Three Things From Week Nineteen

Brett Lawrie - An Impressive Debut (from daylife.com)

 

Six games on the road last week for the Blue Jays, with the end result being a mix of bitter disappointment and joyous hope.  With the first three games of the week coming in Tampa, Toronto found thenselves with a chance to take over third place in the division, and maybe start themselves on a roll towards the Wild Card.  After taking the first game, the Jays were blown out in game two, before blowing Thursday’s game spectacularly – perhaps the most difficult loss of the season. 

But after that carnage came the hope . Travis Snider was once again sacrificed to the minors, but this time coming back in his stead was the man Jays fans have been waiting for all season long.  And Brett Lawrie didn’t disappoint, leading the Jays to a series victory over the O’s and back to within striking distance of the Rays.

With the team returning home to play a fairly soft August schedule, the sky’s the limit.

Here are three things from week 19:

Week 19: August 1 – August 7

 Record: 3 – 3

1. The Kid Has Arrived

On December 6, 2010 Alex Anthopoulos dropped a bombshell.  Gone was Shaun Marcum, the team’s workhorse and most consistent starting pitcher.  Coming back to Toronto was Brett Lawrie, Milwaukee’s first round pick in 2008, a top prospect, and a Canadian to boot.  Though opening himself up to criticism for fans who wanted to win now, AA must have envisioned all along what Lawrie could provide the lineup.  After a tease in Spring Training, and a injury in the minors, Lawrie finally made his debut last week. 

The debut of Kyle Drabek was exciting.  The debut of Carlos Delgado was memorable.  But the debut of Brett Lawrie was off the charts.

Three games.  Five hits.  One home run.  Two RBI’s.  A .455 AVG and a 1.182 OPS.  Whatever you were expecting from the kid, he exceeded it. 

And therein lies the danger.  The expectations are enormous.  He is only 21 years old, and has played only three major league games.  Labels such as “The Great Canadian Superstar” or “Franchise Saviour” might be a little aggressive.  Let’s give him a few months, and a few home games first. 

After that we can just refer to him as Prime Minister.

2. Ricky Romero – Staff Ace

There is no official definition of a staff ace, no Webster’s or Oxford dictionary entries.  But if there were, I would list the following attributes: consistent, dependable, gives the team a chance to win each and every start, stopper of losing streaks, dominant.

Then I would put a photo of Ricky Romero beside it.

Romero has been flirting with the ace label for a while, but was always seen as being one step away.  Well, it last week was any indication – he’s made that step.

Romero pulled of two straight victories, pitching eight innings in each start, and giving up a total of five hits with 12 strikeouts.  Though his walk total is still a bit high to be considered one of the AL’s elite, it is encouraging to note that he walked zero in Sunday’s start vs. Baltimore.

But what’s even more encouraging, is that with the Blue Jays bullpen in shambles and seemingly getting worse by the day, Romero has decided to take matters into his own hands.  He has now pitched at least eight innings in three straight starts (all wins) and seven innings in four straight.  His season ERA has dropped to 2.94, and he has moved into the top-10 in the AL in strikeouts.   

That sounds ace-like to me.

3. Toronto’s Hottest Hitter – Edwin Encarnacion?  What?

Yes, ladies and gentlemen.  Believe it.  The much maligned, heavily criticized, and widely scorned Mr. Encarnacion is on a hitting tear.  In six games last week, EE posted a .381 batting average, and a .956 OPS with 2 doubles, and 5 runs scored.  He walked more times than he struck out, and has now hit safely in seven straight games and 12 of his past 13. 

Edwin’s average now sits at a season high .277 and his OPS at a season high .772.  He is giving the Jays a bonafide slugger in the middle of the lineup, especially crucial right now with Jose Bautista and Adam Lind both scuffling a bit.

He seems to have found a new home as Toronto’s DH, as he is hitting substantially higher when he doesn’t have to play defense.  As a 3B this year, EE was plagued by defensive woes, which obviously transferred over to his hitting (.223 AVG / .678 OPS).  But as a DH, Edwin has thrived: .324 AVG / .859 OPS, which makes one wonder how much damage he could have done if installed as the DH back on Opening Day. 

Not only has he saved the Jays in recent days with his hot hotting, he has also saved himself.  His hot hand is the sole reason why it was Travis Snider, and not himself, who was exiled to Vegas to make room for Lawrie.

The Day I Lost AND Regained Hope in the Blue Jays

A terrible game. Just awful.

I’ve seen the Jays play terrible games before. I’ve seen them thumped by double digits. I’ve seen them get no-hit. I’ve seen them blow big leads time and again.

But yesterday’s game was different. Yesterday stung. Really, really stung.

