My Sports

13 May 2017

Artificial Turf Blues- Games 35, 36 & 37: Winning?

By // Sports

GAME 35
7-2 Win vs. Seattle
Season Record: 14-21

Due to an underwhelming demand, tonight I’m continuing with my biased list of the top 25 offensive seasons in Toronto Blue Jays history. Just to clarify, this is not a list of the most offensive seasons in team history. That would be an entirely different list and one I’m relishing the idea of now that I’m thinking of it. Where else would I be able to commemorate players like Russ Adams and Joey Hamilton? That list may well come along at some point this season, too. Chances are it might have two or three entries from the 2017 season on it…

Tonight we look at seasons #15 through 11. Well, I look at them. You don’t really have to.

15. Tony Batista (2000) – a .307 on-base percentage certainly leaves something to be desired, but 41 HR and 75 total extra-base hits is pretty noteworthy, I think. His inability to get on-base consistently combined with a growing strikeout frequency had him out of the major leagues by age 33, but before he left he had 7 seasons with at least 25 home runs. Had he been good enough a defensive player to remain a shortstop (instead of having to move to third base, as he did during this season) those problems would have been far more palatable. 15th is probably too high on this list, though. I think I was trying to have new names to introduce each day, rather than just have it be the same guys all the time and it kinda skewed the truth of the list. I really have to organize this better ahead of time. Theoretically, people could read this.

14. Carlos Delgado (2002) – “just” 33 home runs, and “only” 102 walks, but he put up those numbers in just 143 games that season. This was the sixth consecutive year Delgado hit at least 30 home runs. He also did it four more straight years after that. Do you know how many guys in MLB history have had 10 straight 30 home run seasons? Five. Sammy Sosa, Jimmie Foxx, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols. That means that half the guys who have managed that feat have serious steroid allegations clouding their achievements and yet Delgado fell off the Hall of Fame ballot in his first year of eligibility. He might be the most overlooked slugger in MLB history, likely in part because he played for irrelevant teams in Toronto most of his career.

13. Edwin Encarnacion (2013) 82 walks and just 62 strikeouts from a player with elite power like his (36 home runs) is a pretty impressive season. Interesting that this was Eddie’s only season with more walks than strikeouts. His strikeout rate has continued to go up every year since then while his walk rate has remained similar. Then again, most players are striking out more than ever.

12. Fred McGriff (1990) – an almost artful .300/.400/.530 slash line that year. He hit 35 home runs, walked 94 times and somehow managed to have just 88 RBIs. I can remember that he got a lot of criticism for his low RBI totals back in the day, before folks began to realize what a flawed statistic it is. Like it was McGriff’s fault that the Jays were batting Mookie Wilson and Junior Felix in front of him. “The Crime Dog” rivals Delgado as one of baseball’s most underrated sluggers.

11. Jose Bautista (2014) – 35 home runs with a .403 on-base percentage (including 104 walks vs. just 96 strikeouts) and it was just the third-best season of his tenure in Toronto. Not too shabby, even if I’m already talking about him like he’s no longer on the team. He actually struck out less this year than in the two seasons he won American League home run titles in 2010 and 2011, but this year’s OBP and slugging percentage are not nearly as otherworldly as they were in those two historic years.

The Mariners might be the only A.L. team more banged up than the Blue Jays. They currently have 4 of their 5 starting pitchers and set up man Steve Cishek on the Disabled List, as well as outfielder Mitch Haniger (who was leading the AL in WAR before he got hurt) and tonight superstar second baseman Robinson Cano was out of the lineup with a sore leg. Things are so bad for Seattle right now that they claimed pitcher Casey Lawrence off of waivers today. Yes, the same Casey Lawrence that even the Ebola-infested Blue Jays pitching staff felt they couldn’t use.

Something seems strangely fair about the fact that these two teams are at least playing each other at a time when half of both of their rosters are unable to play. It means that one of them has to get a win each night. This series might end up feeling something like the consolation semi-final from your town’s grade school volleyball tournament. Go Coyotes!!

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

A BIG PLAY – With Toronto starting to confront the ignominy of a looming defeat at the hands of Chase De Jong, one of their former minor league pitchers, Justin Smoak came to the plate with the bases loaded and two out in the fifth inning. He stroked the first pitch just over the second baseman’s outstretched arms and drove in two runs to give the Jays a lead they would never relinquish. Instead of De Jong being the former player getting some revenge tonight it was Smoak, who had three run-scoring hits tonight including a home run to defeat a Seattle team that discarded him on the waiver wire two and a half years ago.

