The last-place Toronto Blue Jays (17-24) entered a three-game series with the first-place New York Yankees (25-16) on Friday night, trailing by eight games in the standings. Two months ago, many prognosticators believed that the Blue Jays would have been in first and the Yankees at the bottom of the American League East rounding the quarter-pole of the season.
Amid great expectations in the first five weeks, negatives snowballed until the Jays bottomed out with a 3-10 swing against Baltimore, New York, Boston and Seattle. Injuries produced inferior infield defence that aggravated the problems of a rotation slow off the mark. Meantime, the batting order was in a mass slump, hitting in the .220s and flailing wildly as several hitters tried to pull the team out of its morass with each swing.
"Pull, pull, pull, looking for the long ball," manager John Gibbons described the period. "Now we're using the whole field. That makes a huge difference."
Complicating the offensive and defensive problems, a pair of major off-season trades and signings of three free agents left many strangers in a strange land come April, their bonding adversely affected during spring training as four regular players and pitcher R.A. Dickey went to the World Baseball Classic. Team chemistry nearly fizzled out altogether as an awkward, eerie silence pervaded the clubhouse, with a few players barely restraining themselves from criticizing the fundamentally awful play occurring on the field, instead speaking to media in subtle code.
"We are starting slow and now we've got everybody together," said second baseman Maicer Izturis, one of the free-agent acquisitions along with left fielder Melky Cabrera and reserve infielder Mark DeRosa. "Everybody is talking a little bit more now and the feeling is, it's going to come together. We just have to go day to day, play together, continue to win series."
Slagged across baseball as laughable underachievers, the Jays seem to have generated an ironic underdog mentality. With a two-game sweep of World Series defending champion San Francisco this week – their first series victory at home, in seven tries – and bats exploding during a four-game win streak, they are projecting confidence now, as if to say their miserly start will be dismissed as an aberration come the dog days of summer.
"I'm not putting too much into anything right now," GM Alex Anthopoulos said this week. "It's not a six-week season. Take the Red Sox – 20-8 the first month, and they're a great team, but now they're in a stretch of [4-9]. If we were in first place, and you were asking, why did it go so right, I'd say the same thing: no idea. In 2009, we had the best record in baseball around this time, at 27-13, then had a nine-game road trip starting in Boston and went 0-9. … Things even out."
The Yankees, with a dozen players on the disabled list this season, have overcome injuries on the strength of acquisitions Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay and Travis Hafner. But they had lost three of five entering Friday, and 40-year-old pitcher Andy Pettitte's back locked up on Thursday. They are in first place primarily by having exploited the Jays, winning six of seven.
The Jays may have dug a hole so deep that with another skid even approaching April's 10-win/17-loss wreckage, their season will be lost. To reach 90 victories, likely the minimum required to capture the AL East, the Blue Jays will need to win 73 of the remaining 121 games, a .657 clip. For perspective, the Texas Rangers had the AL's top winning percentage, .659, through Thursday. The recovery formula goes like this:
Establish home advantage at Rogers Centre where the record is 9-12 and, when the roof is closed, opponents have outhomered the Jays 35-20.
Take care of business in the AL East because with AL West teams loading up on hapless Houston, the odds of landing a wild-card berth may be no better than winning the division. Starting Friday, the Blue Jays have 10 straight division games, with Tampa Bay and Baltimore in Toronto next week before a testing interleague road swing to Atlanta, San Diego and San Francisco.
Rely on their bats and patchwork rotation until injured starters Josh Johnson and J.A. Happ return. Bonus: left-hander Ricky Romero recovers his early-2012 abilities, when he started 8-1 before disintegrating.
Get shortstop Jose Reyes back in the lineup in July.
Reinforce the bullpen and rotation with Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek, Dustin McGowan and Sergio Santos coming off the disabled list.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Injuries and defence
The adage goes that injuries can't be used as an excuse, yet in Toronto's case they were at the root of offensive and defensive lapses resulting in many a loss. In particular, third baseman Brett Lawrie was hurt (oblique strain) prepping for the WBC, missing the balance of spring training and the first 14 games of the season. On April 12, Reyes tried to cruise into second base standing up at the end of a steal and sprained his ankle severely with a last-second decision to slide feet-first rather than head-first as usual. The leadoff hitter and former NL batting champion, Reyes was averaging .395 at the time.
Result: At the outset, Gibbons tried to use Izturis at third, causing a double-whammy effect. Third base is Izturis's worst position in terms of career errors per fielding chance, and transferring him across the diamond left Emilio Bonifacio (obtained from the Miami Marlins) adjusting to both the American League and to Toronto's artificial turf at second base. Izturis, a free agent from the Los Angeles Angels, was often overwhelmed, and a non-confident Bonifacio bumbled routine plays. At shortstop, the Jays turned to subpar Munenori Kawasaki out of Triple-A Buffalo, then rushed Lawrie back from his rehab stint.
