My Sports

10 May 2017

Artificial Turf Blues Games 31 & 32: Start & Return

By // Sports

GAME 31
2-1 Win at Tampa
Season Record: 11-20

Joe Biagini’s ascension into the Blue Jays’ starting rotation probably makes sense in the long run. He features three quality pitches, which is almost a necessity for an MLB starting pitcher. He locates them well and pitches efficiently (3.7 K/BB so far in his career). While he does have the unusual habit of pitching from the stretch at all times, he is able to repeat his delivery very well in that mode, meaning that the likelihood of an injury due to fatigue and mechanical breakdown during longer appearances would appear to be diminished. Also, stat heads will remind you (and they’re generally right) that Biagini pitching a potential 125-135 innings as a starter this season is more valuable to Toronto than he would be throwing, say, 50 more innings as a reliever, even if all the relief innings were high leverage, “game on the line” situations. So long as he is able to generally maintain his numbers as a starter (no guarantee), it makes sense. While I think the bullpen will struggle even more without him there to bridge the innings between the starters and Roberto Osuna, we can also read between the lines that Biagini’s promotion likely means that J.A. Happ is not being counted on to return anytime soon. That hurts, too.

Back in Toronto’s salad days, the team had enough pitching depth that almost everyone started in the bullpen. Great starters like Jimmy Key, David Wells and Pat Hentgen all spent their first season in the Blue Jays bullpen as part of Pat Gillick’s belief that it was an important part of adapting to Major League hitters and the demands of being an MLB pitcher. It was only after Gillick left and the Jays’ organizational well ran dry that Toronto ended up rushing all their good prospects like Chris Carpenter, Kelvim Escobar, Roy Halladay and Marty Janzen and expecting them to be rotation stalwarts right away. In case you wondered, three of those guys’ careers were sidelined for significant periods of time with arm injuries, and the other guy was sent back to single A. He only returned to MLB because of a once-in-a-generation work ethic to transform himself into the beast he became.

Biagini was terrific today in his first MLB start, needing just 52 pitches to cover 4 innings, striking out 4 and walking none, throwing first pitch strikes to almost every batter he faced and allowing only an unearned run due to an error by (guess who?) Devon Travis. Tampa is leading the American League in home runs this season, so for him to shut them down with no less than six lefties in the lineup today was a great start. Now we’ll just have to wait and see how badly the team misses him in those high leverage 50 innings he won’t be throwing anymore.

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

A BIG PLAY- Roberto Osuna looks slightly better every time out, but he needed to cowboy up to finish a tight game today. After getting Tampa’s #3 and 4 batters out easily to begin the ninth inning, he walked Steven Souza (and was lucky when Souza just missed hitting a double down the left field line), then surrendered a single to Colby Rasmus (on an 0-2 slider….grrrr.) and fell behind 2-0 to Daniel Robertson (!) before he finally stopped screwing around and reared back to overpower him, striking him out swinging to end the game. Ultimately, it was satisfying to see. It was the same king of satisfaction as when Hulk Hogan would just get pummelled by The Magnificent Muraco or Nikolai Volkoff for 8 to 10 minutes, then all of the sudden he’d just start to vibrate and shake and feel no pain before the Hulkster put them away after a big leg drop about thirty seconds later. This may not have been a title match tonight, but a save vs. that team in that park in a one-run game to win a series is huge for a Blue Jays team that could not afford to lose another late lead.

A BIG MOMENT- With Alex Cobb treating Jays hitters like he was Greg “The Hammer” Valentine and they were Barry O, and the score stuck at 1-1 in the eighth inning, light-hitting Jays infielder Darwin Barney picked an ideal time to hit his first home run of the season. It was a no doubter on an inside fastball and Barney had a good (if brief) at-bat to get it. He smartly laid of the fastball away off the plate that Cobb started him off with and was aggressive in correctly guessing that he would get the same pitch again on the inner half because Cobb wouldn’t want to walk the Blue Jays’ #9 hitter. It was the game-winning and series-winning run and seeing the look of disbelief on Rays manager “Luscious” Johnny V made it all worth it. In my mind anyway.

AND A LITTLE THING- In the third inning, with fleet-footed Kevin Keirmaier already standing at first base with one out, Russell Martin made a terrific play to pounce on a dribbler off the bat of Rays catcher Jesus Sucre and throw him out at first. Kiermaier advanced to second and later scored Tampa’s only run of the game, but if Martin isn’t both decisive and physically perfect on that play, the Rays likely would have had a bigger inning. If Martin had let it roll it likely would have stayed fair and given the Rays two runners on with the top of the order coming up. In a game that ended up in a 2-1 score, that second out turned out to be very important.