A BIG MOMENT – “Add on runs” have been a problem for the Blue Jays for the last few seasons. Their ‘all or nothing’ approach has often cost them chances to grind out extra runs and increase an early lead, only to have it come back to bite them in the rear end later in games. So for Steve Pearce, who is finally emerging from his month long hibernation, to launch a three run home run four pitches after Smoak’s aforementioned big hit and put the Blue Jays up 6-2 was an all too rare moment. An undermanned Mariners lineup was going to be hard pressed to come back vs. a strong Marco Estrada tonight. Pearce’s home run even made Toronto comfortable enough late in this game to bring Jason Grilli in for the eighth inning!

…AND A LITTLE THING – There were two outs and none on in the fifth inning and to that point the Blue Jays had managed just one run vs. De Jong. Kevin Pillar then fought for a six pitch walk to begin what ended up being a five-run Toronto rally. A frustrated De Jong then allowed a hit to Ezequiel Carrera and a four-pitch walk to Jose Bautista before Smoak and Pearce were able to bury him with their big hits. Pillar grinding out a tough at-bat in a likely low yield situation where he could have easily mailed it in ended up being a game changer. His mental toughness made him perhaps the perfect hitter to come up in that situation for Toronto.

NOTES FROM MY COUCH 

There is little I am more fed up with than hearing Buck and Pat go on about “how well Jose Bautista is seeing the ball”. He’s batting .173/.305/.276. Seeing the ball and hitting the ball are two very different things and he’s definitely not doing at least one of those things very well. Struggling is part of the game. I’m not mad at Bautista. I’m just tired of hearing how dangerous he looks when even AAA level pitchers aren’t afraid of him.

The only problem with Justin Smoak outplaying my low expectations of him is that we have to see him interviewed by someone after the game way more often. Interviews are not his strength. It’s not a crime to not be good at them, but surely we can find someone who does more than slowly mumble cliches half-heartedly.

The only inning in which Marco Estrada can’t seem to pitch well in is the first. Would it fix the problem if we had someone else start his games? How about Jason Grilli? He hasn’t had much luck in the later innings lately. Maybe he could start the game, Estrada could then come in and avoid the first inning jinx. Also, then maybe Estrada could pitch further into games, the only box he isn’t currently checking for the Jays.

By the way, did you notice the guys who didn’t make the list for hitting at least 30 home runs for ten consecutive seasons, like Delgado did? Babe Ruth, Mike Schmidt, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Jim Thome, Ken Griffey Jr, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Harmon Killebrew, Frank Robinson and Mark McGwire, to name a few. Just sayin’.

GAME 36
4-0 Win vs. Seattle
Season Record: 15-21

Before discussing tonight’s clash between the Buffalo Bisons and the Tacoma Rainiers, we begin our column with Part 4 of 5 in my list of the top 25 offensive seasons in Toronto Blue Jays history. Tonight we feature seasons number 10 through 6.

10. Edwin Encarnacion (2016) – To illustrate how stupid a statistic RBI is, EE led the American League in 2016 with 127 RBI, nearly 40 more RBI than Fred McGriff had in 1988 (see below) despite having a lower batting average and slugging percentage than McGriff did 28 years earlier. You think having Donaldson and Bautista hitting in front of him may have helped Edwin pad those stats a little? It doesn’t diminish how great a year he had, but it doesn’t really do much to tell us how good he was, either.

9. Fred McGriff (1988) – .282/.376/.552, 34 HR, 79 walks and 100 runs scored from a 24 year-old first baseman? Something tells me the Yankees likely regret trading him to Toronto for people named Tom Dodd and Dale Murray two years before this happened. He even stole 6 bases and was caught just once! Too bad about having just 88 RBI though. So embarrassing. On that ’88 team Rance Mulliniks finished second to McGriff in OPS, BTW. WTF?

8. George Bell (1987) – his selection as AL MVP that year has been much maligned by baseball historians but a .308/.352/.608 season probably did deserve some serious consideration for postseason awards. Bell hit 47 home runs that year to shatter the Blue Jays season record at the time and he only struck out 75 times. Of course, he also only walked 39 times, which is why he doesn’t crack the Top Five. George remains one of the all time Blue Jay bad asses and this was his most bad ass year.

7. Josh Donaldson (2016) – you could certainly make an argument that his 2016 season was better than his 2015 season, when he was named American League MVP. Either way, .284/.404/.549 with 37 HR and 109 walks vs. 119 strikeouts only earned him a 4th place finish in last year’s MVP vote. Tough room.