Sure all losses hurt. But at first glance it seems odd that one would hurt more than another. An early August game between a third and fourth place team? Doesn’t seem like a big game.

But this is why it hurt: deep, deep down, I still had faith in this team. I still believed that the Jays were capable of stringing together a bunch of wins and making a move. I still believed that they could claw back in the Wild Card

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chase and make September really mean something.

It all looked good. Take two of three from Tampa and then being a stretch of games against the weaklings of the AL. When Bautista crushed the game tying blast in the eighth, it seemed like it was really going to happen. You had the feeling that they would prevail.

Yet somehow the Jays snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

So that’s why yesterday hurt so much. It hurt because I no longer have any hope in this club competing for a playoff spot this season. Not with this bullpen. Not with relievers who blow two saves in one game – two saves in two innings! Not with relievers who have combined for 19 blown saves this year. Let me say that again – 19 BLOWN SAVES!! I know the blown save stat can be a little misleading, but still…19 blown saves is a lot. Not when the guys you pay to finish games (Jon Rauch and Frank Francisco) are arguably your worst and most inconsistent pitchers.

At about 4:30 PM yesterday I came to the sad, stark realization that the Toronto Blue Jays of 2011 are done. Finished. Toast.

Then, suddenly, about 10 minutes after the game ended, things changed. Suddenly, hope returned. Faith was restored.

Not so much for this season. A playoff spot in 2011 remains a pipe dream. But with the callup of Brett Lawrie, a Wild Card birth in 2012 might not seem like such a wild idea. With two months of major league seasoning, Lawrie might be ready to explode in 2012. With (hopefully) the return of Snider, the Jays will have a potent offense lead by Bautista, Lawrie, Snider, Rasmus, Lind, Escobar, and Arencibia. With Romero leading the rotation, and Morrow, Cecil, Mills, Litsch, and Drabek behind him, the starters look good.

If they can only fix that damn bullpen, hope might spring eternal.

Ten Things I Never Thought I’d See At This Stage Of The Season

The calendar has turned to August.  The Jays are scheduled to play game number 110 tonight. 

What does all this mean?

Well, it means that the baseball season is getting closer to the end, closer to the stretch run and the pennant races.  It means that the dog days of summer are slowly coming to a close. 

With over 2/3 of the season done, the law of averages was supposed to have kicked in.  By now the hot starters should have come back to earth, and the slow starters should have come back to their career norms. 

Except…

Not everybody.

Here are 10 things that I never thought I’d see at this stage of the season:

1. The Arizona Diamondbacks are 61-49 and tied for first in the NL West.  For a team that lost 97 games and finished dead last in 2010, are lead by a rookie manager in his first full season, and didn’t make any significant offseason pickups, that is shocking.

2. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians are still hanging around.  Though both have started to slip up recently, these perennial losers both still sit within 6 games of first place in their divisions.  A good finish by the Pirates and they may finally finish over .500 for the first time since 1992.

3. Adam Dunn is still this bad.  I picked him to win the AL MVP, but Dunn is hitting .165 with a .597 OPS, only 10 HR and an unreal 138 strikeouts. 

4. Lance Berkman is still this good.  He looked like he was finished after last season, when he limped home after a disappointing playoff run with the Yankees.  But in 2011 he is rejuvenated.  He has kept up his great start and leads the NL with 28 HR.

5. The Houston Astros still attract actual, live human beings to their home games.  Despite their terrible record (36 – 74), despite the fact that they are in last place, and despite the fact that they have nobody left of name recognition after dealing Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, the Astros actually rank 11th out of 16 NL teams in attendance.  In fact, over 22,000 fans came out to the game last night.  Crazy!

6. Jose Molina is still hitting over. 300.  Yes you can scream small sample size, but still – the Jays catcher has 116 AB, and has an OPS of .803.  This is a guy who’s best average coming into this season was .261, so this performance is surprising to say the least.

7. Jo-Jo Reyes lasted 20 starts.  He is gone now, but I don’t think I’m alone when I say I thought he would have been gone a long, long time ago.  Only Ricky Romero has made more starts for Toronto this year, and with the way Reyes performed, it makes you wonder how he made anywhere near that many starts.

8. Kyle Drabek is in Triple-A.  I thought he would have a breakout season, cut down on the walks, pile up the strikeouts and stake a permanent claim to the #3 spot in the rotation.  I was way, way wrong.

9. According to the Baseball Reference WAR stat, Yunel Escobar has been the second best Blue Jay hitter this season – by a mile.  You’d think that Adam Lind should comfortably be in that slot, but it’s Yunel with a 4.0 WAR to Lind’s 1.6.  I thought Yunel was going to be good, but a .305 AVG, .831 OPS, 10 HR kind of good? 

