My Sports

04 May 2017

Artificial Turf Blues Games 25-28: 2 Up, 2 Down

By // Sports

GAME 25
3-1 Win vs. Tampa Bay
Season Record: 8-17

In approximately 280 B.C.E., just before the Blue Jays won their most recent World Series, the Egyptian King Pyrrhus defeated the Roman army at Asculum, but so many of his troops were killed that he was unable to achieve his ultimate goal of attacking Rome itself. After the victory he was said to have remarked “one more such victory and we are lost”.   The term ‘a pyrrhic victory’ is now attributed to him in reference to this battle and applied to situations where the cost of winning a battle or a game or a contest was so great that the winners question whether it was worth the cost. Today, Blue Jays ace Aaron Sanchez made his first start since April 14 after having a small surgery to remove part of a fingernail that was causing a blister every time he pitched. He left today’s game after pitching one inning with, you guessed it, a fingernail issue. Despite re-losing their best pitcher and facing dominant Rays starter Chris Archer today, the Blue Jays still managed to come back and win the game by scoring three runs in the eighth inning. Rumour has it that the pitcher Toronto will call up from AA to replace Sanchez in the rotation is a gritty young lefty named Monty Pyrrhus.

In spite of their first series win and first back-to-back wins of the season, very little feels positive about this game because of the situation with Sanchez. Having him replace Casey Lawrence in the rotation going forward would be about as large a boost as an MLB team could hope for by exchanging just one player for another. For a squad still trying to convince itself that their worst days are behind them, not being able to make that exchange any time soon is crippling. Because he returned today, albeit briefly, if he requires a stint on the Disabled List (and he likely will), that means the Jays lose him for at least two more starts again. The longer the Blue Jays are forced to bring butter knives to a gun fight and the longer the odds become for them. Stringing wins (pyrrhic or, y’know…just regular) together in May just got a lot tougher.

BASKING IN THE GLORY
(after each win, three things that made the difference)

A BIG MOMENT(S)- When Sanchez didn’t come back out for the second inning after re-injuring his fingernail, you could actually see this season riding out of town, blowing the Blue Jays kisses from a runaway train. Unheralded reliever Ryan Tepera, called upon to give some crucial innings for the Jays in the worst possible situation, was dynamite today. He threw 3 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing just one hit and striking out five and was followed by the equally unheralded Aaron Loup, who didn’t allow a run in his 2 innings, either. They kept Toronto in the game, matching Archer for most of the game and allowing the Jays to steal this one late. Folks who loathe the “Pitcher Win” statistic will (rightly) cite this game as a perfect example why. Reliever J.P. Howell, who retired just one batter and threw the fewest innings of any of Toronto’s seven pitchers today, was awarded the win because of when he pitched today, rather than how he pitched.   Despite what the box score decision says, Tepera was the game’s unexpected MVP and Loup was an equally surprising runner-up.

A BIG PLAY-  With the game tied 1-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning and Jose Bautista at second base, Justin Smoak struck out swinging for the second out and Tampa’s ace reliever Alex Colome looked to be shutting down the Jays’ mini-rally. Russell Martin then climbed all over the first pitch he saw, slicing a single down the right field line that was fair by a fingernail (sorry…too soon). Fair by the length of a calf muscle (oops). Fair by the width of an inflamed elbow (d’oh). Anyway, Martin’s aggressiveness surprised Colome in that situation and the Jays took their first lead of the game when it just stayed fair.

AND A LITTLE THING- Archer was terrific again today, but issuing a five pitch walk to the Jays’ #9 hitter Darwin Barney to begin the eighth inning was a costly error. Barney then advanced to second on a hit and run and scored the tying run on a double by Jose Bautista. From a distance, Archer’s pitching line today looks strong (7.1 innings, 4 hits, 5 strikeouts) but walking a light hitter to start an inning late in a close game is a blemish that looks uglier the closer you look at it. Today the Blue Jays were actually able to squeeze that blemish and make it bleed a little. Interestingly, Jays reliever Joe Smith began the top of the eighth by walking Tampa’s #6 hitter, who then came around, scoring the game’s first run. Maybe Toronto won today’s game because their pitcher had the slightly less ugly blemish.