6. Carlos Delgado (2003) – .302/.426/.593 and it wasn’t even his best season in Toronto (spoiler alert). That season Delgado led the AL in OPS, won a Silver Slugger and finished a close second in the AL MVP race this year, behind a steroid-soaked Alex Rodriguez. All the baseball writers who currently spew outrage now about A-Rod’s steroid use and thus refuse to vote him into the Hall of Fame didn’t appear to have any objections back in 2003 when they fell all over themselves to give him his first of three MVP awards.

Tune in tomorrow (below) for the top five. You’ll probably be able to guess most of them. But there’s one great season you may have forgotten about…

The Blue Jays needed to get well soon and the timing of this series has given them an opportunity to do that. The Mariners right now barely resemble the team they expected to be this season. Injuries have sapped them of a lot of their best players, including longtime nemesis Robinson Cano, who sat out again tonight. The injuries do allow them to sneak two members of Seattle-area 90s cheese-rock balladeers Candlebox and their magnificent locks of hair into their starting lineup, so they are crushing it at karaoke bars afterwards, at least.

Despite facing some very mediocre pitching, Toronto’s ‘offence’ was just barely good enough tonight. They were able to get a few key hits (five of them with two outs) and a few timely defensive plays tonight and make it stick. They didn’t so much win this game as Seattle’s lineup really couldn’t help but lose it.

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

A BIG PLAY – The Blue Jays were up 1-0 in the bottom of the third and Seattle had runners on second and third with two out with Ben Gamel up. Gamel blooped an opposite field flare over shortstop Ryan Goins and into short left field. I was watching Kevin Pillar and could tell he wasn’t going to be able to make the play, but seemingly out of nowhere Steve Pearce ran in to make a terrific diving catch, saving at least two runs. With two outs, both runners would have been moving on contact and scored easily (the second runner was Jarrod Dyson, one of the faster players in MLB). Seattle would have also had another runner on second with Nelson Cruz up. Instead, starter Joe Biagini was able to escape without any damage done in his one shaky inning of the night. Biagini likely owes his first MLB win as a starter to Pearce’s effort. The only downside is that tomorrow’s game has been cancelled in order to give the grounds crew sufficient time to replace the 37 foot diameter divot Pearce’s landing left in the outfield surface.

A BIG MOMENT – With Mariners at first and third and two out in the sixth inning, reliever Danny Barnes, who appears to be angling to take Joe Biagini’s spot in the revamped Toronto bullpen, was facing Danny Valencia. Earlier in the inning he retired Nelson Cruz using three straight fastballs after falling behind 2 and 0. Then two batters later he struck out Valencia with all three strikes being changeups. They were the first changeups he threw to any of the four batters he faced in the inning and Barnes and catcher Luke Maile saved them for a perfect spot, completely befuddling Valencia and again shutting the door on Seattle’s offence.

…AND A LITTLE THING – With runners at second and third in the third inning and just one out, Mariners shortstop Jean Segura hit a laser beam one-hopper to third base. Darwin Barney was able to knock it down, though he didn’t field it cleanly. His quickness in picking up the loose ball, however, froze Taylor Motter at third base two steps after he had started towards home plate. Even though Motter probably should have left immediately after the ball was hit, Barney’s quick reactions surprised him, causing him to momentarily hesitate and then forcing him to retreat back to third. He was stranded one batter later on Pearce’s big diving catch. Seattle’s best chance to score was stalled by stellar defensive plays twice in a row. Pearce’s play was more dramatic, but having Barney at third was a large part of that slippery escape too.

NOTES FROM MY COUCH 

Why can’t Kevin Pillar and Ezequiel Carrera hear one another in the outfield? They almost collide way, way too often while running for a fly ball between them. At some point that lack of communication is going to cost the Blue Jays with at least an ugly play, or at worst a serious injury. Three words, guys – Yo La Tengo!!

Tonight Blue Jays pitchers did not issue a single walk to any Seattle batters tonight. I don’t have any additional comments to add to this fact, other than to point out exactly how many runs the Mariners scored tonight. I’m sure that’s a coincidence.

I have my doubts that Joe Biagini is going to go back to the bullpen at any point this season. With Liriano and Estrada entering free agency at the end of the season in their mid-30’s, the Blue Jays’ brass would be delighted if they could go into the 2018 season with three young starters and a healthy J.A. Happ. His stuff clearly holds up as a starter and finding a decent 7th inning pitcher is a lot easier than finding a young, controllable, above average starter. Liriano may find a home in the bullpen if everyone is ever healthy at the same time.

