While Bo Bichette awaits a second opinion on his troublesome right knee, I’ve received a second opinion on the Toronto Blue Jays season: To maintain a sense of sanity, I will avoid talking about, thinking about or otherwise even letting the word “playoffs” enter my mind. I don’t care if they expand the post-season pool to 20. Or 24.
Look: At a time when the Baltimore Orioles (?) are a little more than a quarter of the way toward a pandemic playoff berth, all seems possible. And so it should. Far be it for me to kill any dream of any kind given what we’re going/have gone/will go through.
The mathematics are there for the Blue Jays. All is not lost except, it seems, for the odd line-drive to Teoscar Hernandez or the location of the bases themselves. It’s dangerous to read anything into disheartening losses to the Tampa Bay Rays at any time of the season because they’ve made a habit of doing this to Blue Jays teams for more than a decade now, but, my goodness. The least I expect from a Charlie Montoyo-managed team is clean baseball, with gusts to savvy baseball.
We need to stow the ‘none of these things would happen if John Gibbons were in charge,’ because they did. When it comes to crackerjack baseball, the post-season years of 2015-2016 are a really small amount of fruit filling in an otherwise big donut of ‘meh’ surrounding either side of Gibbons’ tenures with the Blue Jays. They could pooch the ball in the field with the worst of them — it’s remarkable how they became better fielders when they hit — and while Gibbons remains the best manager of a bullpen I’ve seen other than Felipe Alou, he was even better when he had a healthy closer to go to.
Still, when it’s all said and done I can’t agree with Montoyo, who after Sunday’s doubleheader loss to Tampa intoned that his team was not yet at the Rays’ level and that’s perplexing. What happened with Hernandez on that bouncer in the seventh inning of Sunday’s doubleheader was particularly galling because he’s not a kid. There are right-fielders in the game who would have laid out for Yandy Diaz’s sinking liner. Some would have caught it. But I can’t think of another soon-to-be 28-year-old right-fielder with almost 350 career games who wouldn’t have at least recognized that with two out Austin Meadows would be running, and at the bare minimum latch onto the ball and throw it in with something approaching more than the urgency you see shagging balls during batting practice.
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The Blue Jays don’t have a closer and are losing one-run and extra-inning games because they make too many errors around the edges as well: mistakes such as Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., missing a defensive sign for a throw to first. Or Blue Jays catchers failing to throw out a runner at all this season. Dumb decisions on the basepaths. Puzzling pitch selection from Nate Pearson. Correcting those mistakes will be a challenge with the games coming fast and furious.
Yet… Hernandez looks better at the plate. Randal Grichuk’s underlying analytics suggest something is progressing. Guerrero, Jr., put the ball in the air three times during the doubleheader. Hello! The starting pitching has been good, the bullpen better than expected without Ken Giles and Bichette continued to take strides towards being a hitter who can win a batting title. Here’s hoping the knee injury doesn’t rob him of range. Anthony Kay and Ryan Borucki and Thomas Hatch will be major league pitchers. All three of them.
This weekend should have brought clarity to all of us. The Blue Jays will be relying on the generosity of others to make the playoffs and I’m OK with that.
Right now, I’ve become a man of simple pleasures.
I want to know Guerrero can be my everyday first baseman and have seen more than just a glimpse of his minor league self. I get he’s young… but there’s a lot of that going around baseball these days. I want Pearson to finish the season on the active roster, make his last start and by that point have been a guy I can pencil in for six innings. That’s all. I don’t need to see 100 m.p.h. or eight punchouts a game. Not interested. Give me a chance to compete; set me up for whatever 2021 will bring.
I said at the start of the year that it didn’t matter how many games the season would be or where the Blue Jays are at the trade deadline — which is, by the way, two weeks away. This team is at least one middle of the order hitter and a plus-defender in the outfield away from being able to sustain a two or three-year run and, ultimately, it will be Pearson’s progress that determines when it’s time to go all in.
Anyhow, that’s how I see it. Having your best player go down with an injury is a helluva way to uncomplicate a complicated season, but welcome to 2020, eh?
• Can we organize a search party for the Rays we used to know and love? Last season they were second in the majors and led the AL with a 3.65 team earned run average and gave up the fewest homers. This season they are 16th in ERA at 4.28 and 10th with 28 homers allowed. On the other hand, thanks to the 55 runs they scored on this seven-game road trip, they are second in the majors in runs scored with 121, just eight behind the Dodgers. Last season they finished 16th in the majors in runs scored. Small sample size and it’s early. But, still.