A NOTE FROM MY COUCH

I loved the way Archer ‘avenged’ Souza getting hit in the hand by a pitch yesterday. In the bottom of the first, he threw the first pitch to Bautista behind his back and to the backstop. Archer, one of the smarter athletes you’ll find, knows very well that Joe Biagini did not deliberately hit Souza yesterday – a four seam fastball just got away from him and ran in on his hands. Archer also knows that, in spite of that, his team is still without one of its better hitters today because of Biagini’s mistake. His statement pitch let every Jays pitcher know that Tampa wasn’t happy about losing Souza (even if it was just for a game or two) and sent a clear message that more “accidents” would not be tolerated. He knew that deliberately hitting Bautista and possibly hurting him would have been an outsized response and even Bautista (currently frustrated and famously hot-tempered) knew what Archer did was the right thing, too. No tempers flared, no benches emptied. The umpire issued a warning and it was all over.   It was exactly the right way to deal with things and the fact that it was done by someone as smart, competitive and sensible as Archer comes as no surprise.

GAME 26
7-1 Win at NY Yankees
Season Record: 9-17

For over 20 years, I have been involved in the same baseball pool. I sort of started it, and I believe the only two members of the pool who have been there since the beginning are myself and my father. The rest of the group of 12 has evolved over the years (though we’ve been pretty consistent the last 5 or 6) and many of the guys have now been in it for a decade or so at least. It’s a good group of guys and the only unchangeable rule is that the draft is always done in person (not online), affording us the certainty of getting to all hang out together and talk some shit at least once a year, which is the biggest allure of fantasy sports as far as I can tell. A few years back we named the pool after my late maternal grandfather Harv, who was also a charter member before he passed away in 2003.

Soon after the fun of draft night’s beer-soaked sausage party winds down, though, inevitably fantasy baseball’s biggest dilemma rears its ugly head : what is the best-case scenario to hope for when your favourite MLB team is facing off against one of your fantasy team’s starting pitchers? It’s different from fantasy football. With your starting QB making only 13 or 14 starts in an NFL season before fantasy playoffs, you can’t be sure whether you’d like your real team to shut down your fantasy QB or not, because each game is so important to both of ‘your’ teams. (God, it’s all so nerdy – ‘fantasy sports’ is kind of the perfect name for it. We all might as well be LARPing.) In fantasy baseball, however, your starting pitchers will make as many as 32-34 starts in a season. With that in mind, I believe the proper etiquette is to hope that your fantasy pitcher has a good, but not great day (say, a quality start of 6 or 7 innings with just as many strikeouts), but loses a tough-luck decision to your ‘real’ team by a score of 3-2. It’s really the only decent thing to do.

The dilemma was in full effect for me tonight. Yankees starter Luis Severino is lucky enough to be a member of my fantasy team. The fact that I’m counting on such a young, unpredictable pitcher may explain why I’m currently solidly entrenched in seventh place in our pool, but that’s a different story for a different article. My fantasy team is in sixth or seventh. My real MLB team is in 31st place in a 30 team league. The Blue Jays need wins. It was pretty clear where my allegiance should lie tonight. Severino didn’t help my fake team much at all tonight, allowing 5 earned runs in less than 6 innings and striking out just 3 batters. I can’t be too upset, though, because my real team has finally won three in a row. No, really.

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

A BIG PLAY- With runners at second and third and none out in the sixth, Ryan Goins (whose booming two-run home run had put the Jays ahead earlier) launched a long fly ball to dead centre field. Jacoby Ellsbury made a terrific running catch as he banged up against the wall. After falling down half-dazed he threw the ball to right fielder Aaron Judge to be relayed to the infield. Somehow he overthrew Judge, who is approximately 11 feet tall and Devon Travis was able to score from second as Goins registered a very rare two RBI sacrifice fly to put Toronto ahead 4-1.

A BIG MOMENT- In the bottom of the sixth, the Yankees had two runners on base and one out after Jacoby Ellsbury’s bat was interfered with by the catcher for the 1,100th time in his career. Estrada, who had left a few pitches up during the game (he’d allowed 7 hits in the first 5+ innings) was forced to face hot-hitting rookie Judge, who has already launched 10 mammoth home runs this young season despite spending half of his time planning the destruction of Gotham City as his alter-ego, Bain. Estrada, looking barely Robin-sized in comparison to Judge, was able to foil his arch nemesis by calmly retiring him and Greg “The Penguin” Bird with harmless fly balls and keep the lead comfortable for the Blue Jays. Estrada’s unflappability through seven innings was vital tonight for a fragile team that still feels like every bad break is going to come back and bite them.