NOTES FROM MY COUCH

Striking out just three batters over eight innings vs. this anemic Blue Jays lineup, starting pitcher Alex Cobb was solid for the Rays today but is not yet quite back to his pre-Tommy John surgery form of 2013/2014 form when he averaged 3.17 K/BB with an ERA under 3. His breaking ball was one of the best in the game then, even though he was only 25 years old. Whether he is able to firm that up and really buckle some knees with it will determine if he becomes the perennial Cy Young Award candidate he looked like he might become back then.

I offer these six photos without comment, other than to make sure you understand that they all feature former Blue Jays outfielder and noted lady killer Colby Ryan Rasmus.

Look, I know that every day those guys have to talk unceasingly for three hours and often times (especially this year) there aren’t a lot of interesting discussion points during a game, so I’m going to try not to jump on Pat and Buck every time something inane gets uttered. Gotcha! journalism isn’t my favourite in any sphere. Some days, though, one of them will spit out a cement mixer slider down the middle that is so perfect you just have to swing. While discussing the imminent/delayed return of Josh Donaldson to the active lineup today, “Tabby” said, and I quote, “the thing about leg muscles is the only way they get better is to heal”. #insight

Again Bautista worked his way to a 3-0 count in the first inning tonight and again he somehow managed to strike out without even making hard contact once. That’s tough to do two nights in a row. It is also hard for a formerly great player to look as lost at the plate as Jose has looked this season for as long as he has. Despite Jays announcers’ attempts to sell that narrative, no one is afraid of him as a hitter right now.

I generally love the Arkells but I’ve already grown weary of the “generic sports-themed anthem” they’ve sold to Budweiser to play in ads during Jays’ broadcasts. When your team is still stinking things up in May, repeating the chorus “I’m knockin’ at the door” feels almost as patronizing and poorly timed as when Scotiabank tries to assure me that I’m richer than I think.

The only other Blue Jays pitcher besides Biagini to make his first MLB start after 74 appearances as a reliever is Woody Williams. Williams became a one-time All-Star who pitched 15 MLB seasons, made 8 postseason starts and won over 130 games in his career. I’m pretty confident the Blue Jays would be pleased if Biagini’s career path eventually followed that of the ol’ Woodmeister. (I’m pretty sure no one has ever called him that).

It certainly appears that Joe Smith wants to be the guy who replaces Jason Grilli as the Jays’ set-up man, doesn’t it? A 2.40 ERA with 21 K’s in 15 innings so far will do the trick.

GAME 32
4-2 Win vs. Cleveland
Season Record: 12-20

Edwin Encarnacion returned to Toronto tonight, looking very strange in a Cleveland Indians uniform. We all know the story of how negotiations went this past winter and there is no point in rehashing it now. One of the ten best hitters in Blue Jays history now plays for another team, even though he probably would have rather stayed here. Sports are weird sometimes.

Now that I’ve said that, I looked up the stats from Edwin’s eight seasons in Toronto and most of them certainly are very impressive, especially once he stopped having to pretend he was a third baseman and could just worry about hitting. For a nerdy fan like myself, the next question that instantly arrives is : “Where do Edwin’s best seasons rank in Blue Jays history?” So, all this week, at no extra charge, I’m going to give you a (somewhat) unbiased list of what I believe are the 25 most accomplished offensive seasons in team history.   Tonight, we start with numbers 25-21.

25. ADAM LIND (2009) – Lind’s first full MLB season was also his best. He batted .305/.370/.562 over 151 games, hitting 35 HR while splitting time between left field and D.H. He also finished 15th in American League MVP voting. He never matched any of those numbers in any season for the rest of his career.

24. DAVE WINFIELD (1992) – Winfield’s only season in Toronto was very impressive for a 37 year-old (or a 27 year-old, for that matter). He slugged 26 HR, walked 82 times while striking out just 89 times and appeared in 156 games. It was also the last good productive season of his Hall of Fame career.

23. ROBERTO ALOMAR (1993) – Alomar’s only appearance on this list. (Remember this is just an offensive evaluation, defence doesn’t count and Alomar had his best years with the bat later while playing in Cleveland and Baltimore). Nonetheless, .326/.408/.492 with 55 stolen bases from your second baseman is worth remembering.

22. VERNON WELLS (2003) – His bloated contract made people forget how good Vernon was during his peak. In 2003, he led the A.L. in hits and doubles, finishing with a line of .317/.359/.560. He also scored 118 runs, hit 33 HR, struck out just 80 times and missed just one game the entire season.

