Last week presented an interesting challenge for the Blue Jays. First up was a three game set against the surprising AL Central leading Cleveland Indians. The Indians, predicted by many to lose over 100 games, got off to the best start in baseball and despite their recent struggles proved they are no fluke by taking two of three.
The Jays then took off to Baltimore for a weekend series against 2010 whipping boys the Baltimore Orioles, a team they swept five different times last year. Turns out that Toronto still owns the O’s in ’11 – they took the series and came within one pitch of another sweep, a Mark Reynolds grand slam off Ricky Romero the difference.
With the Jays buoyed by the return of Adam Lind and the imminent arrival of Brett Lawrie, is the 2011 team finally poised to make some noise in the East?
Here are three things from week 10:
Week 10: May 30 – June 5
Record: 3 – 3
After missing 24 games with tightness in his back, Toronto ’s 1B returned to the line-up on Saturday night. After an 0 for 3 performance in his first game back, Lind picked up where he left off in early May by going 4 for 4 with two HR on Sunday afternoon, leading the Jays to victory.
Despite the fact that the Toronto went 14-10 without Lind in the line-up (and despite the fact that Juan Rivera actually played capable if not above-average defense in
his absence), his presence was sorely missed. When he hit the DL Lind was hitting .313 with an .858 OPS and 7 home runs. He was also in the midst of a 17 game stretch that saw him collect at least one hit in 14 of those games, slug 6 HR, drive in 18 runs, and hit .388 with a 1.098 OPS.
Even more important, however, is that Jose Bautista is finally starting to play like a relatively more normal major league baseball player, instead of a machine. It doesn’t help that teams have started walking him more and deploying a defensive shift against him. Opposing managers don’t seem to mind opposite field singles by J-Bau – keeping him in the park is a greater reward. But giving up opposite field singles, and then having to face a red-hot Adam Lind is a different story. Lind’s presence only helps Bautista keep crushing the opposition.
2. Yunel: Tony v2.0?
The shortstop position has been a black hole for the Blue Jays for a number of years. Ever since the great Tony Fernandez retired, SS has been a revolving door of less than spectacular players. We’ve had Russ Adams. We’ve had Chris Woodward. We’ve seen Tony Batista, Royce Clayton, and David Eckstein. We’ve even see two different Alex Gonzalez’s.
But now, finally, it looks like we have stability.
The arrival of Yunel Escobar from Atlanta last year was seen by some as a bad move. This was a guy with a rocky temperament who had been on a downward spiral for two years. Why bother? Well, now that he is happy and relaxed we are seeing just how good Yunel can be.
Through Sunday’s games he is hitting .290. As a shortstop (only counting AB while playing SS), he is hitting .287. His .810 OPS is the third highest in the American League, behind Jhonny Peralta and Asdrubal Cabrera. His seven HR are tied for second. He has been by far the best SS in the AL East this season. Neither Baltimore , Boston , nor Tampa Bay has a SS with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title. The Yankees have Derek Jeter (.667 OPS). Escobar also has a 2.1 WAR, and a +3 Zone Runs above average rating, showing his exceptional defense.
He continued his fine play last week by hitting .304 with a 1.037 OPS in Toronto’s six games, including delivering the decisive hit in Sunday’s win (a three-run bomb).
Though nobody will ever forget Tony, Escobar is doing his best to make us get excited about the present, not the past.
3. Jo-Jo Goes Win-Win
Jo-Jo Reyes went almost three calendar years without registering a win. His winless streak was making headlines on major US media outlets, such as Sports Illustrated, CBS, Fox Sports, and ESPN. After he was clobbered by the Yankees on May 25th, he tied the major league record for most consecutive starts without a win. Things looked bleak.
But as the great Joe Posnanski wrote here, the streak was meaningless, essentially a made-up statistic to satisfy baseball writers. I highly recommend reading his article. It is a great read by a prominent sports writer.
On top of that, it’s not like Reyes pitched terribly this year. While it’s true he failed to get to the fifth inning in four of his starts, he also made it to the seventh inning in four of his starts before last week. He pitched well enough to win in April against the Angels and Rays, and then in May against Rays, Twins, and Astros. As a bottom-of-the-rotation starter, giving your team a chance to win is all that’s required. He accomplished that.
But still, getting a win was mandatory for piece of mind. On Monday he finally broke through, going the distance against the first place Indians. The standing ovation, the chants of “Jo-Jo” in the stands, and the resulting Gatorade shower by his teammates was well deserved. But to me, more impressive than getting the win to break the streak was his performance on Sunday: 6.1 IP, 3 ER, W. Instead of letting the emotion of Monday’s win overtake him and losing focus, he went right back to work on
Sunday, earning a huge win for his team.
If Reyes can keep pitching the way he has been, the Jays (and the fans) will be thrilled.