After Barney laid down a sac bunt in the second inning(!), I thought to myself “oh, well, at least it’s just the #9 hitter giving himself up.” But it wasn’t – he was only 7th. For this team to score any runs at all is a mini-miracle considering their current lineup contains 4 guys who should all be probably hitting ninth and a #3 hitter who should be moved down in the order but they have no one to replace him.

The Jays caught a lot of breaks tonight. Bautista’s home run just staying fair enough to hit the foul pole, Motter’s base running gaffe, Carlos Ruiz’ passed ball eventually allowing the fourth run to score, Pearce’s catch. In spite of getting a few bounces today (or maybe because of that), it was perhaps the first game all season where I honestly felt pretty confident they weren’t going to relinquish the lead. It felt good.

GAME 37
7-2 Win vs. Seattle
Season Record: 16-21

Well, it’s been quite a journey. Without further ado because there hasn’t been any ado-ing to this point, here are the seven best offensive seasons in Blue Jays history. There is a tie for fourth and fifth place. Not because I couldn’t pick between those two seasons, but truthfully its because I miscalculated how many seasons I had left to talk about. I knew I should have left Tony Batista off. I just craved controversy. It’s a sickness.

5. (tie)- Fred McGriff (1989) at 25 years old, he led the A.L. with 36 HR, walked 119 (!) times and finished with a .260/.378/.525 line. A few years later McGriff became the first player in history to win a home run title in both the National and American League. I know the trade that sent him to San Diego netted Toronto World Series heroes Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar, but it is indisputable that McGriff was a better player than Joe ever was. (notice how many times Carter made this list?)

5. (tie)- Shawn Green (1999) In my opinion, Green is one of the more overlooked players of the last 20 years. After leaving Toronto he had some truly historic seasons in L.A. (including setting the Brooklyn and L.A. Dodgers’ single season home run record) but this season represents the completion of his slow ascent into an elite player (y’know, when the Jays finally realized that he was probably better than a washed up Ruben Sierra). His 1999 slash line: .309/.384/.588, with a franchise record 134 runs scored, 42 HR, 45 doubles and 20 stolen bases. In 2003 Green injured his shoulder and was never the same again, but at that point he had hit 192 HR over his past five seasons and was just 30 years old. Oh, what might have been…

4. (tie)- Jose Bautista (2010) – His first of two consecutive AL Home Run titles, he hit 54 dingers to set a Toronto Blue Jays single season record which will likely stand for a long, long time. He did so after hitting 13 in 2009, which is likely also some kind of record. He also hit 35 doubles, drew 100 walks, stole 9 bases and scored 109 runs. And, yes, he got better the next season.

4. (tie) – Josh Donaldson (2015) – His first season in Toronto after being traded from Oakland quickly became the stuff of legend. He was named American League MVP after leading the AL in both runs and RBI (a pretty rare feat, even if one of those stats is stupid), hit 41 HR and 41 doubles and finished with a .297/.371/.568 line. He played like his hair was on fire for the entire season and led the Blue Jays to their first playoff appearance in 22 years by the sheer force of his will.

3. Carlos Delgado (2000) – At age 28, he had the best season of his career, finishing with a simply preposterous .344 (!)/.470(!!)/.664(!!!) line, setting the Blue Jays record for slugging percentage and doubles in a season. He hit 41 HR, walked 123 times, scored 115 runs and still finished fourth in AL MVP voting behind two admitted steroid users (winner Jason Giambi and A-Rod) and Frank Thomas, who isn’t shy about telling you that he played clean. It was one of just two seasons they actually let Carlos appear in an All-Star Game.

2. Jose Bautista (2011) – A few less home runs than 2010 (43) but a better batting average, on-base percentage and OPS. He set a Blue Jays record by drawing 132 walks and led the AL in home runs, slugging percentage, OPS, walks and intentional walks and finished third in MVP voting behind winner Justin Verlander (don’t get me started) and Jacoby Ellsbury, who probably deserved to win. Ellsbury then used that season to sign a gigantic free agent contract that the Yankees would regret almost as soon as it began.

1. John Olerud (1993) – The biggest black mark on Cito Gaston’s coaching and managerial career (and there are a few) is that after this historic season, in 1994 Cito attempted to alter Olerud’s approach to hitting, wanting him to pull the ball more (writer smacks forehead, then rubs it because it hurt). This after Olerud, who was still hitting over. 400 into August, finished with a .363/.473/.599 line at age 24! He had 200 hits, 114 walks, 24 home runs, 54 doubles and won the only batting title in Jays history. He set Toronto single season records for on-base percentage, batting average, OPS and intentional walks and somehow did not receive a single first place vote for that year’s American League MVP Award. It was hard to trade him away a few years later but at least we got Robert Person from the Mets for him. (Writer smacks forehead again, will now likely require an icepack.)

