your team is promptly fading out of.

In 2015 the Kansas City Royals defeated Toronto in 6 games to win the American League Championship Series, advancing to and winning the World Series that year. No one will ever convince me that K.C. was more talented or a better team than Toronto, but they were more versatile and could win games in more ways than the Blue Jays could and that was ultimately the difference. The Royals also played those 6 games as close to perfectly as possible. The Blue Jays made about 8 or 10 mistakes of varying degrees in the series and they were the difference maker.

Good to know that the same tradition is continuing this season, too.

COULDA, WOULDA, SHOULDA
(after each loss, three things that could have made a difference)

Royals shortstop Alicedes Escobar had three of the Royals’ five hits tonight, two of them being huge keys in Kansas City scoring runs. If Marco Estrada had had any luck tonight, all three of them probably COULDA (and maybe even SHOULDA) been outs. In the 3rd inning his deep, parabolic fly ball to right centre field was a pretty routine catch for either Kevin Pillar or Jose Bautista, but unfortunately those two had a Canadian politeness contest and couldn’t decide which one should do it. It should have been the first out of the inning, but instead fell between them for a leadoff triple, leading to his team’s first run. In the 5th, he stuck his bat out and blooped a single about 110 feet, just over Darwin Barney’s head and into to centre field, but was stranded that inning. Then, in the 7th he stroked another softly hit flare to left field, which Steve Pearce valiantly dove for, but missed. Escobar would score the game-winning run two pitches later on Alex Gordon’s triple. Estrada pitched him well all three times, induced weak fly balls from him all three times and yet Escobar was the #1 reason the Royals won this afternoon. When this game isn’t going your way, it really has no mercy.

This game WOULDA turned out differently if I had been allowed in the Blue Jays’ dugout for today’s game. If I had been there, I would have been there in the fifth inning when, after Pillar and Barney hit leadoff singles, John Gibbons started to signal for catcher Luke Maile to attempt to sacrifice bunt them into scoring position. Had I been there, I would have been able to knock Gibbons unconscious with the Gatorade jug before he could finish doing it, preserving the inning for Toronto. I assure you I’m aware that Maile is not exactly Joe DiMaggio at the plate, but he has had better plate appearances in the last month and has shown an ability to hit the ball the other way especially while soft-tossing lefty Kansas City starter Jason Vargas was starting to look vulnerable. Instead, Maile was again asked to bunt when he clearly cannot do so. He popped the ball up to catcher Sal Perez and was an easy, unproductive first out of the inning, giving the Royals a map to the escape route in the inning just as outs were starting to look tough to come by.

In close games like these last two, the team that makes the least mistakes wins. The Blue Jays allowed K.C. just 5 hits (and it really should have been less than that) but the Royals made every one of them count. The Blue Jays had 9 hits and made just 2 of them count. Two solo home runs (by Pillar and Troy Tulowitzki!!) and that was it. A failed bunt attempt, two double plays ground into, no hits with runners in scoring position and a partridge in a pear tree. The Blue Jays SHOULDA done themselves a favour by re-watching footage from the 2015 ALCS and remembering that that way of playing doesn’t yield good results, especially vs. Kansas City at home, a team that runs the bases better, plays better defence, moves runners better because they hit the other way better…you get the idea. Even though both teams struggled in April, the Royals now have a much better record than the Jays, too. Perhaps the thing that bums me out the most about it is that their malleability and detail makes them a much more enjoyable brand of baseball to watch.

GAME 75
8-2 Win at Kansas City
Season Record: 36-39

Now that the MLB Draft has wound down, next week I’ll begin a list of the 10 Best and 10 Worst Draft Picks in Toronto Blue Jays history. That will require a lot of research and some preplanning, so today’s entry will be brief.

While obviously a win in the final game of a series is preferable to being swept, it still should give the Blue Jays and their fans some pause that the one win in three games ratio vs. Kansas City and their brand of baseball is still continuing. Today, the Blue Jays got a few breaks, hit a few the other way, hit a home run and won easily. The two previous, low-scoring games that required more detail-oriented skill(s) to win, they lost. Toronto remains an appalling 3-16 in games where they don’t hit a home run. With news seeping out that Devon Travis and his foul pole-to-foul pole hitting approach might be out for the rest of this season, this brutish, glacial style of baseball isn’t going to go away any time soon. I’m no mathematician but I’m fairly certain that winning one out of three against more the American League’s more dynamic teams won’t make up a lot of ground, even though they are still just 5 games out of first place in the A.L. East with 90 games still left to play.

BASKING IN THE GLORY
(after each win, three things that might have been the difference)

A BIG MOMENT It was heartening in the ninth inning to see that Roberto Osuna felt he could get out there and get after it, just two days after admitting he’d felt anxious enough to not be able to go into the game. He struck out the side, by the way, and afterwards even engaged in his silly “knock knock”/dabbing routine with catcher Russell Martin afterwards. It made me smile and almost made me a bit weepy to see his teammates and coaches take special care afterwards to hug him, shake his hand and look him in the eye to encourage him. Being a part of a team and feeling like you’re a vital part of that team really helps when you’re an anxious person. Those exact feelings are probably why I stayed in repertory theatre as long as I did. You feel the support of your fellow players and every day for most of the year and you attempt to achieve things collectively, rather than trying to do everything on your own. You find our what your role on the ‘team’ is and fulfill it, you are depended upon and you learn to count on and trust others. The theatre, though ironically often filled with folks who didn’t play a lot of sports and chose the stage as a refuge from athletics in high school, is the closest thing to team sports I had in my life after high school was over. I only found my way once I realized I was a misfit, at home among all the other fellow misfits. I was proud of Osuna and his fellow misfits for their guts and generous spirits today. This team hasn’t been easy to like but today tipped the scales back in their favour somewhat. If they can rally around that young man as a source of inspiration, even better.

A BIG PLAY By the time Jose Bautista came to the plate with Ryan Goins on first base and none out in the fifth inning, the Blue Jays had already gone 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position. A pervasive feeling of fruitlessness was beginning to seep into this game and series. Bautista worked the count to 3-0 and John Gibbons gave him the green light to swing away if he got a pitch he liked. Jason Hammell threw a ‘get me over’ fastball and Jose absolutely clobbered it. His 450 foot shot into the area beside the fountain in left-centre field tied the game and changed the tenor of the afternoon. After that, the Blue Jays caught a few breaks, found a few holes and emerged with an unexpectedly easy win.

…AND A LITTLE THING In the Royals’ eighth inning, Lorenzo Cain was at second base with two outs when Eric Hosmer hit a wounded duck directly over second base that fell safely for what looked like an easy RBI to make the score a bit closer. Instead of running hard all the way home, Cain jogged in to score when he realized that there would be no play at the plate. At the same time, Hosmer was racing full out towards second base at the same time, attempting a stretch double, but was thrown out before Cain had touched home plate, meaning that the inning ended and Cain’s run did not count. Cain will likely be pilloried by old white dudes like Gregg Zaun for not hustling and he certainly deserves a share of the blame, but Hosmer (everyone’s favourite overrated first baseman) should get lambasted too, though I suspect he won’t hear about it as much. With his team down 6 runs with just 4 outs left to play with, he has absolutely no justification for getting thrown out on that play to prematurely end the inning vs. Toronto’s exhausted bullpen. Hosmer’s dirty uniform will make his play appear like hustle, but in my opinion it was at least as boneheaded as Cain’s clean-uniformed jog.

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