21. PAUL MOLITOR (1993) – His first season in Toronto after 15 in Milwaukee, he was faced with the prospect of replacing Winfield as the Jays’ D.H. and even eclipsed Winfield’s production. A .332/.402/.509 line while also leading the A.L. with 211 hits, he walked more times (77) than he struck out (71) and he stole 22 bases and was caught just 4 times. Not too shabby for a 36 year-old. This was not the last good season of Molitor’s Hall of Fame career.

Edwin, like his Blue Jays replacement “sweaty” Kendrys Morales (seriously, when that guy runs 180 feet he looks like he just completed a marathon on the surface of the sun), has struggled in his first few weeks with his new team, but he’s starting to heat up in May and was on base 3 times tonight. He squared a couple of balls up well tonight, nearly removing Marcus Stroman’s foot on a liner up the middle in the first inning. He was able to get a really warm reception, have a pretty good night and yet not ruin the evening for Toronto fans. Perfect, really.

Tonight the Indians had a night that was a lot like nights the Jays were having a lot of a few weeks back: lots of balls hit to the warning track, not much luck with runners in scoring position and the other team’s weaker hitters coming up with big hits. It seems only fair that the Jays should be on the other end of games like that eventually. Toronto needed this one because Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco will give Cleveland the edge in starting pitchers for the next two games and their weary (and exceptional) bullpen will be rested and ready tomorrow, too.

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

A BIG PLAY- With two out in the sixth inning and the Blue Jays leading 4-0 with two Cleveland runners on base, Indians infielder Jose Ramirez hit a bullet to centre field that looked like it was going to score two runs. The ball was actually over the head of Toronto centre fielder Kevin Pillar when he somehow dove almost completely behind himself to make the early Catch of the Year frontrunner. Aside from the sheer aesthetic physical beauty of the catch, it was also extremely important in the context of the game, making it even more noteworthy. The minimum two runs that didn’t score on that catch would have loomed large later in the game when Cleveland began to draw blood from the Jays’ bullpen.

A BIG MOMENT- In the 8th inning, Francisco Lindor was safe at second base with none out and the score now 4-2 after Devon Travis committed his daily defensive miscue, interfering with Lindor while he was caught in a rundown.   After manager John Gibbons was ejected from the game and the Indians seemed ready to take control, reliever Joe Smith went to work inducing a weak ground ball and two strikeouts from Cleveland’s #3, 4 and 5 hitters to prevent any further damage. The fact that tonight’s box score will show that Roberto Osuna and not Smith was credited with a save shows just how altogether stupid a statistic the save is. Smith saved the game tonight, plain and simple.

AND A LITTLE THING- With a runner at first and one out in the fifth inning, Edwin Encarnacion hit a ball down the left field line and Steve Pearce (who later made one of the worst attempts to catch a ball at the wall ever documented) hustled over to get to the ball and throw it in to second base to ensure Edwin was held to just a single. Three pitches later, Stroman induced Jose Ramirez to ground into a 4-6-3 double play and end the inning without any runs scoring. If Edwin reaches second on that play, Cleveland likely scores at least one run and the inning goes on longer, too. It was an intuitive play by Pearce, a guy generally not known for his defensive prowess.

NOTES FROM MY COUCH

You know the season has sucked so far when the announcing team are repeatedly trumpeting the fact that the Blue Jays “have won 5 of their last 8”. That ‘statistic’ is a shining example of working pretty hard to find a small sample sized bright spot.

I still can’t believe Kendrys Morales was sent home and managed to score from second on Justin Smoak’s duck snort single to right field. The throw was cut so we didn’t get to witness a potential play at the plate, making it feel like you were watching slow-motion footage of a chubby puppy wandering out onto the QEW and then being pulled to safety just as a salt truck was about to turn it into road pizza.

Stroman flirted with disaster all night, allowing 8 base runners during his 6 innings, but needed three double plays and Pillar’s miraculous catch to leave the game without allowing a run. It wasn’t his best night, but after he’d left his previous start after three innings with ‘arm discomfort’, if I’d told you he’d throw 6 scoreless innings just five nights later, you’d have accepted it with glee. Yes, ‘glee’ is the word I chose for that situation. Glee.

With Russell Martin placed on the injured list today, the Toronto Blue Jays now have over $70 million of this year’s payroll idling on the Disabled List. Pretty sure that constitutes a team record nobody wanted to break.

I like that after Gibbons gets thrown out of a game, on his way out he stops by his little corner of the dugout to get his beverage and take it with him into the clubhouse. No sense wasting cups just because of a little ejection, am I right?

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