The Blue Jays are in the middle of the pack for fielding percentage, but that stat doesn't reflect the number of potential double plays the Jays have failed to execute, by a conservative estimate 15 to 20. Each failure results in extra outs for opponents and puts extra pressure on the pitchers. Likewise, many of the grounders that leaked through the Jays' defence for hits would have been turned into outs by top-notch infields. One statistic measures the number of runs above or below average a team's defence is worth, based on zone coverage and other categories. On this scale, the Jays rate worse than all AL teams except the Angels and Astros, as tabulated at baseball-reference.com.
Consequence: After much experimentation, arguably indecision, Gibbons has settled on using Izturis and Kawasaki as regulars at second and shortstop, respectively. DeRosa and Bonifacio are rotating through second base and Izturis through shortstop to create favourable hitting matchups. Lawrie, a plus-defender while still raw fundamentally, has only recently started to find his timing at the plate, his batting average flirting with the Mendoza Line of .200. He is replaced occasionally by DeRosa.
All hitters except Reyes and J.P. Arencibia had slow starts. In Reyes's absence, Gibbons has used five players in the leadoff slot, settling in these past four games on Cabrera, who's hobbling on a strained hamstring. In total, the Jays' on-base percentage for leadoff hitters has just started to brush up to .300, and that includes Reyes's .465. Outside Cabrera, the OBP for the other four ranged between .105 and .286.
Meantime, the 3-4 hitters, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, slumped at the outset of the season. Bautista, impaired by ankle and back problems, was at .195 with seven homers through May 1, Encarnacion at .197 with two home runs through April 21.
Izturis, Bonifacio and Kawasaki struggled to either get over or avoid the Mendoza Line, .200.
Result: The lineup as a whole was hitting .225 with a .291 on-base percentage and .384 slugging percentage until May 5, when a 10-2 win over Seattle seemed to kick it into gear. The numbers stood at .245/.310/.416 heading into Friday.
"There's a track record with these guys in this clubhouse," Arencibia said. "There are too many guys that have done a lot of good things offensively for a long time to have that happen for an extended period of time."
Consequence: The record in games decided by one or two runs is 10-13.
The batting order's been unsettled since Reyes went down, now with six hitters used in the leadoff slot and seven in the 2-hole.
For the past four games, with outfielder and occasional leadoff hitter Rajai Davis on the DL, Gibbons has gone 1-2-3 with Cabrera (.438, three doubles, four RBIs), Bautista (.533, two HR, five RBIs) and Encarnacion (.400, one HR, five RBIs).
Bautista raised his average to .262 with four consecutive multihit games into Friday, reaching base in 19 of 20 games; Encarnacion, hitting .240, leads the team with 11 homers and 30 RBIs.
Of 15 AL teams, the rotation ranks 15th for wins and walks allowed, 14th for earned run average and walks-and-hits per inning pitched, 13th for innings pitched, 12th for batting average against, 11th for strikeouts.
Dickey (3-5, 4.83) dealt with back spasms that may have contributed to his total of 24 walks, otherwise his numbers are closely tracking last year's in New York when he won the NL Cy Young with the Mets. He has received the worst run support (3.0 per game) of any of the regular starters. Mark Buehrle (1-2, 6.19) struggled mechanically with his change-up and overall location and has surrendered 11 homers. As a ground-ball pitcher, he has been especially affected by tragic infield defence.
Josh Johnson (0-1, 6.86) had a spring so spectacular that former Jay Dan Plesac of the MLB Network predicted a Cy Young Award. Once the season began, his velocity and command were down, and he succumbed to a triceps stain on April 29. Brandon Morrow (1-2, 4.69) has been inconsistent. Happ (2-2, 4.91) started promisingly before his command began to erode, then he was struck on the side of the head with a line drive in Tampa and is now on the disabled list.
Result: When opponents score first, the Blue Jays have a 6-18 record. The Jays have reduced the size of the run differential (175 for, 210 against) significantly, but it still stands at minus-35.
Consequence: Nine different pitchers have started a game. With Johnson and Happ out, the Jays have turned to 39-year-old Ramon Ortiz and 25-year-old Chad Jenkins, the latter with a total of four major-league starts.
The lack of innings logged by the rotation has placed enormous pressure on the bullpen, which lost setup man Santos, after only five appearances, on April 14. Yet the pen, thought to be a weakness before the season, has been the team's most consistent strength. The club's been pleasantly surprised by Brett Cecil (left-handed hitters are batting .136) and Steve Delabar, who's allowed two runs in the past 11 games. Closer Casey Janssen has recorded 10 saves, retired 25 consecutive batters between April 13 and May, and allowed four hits in 43 at-bats against.