AND A LITTLE THING- Jose Bautista gave the Blue Jays their first comfortable win of the season when he hit a two run home run to left centre field in the 7th inning, putting Toronto up 7-1. The two runs it scored were just piling on, but more importantly it was the first really hard-hit ball I’ve seen him have against a fastball this season. He has been late on hard stuff so far and it was comforting to see him hit a rocket (approximately 430 feet, 110 mph exit velocity), maybe showing signs that he can still get to them. Four or five years ago he was the best fastball hitter I’d seen since Barry Bonds. Those days are over, but perhaps he’ll still be able to use his excellent plate discipline, force pitchers into fastball situations, and then punish them when the time is right to remain at least somewhat of a long ball threat. This team needs that threat to compete.

NOTES FROM MY COUCH

Goins had several very good at-bats today and is going to give the Jays a surprising dilemma when Troy Tulowitzki returns. When he arrived in Toronto, Tulowitzki’s steady defence was a great relief to Jays fans after a season and a half of watching Jose Reyes butcher the position of ‘shortstop’. However, Goins makes all the steady plays and some spectacular ones that Tulowitzki cannot. In a zero sum game with a pitching staff that doesn’t strike a lot of batters out, elite defence (and at least a decent bat) is going to be hard to take out of the lineup.

With the Jays only up one run in the fifth inning, none out and runners on first and second, noted fantasy team superstar Luis Severino was floundering on the mound for the Yankees. Toronto manager John Gibbons had Ezequiel Carrera sacrifice bunt to advance the runners with Jose Bautista and Kendrys Morales due up. Carrera is currently on a 10 (now 11) game hitting streak and having him give himself up for the struggling 3 and 4 hitters was curious. I’m not anti-bunt in close, late-inning situations, but this was not one of them. Carrera shouldn’t be forced to give up at-bats when he’s swinging well just because he’s the only Blue Jay who actually knows how to lay down a bunt. In the fifth inning you should still be looking to put up crooked numbers, not scratch one run across (which they then failed to do anyway).

Even in a blowout game where he hit a booming home run, Bautista still couldn’t quite finish the game without getting some red ink on his test paper. At this point, the chances of watching a Blue Jays game without seeing a dumb base running mistake are equal to the chances of going to a Cisco concert and not hearing “The Thong Song” – you know it’s coming, you just don’t know when. Tonight it was their encore. On a Morales single to right in the ninth inning, Bautista inexplicably tried to advance from first base to third and was thrown out on a laser beam throw by Bain to end the inning. Everyone who played baseball at any level knows you should never make the third out of an inning trying to get to third base. Why Bautista would extend himself and risk injury on a head first slide to reach third while up six runs in the ninth inning is puzzling and is why he only scores a B+ for today’s game. If this continues I may need to call his parents in for a chat.

GAME 27
11-5 Loss at NYYankees
Season Record: 9-18

In just three appearances, Mat Latos is very quickly becoming one of my least favourite players in Blue Jays history. I don’t like his body language, I don’t like his surly face and I don’t the way he gesticulates at umpires about calls he didn’t get. Those ‘sleeve’ tattoos won’t help him impress anyone at a job interview, either, you whippersnapper!! The fact that he absolutely stunk tonight has nothing to do with how I feel (it has everything to do with it – Ed.). Performance does not matter in my assessment of whether I like you as a player or not. (Yes it does – Ed.) I’m on to something here, though Mr. Editor – there is no way any halfway decent pitcher should already be playing for his eighth MLB team before his 30th birthday. If you’re a semi-competent starting pitcher and you’ve already moved around that much, it’s likely because you’re a bit of a dink. (Salient point there, Mike -Ed.)

Below is the list of my five least favourite Blue Jays players that Latos is currently on the verge of cracking, along with a short, fairly unreasonable explanation for my disdain. This list can’t help but be a more interesting discussion point than tonight’s game, which felt over after two innings.

5. Todd Stottlemyre – he was kind of like Latos version 1.0. He acted like a hot head, talked tough but never pitched well enough to deserve all the opportunities the Blue Jays kept giving him. He also has the stupidest, worst-looking, chin-scraping head first slide in team history (see Game 4 of the 1993 World Series).

4. Derek Bell – the Blue Jays’ most heralded prospect of the early 1990’s, he made some contributions to Toronto’s 1992 World Series winning team but was traded for older outfielder Darrin Jackson in 1993. Jackson sucked in Toronto (.209/.237/.312 in 263 at-bats) and yet everyone was happy with the trade. Later in his career Bell made one of the stupidest career moves in MLB history, staging what he called “Operation Shutdown” in Pittsburgh, refusing to take the field in Spring Training to compete for a job in 2002. The Pirates (who were awful and had no money) released him, paying him $4.5 million not to play for them that season. Maybe he was stupid like a fox. Mostly I think he was just stupid like a turkey.

