Several Major League teams may be suffering from a long World Baseball Classic hangover. There's a case to be made it has been a factor in the Blue Jays' slow start.
Toronto moved to 12-21 on the season by completing a comeback from a seven-run deficit to Tampa Bay on Monday, as J.P. Arencibia hit a two-run homer off closer Fernando Rodney for an 8-7 win at Tropicana Field.
Rodney, one of the two relievers deployed by WBC champion Dominican Republic at the back of the bullpen, blew his second save opportunity in six attempts, one season after converting 48 of 50 saves. His earned run average is 5.06 versus 0.60, and he's permitted 19 base runners in 10-2/3 innings.
Jose Reyes, the Dominican Republic's shortstop and the Jays leadoff hitter, lasted 10 games in the regular season before suffering an ankle injury that sent the offence into a nosedive. The Jays have scored four runs or fewer in 18 of 23 games since his departure. Overall, the Jays are 9-0 when scoring five runs or more, 3-21 when scoring four runs or fewer. Before breaking out with 18 runs in the last two games, they had scored a total of three runs in the previous four games versus Seattle and Boston's better pitchers.
Toronto had five players of its roster at the WBC:
- Arencibia played for the U.S. team with starting pitcher R.A. Dickey. While his bat certainly wasn't hurt by the WBC experience - presently he leads AL catchers in most offensive categories - Arencibia lost two weeks of Grapefruit League time to work with a pitching rotation that includes newcomers Buehrle, Josh Johnson and R.A. Dickey. The latter relies upon a catcher able to handle his knuckleball. Buehrle especially vests total trust in his catcher in order to work at a quick pace without shaking off signs. As an experiment, manager John Gibbons started Henry Blanco on Monday rather than Arencibia, to see if that battery combination would be more effective. Gibbons said the decision was made independently, without Buehrle's input.
- Dickey (2-5, 5.36) pitched twice during the WBC to Arencibia, giving up five runs on 11 hits in nine innings. Soon after the regular season began, he admitted to upper back stiffness. It's unknown whether his musculature was affected by getting his 38-year-old body cranked up one month ahead of the normal schedule. What is evident - in seven starts, his 2012 NL Cy Young prowess has surfaced only sporadically. (Dickey's also been victimized by run support, 13 in seven starts). Based in part on the WBC experience with Dickey, Arencibia got the Opening Day start, allowed three passed balls in the first two innings in a 4-1 loss to Cleveland, and has since been replaced by Blanco as Dickey's personal catcher.
- Reyes, obtained with Buehrle in the November trade with Miami and an athlete with a history of leg woes, is expected to be on the sidelines up to three months. The Jays have missed him in the field, replaced at shortstop by the defensively inferior Munenori Kawasaki, and at the plate. Seemingly forever in a search of an effective leadoff hitter, the Jays watched Reyes start with a .395 batting average and .465 on-base percentage. Brett Lawrie, the latest replacement, is batting .148 in the leadoff slot through seven games, with a .258 on-base percentage.
- Lawrie dove for several grounders in a WBC tuneup game for Canada, injured an oblique muscle in his abdomen, missed the WBC plus the remainder of spring training plus the first 14 games of the regular season. With Reyes out, the infield had been sabotaging the pitching staff by routine, so the Jays rushed him back at least three, possibly six days ahead of schedule in order to solidify third base. He is batting .197 overall in 18 games.
- Cleanup hitter Edwin Encarnacion played for the Dominican Republic and hurt a finger during the WBC. After participating in a total of eight spring training games, he had two hits in his first seven games. Following a spurt in the last part of April, he has four hits in 25 at-bats in May and his batting .222 overall, with nine homers and a team-high 21 RBIs.
Meantime, the Blue Jays have a 4-3 record in Buehrle's starts, while his personal win-loss mark is 1-2 with a 7.02 ERA. He gave up all seven runs in the third inning on Monday, while holding Tampa Bay scoreless in the other five to give the batting order a comeback opportunity. Esmil Rogers, Darren Oliver (1-1) and Casey Janssen (save No. 8) each pitched a scoreless inning.
"It's frustrating, I'm not doing much to help this team win right now, but a neat win to watch these guys battle back today," he said on Monday night. "Soon as I gave up seven, we could have just rolled over, but this offence went out there, battled, gave us a win."
Buehrle's throwing his fastball as hard as last season in Miami but location of his pitches isn't up to his trademark consistency. A 13-year veteran, Buehrle characteristically runs into trouble in one inning; limiting the damage in that frame is key to success, he has said. On Monday, he gave up a grand slam to Evan Longoria and a two-run homer to Luke Scott, the seventh and eighth homers allowed in the past three games.
"I've got to keep guys off the bases," Buehrle said. "At 2-1 [in the count], I'm not trying to throw a cookie to Longoria and at the same time I don't want to walk him [with the bases loaded]. I threw a changeup, and the last couple of starts it seems my changeup has been cutting (moving sideways) instead of sinking. Eight out of 10 are good but those two cutting back are the ones I'm getting hurt on. It's frustrating, but I'll keep on working and try to do what I can do to have a good game and pick this offence up."