Well, whatever disease was ailing the Blue Jays a few weeks ago has left them and is now infecting the Mariners’ clubhouse. They should fumigate as soon as possible. Seattle are currently in the midst of a painful stretch where nothing is breaking their way and they simply don’t have enough active good players to overcome the bounces and break the spell. On the other side of the equation…

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

A BIG PLAY- With the game tied 2-2 in the bottom of the 7th inning, Jose Bautista came to the plate with two runners on and one out. He was facing reliever Nick Vincent, who has been terrific so far this season and had not allowed a home run. Vincent left a fastball up on a 1-1 pitch and Jose treated it like it was 2010 all over again, crushing a no-doubter into the centre field seats, sinking the Mariners further into the levels of despair that the Blue Jays remember all too well from just a few weeks back.

A BIG MOMENT-  After Seattle took a 2-1 lead in the top of the sixth inning, the Rogers Centre got a little quiet, with fans feeling like maybe asking to win four games in a row in 2017 was getting a little greedy. Bautista popped out harmlessly to second base before Kendrys Morales belted the second pitch he saw from Tony Zych over the right centre field wall to tie things back up. After a frustrating inning in which Seattle dinked and dunked their way to the go ahead run with three ground balls, the coldly efficient brute force of Morales’ quick response was satisfying, somehow.

A LITTLE THING-  With the game still tied 2-2, Seattle had runners on second and third with two outs in the top of the seventh inning, John Gibbons summoned Dominic Leone from the bullpen to face Danny Valencia. Leone (a former Mariner) then retired Valencia (a former Jay) harmlessly on two pitches, ending the Mariners’ last chance to take the lead, perpetuating their misery and setting the stage for Bautista’s heroics minutes later. Toronto’s bullpen has been stretched lately, forcing Gibbons into imperfect usage situations with his relievers (that inning was started by Jason Grilli, for Heaven’s sake). For one of their less heralded relievers to come into the highest leverage moment of the game and emerge successful was a huge moment for the Jays that is easy to overlook with all the talk about home runs.

NOTES FROM MY COUCH 

In today’s game of three true outcomes for hitters (home run, strikeout or walk), it is really fun to watch someone hack away like Jean Segura does. Even though he is the Mariners’ leadoff hitter, he is about as selective at the plate as a hungry fox would be if let loose in a henhouse. He is, however, able to use his extraordinary hand-eye co-ordination to slash the ball all over the place and wreak havoc on defensive shifts and lashing hits from pole to pole. He’s hitting about .350 right now and had over 200 hits last year, so something’s working for him.

Jarrod Dyson did not get to play in the 2015 ALCS vs. Toronto when he was with the Kansas City Royals, and I think he’s still pissed about it. He took it out on the Blue Jays today, nearly defeated them all on his own, reaching base four times and making at least as many fantastic running catches in centre field to make outs from balls that looked like they were going to be hits.

A very poor effort in the seventh inning from fans down the left field line on a fly ball popped into their area that somehow wasn’t caught by any of them but was caught by Mariners outfielder Guillermo Heredia. It is almost impossible for so many ‘baseball fans’ to be concentrated in such a small space and yet all still miss the ball or cower in fear of it while one dude ran in from 70 feet away and took it away from them all. Come on, folks – Luke Maile could use the help. Stop worrying about doing the wave and catch the ball.

Why in the name of Mario Mendoza did John Gibbons have Devon Travis pinch hit for Chris Coghlan to lead off the fifth inning? Yes, a lefty pitcher had come into the game at that point, but Travis is batting .170 and struck out on four pitches anyway. The real problem, though, arrived in the next inning, with runners at second and third and two out in a tied game, Seattle had now gone to a right handed pitcher and guess who was due to hit? That’s right, and guess who popped out harmlessly? Correct. I realize that Coghlan isn’t Ted Williams, but blowing one of your few left-handed hitters in the fifth inning of a tie game and replacing him with a guy who has not hit well this entire season was a terrible decision. Gibbons is very fortunate that mistake did not come back to cost him today.

Yesterday I noted that two of the original members of super shitty Seattle area pseudo grunge band Candlebox and were now playing for the Mariners under the pseudonyms of ‘Ben Gamel’ and ‘Taylor Motter’. That was before I witnessed the glorious mane of hair on Mariners relief pitcher ‘Dillon Overton’ and realized that Candlebox’s drummer, bassist and touring keyboardist are now all in the major leagues! Seriously, what are the chances?

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