3. Tom Candiotti – acquired from the Indians during the 1991 season, the Jays gave up two pretty good future major league outfielders in Mark Whiten and Glenallen Hill for the knuckleballer. “The Candy Man” (yes, stupid nicknames can help get you on this list) pitched well down the stretch that year but was horrendous in the playoffs (0-1, 8.22 ERA in 2 starts) and mysteriously refused to throw his knuckleball (y’know…the pitch that they acquired him for) vs. the Twins in the ALCS, preferring instead to use his 78 MPH fastball, which Minnesota certainly didn’t mind. He pissed off and embarrassed Cito Gaston and Toronto made no effort to re-sign him after he pulled that nonsense.

2. Al Leiter – after being acquired by the Blue Jays in 1989, he struggled with blister problems for years, pitching a TOTAL of 15 innings between 1989 and 1992 for Toronto. The Jays organization patiently stuck with him, and he was finally able to contribute to the 1993 World Series team. In 1995 he actually stayed healthy for a full season and promptly thanked the Jays for their patience and support by refusing their contract offer, leaving and signing with the expansion Florida Marlins that winter. After winning a World Series with the team that stuck with you for so long, who could possibly resist the allure of wearing a bright teal uniform and playing in a football stadium?

1. Munenori Kawasaki – how that guy was ever a member of an MLB team with any aspirations of winning is beyond me. He never met a microphone or camera he didn’t like, hit 1 home run over three seasons in Toronto and resembled a cute mascot more than a baseball player. A lot of bros did semi-racist imitations of his (mis)quotes and everyone’s mom seemed to just adore him, both of which made tolerating his middling presence on the Blue Jays even more difficult.

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

With the bases loaded in the seventh inning, two out and the Jays rallying to within 4 runs (sigh), Kendrys Morales had a chance to get the game close or even tie it with a big hit. Instead he had another flailing, fruitless at-bat where he got himself out. Yankees reliever Dellin Betances had just balked in a run on his first pitch attempt, then walked Bautista to reload the bases and momentum seemed to be swinging back Toronto’s way. Morales then proceeded to swing at a curve ball off the plate that he never could have touched, and then he watched strikes two and three without swinging for another three pitch departure. An experienced hitter like Morales has to be able to steel himself and realize that all of the pressure is on the pitcher in a situation like that. His panicky approach led to the end of any chance that the Jays COULDA made a comeback.

I’m sure Steve Pearce WOULDA preferred to break out of his month-long slump in a closer game where his four hits (including his first two home runs of the season) would have counted a bit more. Unfortunately for him, his contributions fell in the category of “too little, too late” as the Jays were long out of the game by the time Pearce’s contributions came. Perhaps the silver lining here is that tonight’s game might get a guy who has been an above average hitter over the last few seasons going in May after a frustrating April.

Russell Martin and Latos SHOULDA worked harder at coming up with another way of beating the Yankees than just with fastballs, because they weren’t working. Latos was a hard-thrower when he first came up to the Major Leagues, able to amp it up to 98 or 99 MPH and ride that fastball to some pretty strong seasons. Now, injuries have diminished his velocity and if he’s going to pitch in the AL East he’s going to need to adjust his mindset. Three of the four home runs he surrendered (yes, Virginia, he allowed four dingers in four innings) were hit off of Latos’ now mediocre fastball and he and Martin weren’t giving the Yankees much reason to look for anything else early in the game. As the score got out of hand, Latos and Martin started to mix in a change up and curve ball more frequently. Though Brett Gardner hit a breaking ball for his second home run of the game, it wasn’t a terrible pitch and it at least gave Latos a more effective look vs. keyed-up Yankees hitters. By then it was too late, though. Let’s see if Latos is sensible enough to adjust before it’s too late.

NOTES FROM MY COUCH 

Prediction: MLB games will be approximately 229 minutes shorter on average when Jays reliever Jason Grilli and Yankees reliever Tyler Clippard finally retire. That moment might be coming soon for Grilli. His innings have become more and more painfully protracted as he appears to have run out of ways to trick hitters into getting themselves out. Last season he benefitted from American League hitters not knowing him very well, but right now it appears that the jig is up. He certainly can’t be relied upon to be a set-up man at present. Aaron Judge could have hit four home runs during his at-bat vs. Grilli in the eighth inning. He finally settled on a three run bomb into the left field seats, with the 40 year-old allowing all three earned runs without retiring anyone.

Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge (6’7″, 280 lbs.) has to be the biggest right fielder in MLB history and it is a credit to him that he’s also a good defensive player who takes pride in his glove work, not just a guy whose shoddy defence you tolerate because he can hit. He made a great diving catch tonight and threw Jose Bautista out at third last night with his strong, accurate arm. No team’s fans overhype their young players like the Yankees (remember the Shane Spencer phenomenon? Kevin Maas? Ricky Ledee? Marty Janzen?), but with the adjustments he’s made to close holes in his swing and his all-around ability, he appears to be a player well-suited to torment the Blue Jays for the next 10-12 years or so.

I can’t think of many MLB teams who have ever had their second baseman and shortstop hitting 4th and 5th in their lineup like the Yankees did tonight. While it likely won’t be long until Judge forces his way up the order to replace Didi Gregorious, Starlin Castro now very much resembles the star he was projected to be when he came up with the Cubs in 2010. I’d bet most people wouldn’t guess that Castro already has nearly 1,200 hits despite just turning 27 years old in March. That’s a pretty impressive (dare I say, Hall of Fame-ish) career trajectory from a guy who doesn’t get a lot of water cooler discussion. Amazing that the Yankees got him from Chicago in exchange for Brendan Ryan and Adam Warren (who pitches for them now, anyway.)

The Blue Jays have 9 pitchers in their bullpen, many of whom can’t be counted on. That’s embarrassing.

GAME 28
8-6 Loss at NYYankees
Season Record: 9-19

I have been watching baseball for a long time. and I would be hard pressed to recall ever having seen a game where one team had more bloop hits, dying quails and lucky breaks on where a weakly batted ball landed than the Yankees had tonight. New York had 12 hits on the night and more than half of them weren’t hit hard, yet somehow found grass. Combine that with a horrendous night of calling balls and strikes from veteran home plate ump Bill Welke, an injury to Jays starting pitcher Marcus Stroman and a blown 4-o first inning lead made this a uniquely frustrating game to behold, even in a season that has become an exhibition of exasperations.

There isn’t much context or insight for me to lend here. Well, sure there is, but quite frankly I’m kind of at the end of my tether this evening and I don’t want to delve into it too much. I’ve been loathe to diagnose the season as over or lost at such an early date and I still refuse to do so tonight. I will say this, though : if the Blue Jays’ 2017 season ends up a losing one or even an utterly lost one, we may look back on tonight as a night when the coffin started being sealed shut.

COULDA, WOULDA, SHOULDA
(after each loss, three things that might have made the difference)

With a chance to put New York starting pitcher C.C. Sabathia and the Yankees away early after having already scored 5 runs, the Jays had bases loaded and just one out in the second with their fourth and fifth hitters due up. Another hit COULDA finished Sabathia and forced the Yankees to blow out their bullpen. Instead, Kendrys Morales choked with the bases loaded again, rolling a weak dribbler to first that should have been a double play and then Justin Smoak flew out meekly to right field. At the time Toronto was still up 3 runs so you couldn’t be too upset but I said to my dad at the time that I knew that wouldn’t be the end of the scoring. As it turned out, it was just the end of the scoring for one of the teams. Guess which team. Go ahead…

It was the right call by John Gibbons, but playing the infield in in the seventh inning with one out and runners at second and third allowed Chris Carter’s weakly fisted blooper to somehow fall in for a ‘hit’ despite not even reaching the outfield grass in the air. If Ryans Goins had been playing exactly where he normally would, he WOULDA easily caught the ball and Joe Biagini might have escaped the inning unscathed, like he probably deserved to. Instead, the Yankees used an almost farcical sequence of bounces and breaks to score three runs in the inning and take an 8-6 lead.

However, Gibbons probably SHOULDA stuck with Biagini in the fateful seventh, even after Carter’s duck snort single. He had given up three hits, but none of them were even remotely hit hard. Even though he’d allowed an unlucky pair of runs, he was making his pitches effectively, hadn’t walked anyone and was just snake-bitten by where a few weakly batted balls landed.   Biagini has easily been the Blue Jays’ best reliever this season, doesn’t rattle easily and tomorrow is a day off (thank God), so there wasn’t any reason to think you had to be careful with him. Joe Smith hasn’t been bad, but he had trouble throwing strikes with the bases already filled with Yankees. Biagini wasn’t struggling to find the plate and the chances of New York getting yet another weak hit to fall in were pretty slim. At least, until this season, I would have thought the chances were slim. With 60% of the Jays’ starting staff injured and two All-Star position players on the D.L. at the same time that they’re already 10 games under .500, I’m having a hard time believing much in the law of averages right now.

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