• It’s only been 23 plate appearances due to the Cardinals being ravaged by COVID-19, but there’s Maple Ridge, B.C.’s, Tyler O’Neill with a 1.191 OPS against right-handed pitching that is fourth in the Majors behind Mookie Betts (1.227), Mike Trout (1.205) and Jesse Winker (1.204). The Jays’ Bo Bichette is fifth at 1.124. O’Neill, 25, is carving out a place in the Cardinals’ crowded outfield by shaving 12 per cent off his swings outside the zone, halving his strikeout percentage from his combined total in the minors and majors in 2019 and raising his contact percentage by just over 20 per cent.
• Hyun-jin Ryu will face the Orioles Monday night and Hanser Alberto is preparing a welcoming committee. Alberto had 88 hits against lefties in 2019 to lead the majors and through a limited number of at-bats against southpaws this season he is 7-for-13 with two doubles and a home run. His 95 hits against lefties since the start of 2019 leads the majors by 10 over Charlie Blackmon of the Rockies.
• D.J. LeMahieu was put on the IL by the Yankees after spraining his left thumb on an awkward swing in Saturday’s beat-down of the Red Sox, joining Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge as sidelined sluggers. Cry me a river. Into the fire have stepped the likes of Mike Tauchman, who is hitting .405 (15-for-37) with five doubles and seven RBIs, and Clint Frazier (8-for-15, .533, with three runs and eight runs batted in since Aug. 11.) They’re rolling, all the more remarkable since while Gleyber Torres has a hit in seven of his last eight games, going 12-for-32 (.375) over that time, he has managed just two lonely extra-base hits, both of them doubles. He hasn’t homered since the third game of the season.
• Speaking of the Yankees, they’ll go for the sweep of the Red Sox on Monday, guaranteed of their 28th consecutive home series win going back to April 16, 2019. That’s long but it’s only the fourth-longest in Major League history behind the 42-series streak of the Cardinals from June 1942-May 1944. The second-longest is held by the Philadelphia Athletics (38 series from May 1930-Aug. 1931.) Next in line for the Yankees, who open a three-games series against the Rays Tuesday night? The third-longest streak of 28 series compiled between July 1883 and Sept. 1884 by the Louisville Colonels.
The Yankees, 9-0 at home going into Monday’s game, will get Aroldis Chapman back after a stint on the COVID-19 list. Smashing.
• As nobody predicted, David Ross is out of the gate early as a National League manager of the year candidate. I had him pegged as a bit of a song and dance guy who made the most of his 15 minutes of post-season fame. Wrong, boyo.
• A topic gaining more traction: If everything’s on the table, should Major League Baseball consider doing away with nine-inning games and making them seven innings?
The beautiful game has a new addition. Jeff Blair and Dan Riccio host A Kick In The Grass, a soccer podcast from Sportsnet.
Much angst over the meat-grinder schedule facing the Cardinals after the outbreak of COVID-19 on their team: 51 games over the final 43 days of the season, 27 on the road and nine doubleheaders. That works out to 53 games in 44 days, if necessary.
According to Elias, the only team facing a similar schedule was the 1975 Twins, who had 45 games in 49 days, also including 11 doubleheaders. But the 1989 Cardinals played two difficult stretches: 51 games in 49 days and 50 games in 48 days, including three doubleheaders between Aug. 10-18 and two doubleheaders over three days against the Phillies.
That ’89 Cardinals team was a favourite: It was my first year on the baseball beat full-time for The Montreal Gazette and Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog loved holding court in Montreal. They were down to the stems and seeds of those glorious, go-go Cardinals teams of the 80s and Herzog knew he was on his way out. They had three former college punters on the team, for Pete’s sake: Cris Carpenter, Vince Coleman and Matt Kinzer. They were about to become Joe Torre and then Tony La Russa’s Cardinals.
They were also over-achievers, half a game out on Sept. 8 before losing seven of eight, one of those a 4-3 loss to the Pirates on Sept. 14 in front of 1,519 fans at Busch Stadium — this in a season in which more than a National League-high 3,080,980 fans attended games at Busch Stadium.
On Sept. 13, the Cardinals had lost the first two games of the series, were three-and-a-half games out, had Jose DeLeon on the mound and were in a scoreless game when it was rained out with one out in the sixth. It was rescheduled to be played in its entirety the next afternoon — a Thursday — where the paid admission was augmented by 2,015 people who were allowed to use their ticket stubs from the night before.
The death march of games in Cardinals history, by the way, came in 1931 when they played 58 games over 49 days in May-June en route to winning the World Series. That seven-week run saw them play 13 doubleheaders, including three in a four-day span. No air travel or army of trainers, masseurs and sports psychologists either. Woof.
Jeff Blair hosts Baseball Central with Kevin Barker from 2-3 p.m. ET and Writers Bloc with Stephen Brunt and Richard Deitsch from 3-5 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590 The Fan. He also co-hosts A Kick In The Grass, Canada’s only national soccer show, with Dan Riccio Monday nights on the Sportsnet Radio Network.