The 18th week (August 2 – ‘8) of the Blue Jays season had been outlined in red for some time. At the beginning of the season this portion seemed like a perfect time to play spoiler and make a real impact on the pennant races for some contenders. But as we inched closer to the beginning of the “Great 38” (a 38 game stretch starting August 2 where the Jays play only .500 teams) it was clear that Toronto has become bigger and better than spoilers.
While the club may still be young and a year or two away from true contention, these games will ultimately serve as a true litmus test. Thrown into an August and September pressure cooker is the perfect way to measure the capabilities of a team. Over the next several weeks fans will get a true chance to see just how close these Blue Jays are to restoring the glory years in Toronto.
After the first week of this stretch? We are close. Very close.
Here are three things from week 18:
1. What A Weekend!!!
The weekend of August 7/8 has to go down as one of the most exciting, and potentially one of the most important, in Blue Jays history. On Saturday, catching phenom J.P. Arencibia made his major league debut – and what a debut it was. The kid hit a home run on the first pitch he ever saw in the major leagues, launched another one in the sixth, and added a single and a double to become the first player since 1900 to have two HR and two other hits in his major league debut. He became the fifth player in history to hit multiple home runs in his first ever game. His final line (4-5, 2 HR, 2B, 3 R, 3 RBI) helped the Jays to an exciting 17-11 win against the Wild Card leading Rays, and actually managed to exceed the hype surrounding him.
But fans were treated to an even grander spectacle on Sunday. Brandon Morrow has often been described as having “no-hit stuff”, and on Sunday he proved it. The fact that he had a no-hitter broken up with two outs in the ninth on a weak ground ball to second stings, but Jays fans are becoming accustomed to this. Dave Stieb (three times), and Roy Halladay have also lost no-hit bids with one out remaining. To me the biggest accomplishment to his outing was the next batter he faced. It was only 1-0 Toronto, with runners on first and third, Dan Johnson at the plate, and Morrow already over 130 pitches. The fact that he was able to bear down and strike Johnson out shows maturity and composure – something I’m not sure he could have done back in April. His final line (CG, 1 H, 2 BB, 17 Ks, 137 pitches) helped the Jays finish off the sweep.
2. Shh…We’re Contenders Now…
One of the funniest scenes in Major League is when the Indians film an American Express commercial:
Dorn: “People still don’t recognize us but…”
Brown: “We’re contenders now”
The Jays are a team consisting of players that the average fan likely wouldn’t recognize at Jack Astor’s, Tim Horton’s, or Pizza Pizza (I’m looking you Buck, Tallet, Lewis, Overbay, Molina, Camp, Purcey…). But that hasn’t stopped them from quietly tearing up the league, and improving rather than the annual July/August fade we have become accustomed to.
A lot has been made about this 38 game stretch against contending teams, and with a 5-1 start against the defending World Champs and best team in baseball New York, and the Wild Card leading Rays, Toronto has come out of the gates strong. While the 10.5 game deficit in the AL East might be too much to overcome, the Jays have trimmed Tampa’s Wild Card lead to eight games. It is still fairly early and there is still a lot of baseball left to be played, but I’m going to go ahead and say it anyways….gulp….
We’re contenders now.
3. The Price of Success
For any team in any sport to be successful they have to avoid injuries. So far this season, Toronto has been fairly lucky in that aspect of the game. By my count the Jays have only used the disabled list during the season five times before week 18 – Aaron Hill, Edwin Encarnacion, and Brian Tallet in April, Travis Snider in May, and Shaun Marcum in July. In contrast, my unofficial count has the Red Sox making use of the DL 13 times.
Unfortunately for the Jays, week 18 wasn’t very kind. Despite going 5-1 they were forced to deal with a number of injuries. John Buck was placed on the 15-day DL on Thursday with a lacerated right thumb. On Friday, Jessie Litsch was lost for the season with a tear in his right hip. Finally, yesterday Toronto lost Vernon Wells to a dislocated right big toe after he made a sensational catch to preserve Morrow’s no-hitter in the sixth. Vernon is currently listed as day-to-day.
As if starting the most difficult stretch of the season wasn’t tough enough, now the Jays must do it without three of their starters. But after last week, it looks like there’s nothing this team can’t handle.