10.  Aaron Hill is as valuable to this team as Mike McCoy.  That’s right.  Both have a WAR of 0.2, but McCoy has earned a 0.2 WAR in only 90 plate appearances compared to Hill’s 373.  By August I was sure we’d see Hill’s average back to the .255 range and the power return with a HR total in the teens.  Not.  Even.  Close.

Three Things From Week 18

Robbie Alomar honoured on Sunday (from daylife.com)

 

With the end of week 18 came the end of July, but the start of something brand new for the Blue Jays.  It was a week dominated by off the field news, starting with a massive trade and ending with a massive celebration.  The Blue Jay team that took to the field in April has been profoundly changed for the better, as has the space above the JumboTron, now complete with a number 12 hanging proudly.

But the off-field news shouldn’t dwarf the on-field accomplishments.  Toronto went 4-2 last week to move to two games over the .500 mark.  They took two of three from the red hot Texas Rangers, and proved just a little bit more to the rest of the league that they aren’t as far away as many might think.

They also moved to within a game and a half of third place Tampa Bay.  With Toronto beginning a three game set with the Rays in Tampa on Tuesday, it’s not out of the question that we could soon be talking about the third place Jays.

Here are three things from week 18:

Week 18: July 25 – July 31

 Record: 4 – 2

1. Changes A Plenty

Toronto took to the field on Tuesday and were shellacked by the Orioles.  The next day everything changed.

In the blink of an eye, Zach Stewart, Jason Frasor, Marc Rzepczynski, Octavio Dotel, and Corey Patterson were gone.  Brian Tallet and Trever Miller were back.  Quasi-Canadian Mark Teahan and his overpriced contract had arrived to strengthen the bench.  And big, bad, Colby Rasmus was our new CF. 

Fans are understandably excited about Rasmus.  He is young (turns 25 next week).  He plays great defense.  He can hit.  He can run.  And he is only getting better.  Though he didn’t get off the quickest start with the team, his 2 for 4, 2 RBI game on Sunday gave us a glimpse of what he can do.  Combined with Jose Bautista, Adam Lind, Yunel Escobar, and Brett Lawrie, the Jays have a poweful offensive core to move forward with.

But that wasn’t it for changes last week.  P.J. Walters, a pitcher acquired with Rasmus, arrived, pitched a scoreless inning, then was sent down to Vegas for Jessie Litsch.  Brad Mills came up for a start on Saturday and pitched very well (7 IP, 2 ER, 6 H, 2 BB, 5 K).  And Toronto was seemingly mentioned in trade talks with several big name players, including Ubaldo Jimenez and Wandy Rodriguez.

Though there is still an opportunity for the Jays to add a player or two before the August waiver deadline, the biggest change is still to come.  Brett Lawrie is waiting patiently, and hopefully it won’t be long now…

2. Middle of the Order Blues

It’s not often when you can say that Jose Bautista is slumping.  But last week was a tough one for J-Bau.  He went hitless in three of the six games, and was held off base completely twice (though to be fair, getting hit in the head by a fastball had something to do with one of those).  For the week he went just 4 for 19 with 2 R and 1 RBI.  He also hasn’t hit a home run since July 9th in Cleveland, a span of 14 consecutive games without one.

Adam Lind finds himself in a funk as well, after a 2 for 20 week.  While he did slug a HR on Tuesday, Lind also struck out five times, and managed only one single the rest of the week.  His average has slipped to .279 and his OPS to .817 – the lowest it’s been since May 3rd.

Luckily for Toronto, two players have stepped up.  Edwin Encarnacion, thought to be a potential trade target, destroyed Baltimore and Texas: 8 for 20, .400 AVG, 1.328 OPS, 2 HR and 4 RBI.  His season OPS now sits at .758 – the highest it has been all season.  Likewise, J.P. Arencibia has snapped back to life.  With his back to the Mendoza line, the catcher has caught fire, hitting safely in all five games he played in last week, with 2 HR and 7 RBI.  He now has slugged five home runs in his past eight games, looking much more like the Rookie of the Year candidate that 500 Level Fan made him out to be this season.

Now we just need all four of those guys clicking at the same time.

3. Toronto Immortality

Quite a pair of Sunday’s for Roberto Alomar.  First he earned the biggest prize in baseball – induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.  One week later he was honoured with the highest award in Toronto Blue Jays history.  Number 12 will never be worn again.

On Sunday Alomar saw his jersey number rise to the rafters at Rogers Centre, becoming the first player in Blue Jays history to have his number retired.  In front of a sellout crowd, his parents, and many of his former teammates, Robbie basked in a perfect day and reminded fans of the glory days of this franchise.

Now with #12 hanging in centre field, the glory days will never be far away.