What you missed in Blue Jays land: Hustle from Diaz to Travis

What you missed in Blue Jays land: Hustle from Diaz to Travis

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Aledmys Diaz has filled in admirably for Troy Tulowitzki all season. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

Every Sunday in this space I’ll be doing my best to bring you little tidbits about the week (or in this case week and a half) in the world of the Toronto Blue Jays that you might not have seen. 

Whenever you have a week where you earn a sweep, it’s almost always going down as a success. Even though the Blue Jays dropped two of their first three games in New York, you’ll take a 4-2 stretch wherever you can find one.

Things tended to go right for the Blue Jays this week, whether it was a successful doubleheader featuring a Joe Biagini cameo, a memorable Lourdes Gurriel Jr. debut in the Bronx, or more Luke Maile magic.

Here a couple of the little things that might have passed you by amidst all the excitement:

Aledmys Diaz does Aaron Loup a favour

There’s no good way to measure hustle, but if you’re in the business of trying it’s interesting to see how players perform when games are out of reach one way or the other. On Tuesday – with the Blue Jays up 11-3 in the seventh – Diaz showed off his motor by ranging into the gap to knock down a ball that saved an utterly meaningless run.

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Via MLB.tv

The only real beneficiary of this play was Aaron Loup who was able to escape the inning without tarnishing his ERA – but it did show that Diaz is the kind of guy who’s not going to coast, even when coasting is more or less justified.

Obligatory Biagini quote of the week

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Joe Biagini got his first taste of big-league action of the season on Tuesday. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

The Toronto media has a love-hate relationship with Biagini, who is certainly capable of a notable soundbite, but also tends to engage in lengthy filibusters and explore multiple tangents in a single answer.

That said, there’s no doubt he’s a character, and when he rolled through town to assist the Blue Jays in Game 2 of their Tuesday doubleheader, he made a post-game impact. Prior to answering questions he tried in vain to make the Sportsnet and TSN mic operators use each other’s equipment. Then, he was asked how the ball felt coming out of his hand – to which he responded with this gem:

“I feel like it got smaller the farther it went away from me… but maybe that’s just an illusion.”

The ball finds Steve Pearce

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Steve Pearce had an adventurous doubleheader in the field. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Pearce started at first base for the first time this season after playing just 55 innings at the position in 2017. He wasn’t given much time to settle in as the very first ball of the game came right for him at 91.7 mph. The result wasn’t exactly pretty:

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Via MLB.tv

Luckily for Pearce, who has traditionally been an above-average first baseman, he was able to make up for his mistake just a few plays later – and save a run in the process.

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Via MLB.tv

That’s a very athletic play for a 35-year-old. Pearce may not be called on to man first much this year, but an eventful inning like that certainly helped shake off some rust.

Devon Travis making it happen on the bases

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Devon Travis has had a rough start to the year, but he does some of the little things that help the Blue Jays win. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

When you’re not swinging the bat well – which Travis hasn’t been lately – it’s always nice when you can do something else to help your team win. In Game 2 of Tuesday’s doubleheader, the Blue Jays second baseman made a subtle play on the bases that could have been the catalyst for a walk-off win.

After reaching on a single, Travis took a big risk and chugged all the way to third on a ground ball base hit to left field by Pearce:

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Via MLB.tv

It’s a very strong read by Travis who notes the slow-moving ball and a noodle-armed Jon Jay, whose arm has been worth -22 runs in his career per FanGraphs. The situation also made this a crucial gamble as Travis got himself to third with less than two outs to put the Blue Jays in a position to win the game with just a medium-depth flyball.

As it happens, Curtis Granderson struck out as the next man up to nullify the importance of this play, but it really showcased the quickness and smarts that Travis brings to the base paths. It’s also hard to fault this kind of hustle.

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Via MLB.tv

Scuffling Justin Smoak

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Justin Smoak has flashed his 2017 form, but he hasn’t sustained it. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

When a team scores 43 runs over a six-game span, it’s easy for anyone who’s struggling to go unnoticed. Randal Grichuk didn’t have that luxury this week thanks to an ugly overall line and a red-hot Teoscar Hernandez, but Smoak certainly did.

In the midst of surprisingly strong performances from the likes of Hernandez, Yangervis Solarte and the Pearce/Granderson platoon, Smoak’s poor output has gone largely unnoticed – but it has been significant. Since his two-homer outing against the Yankees on April 1, Smoak has hit just .172/.310/.224 with three extra-base hits. This week he was a similar .143/.280/.190 with just three knocks – one of them a double.

Because Smoak is carrying a healthy walk rate of 14.8% and showing the kind of selectivity at the plate that fueled his 2017 breakout, it’s far too early to be to concerned. At the same time, when some of this club’s more surprising contributors come back to earth a little bit they will need Smoak to step things up.

Covington Catholic graduate Luke Maile puts stamp on Toronto Blue Jays

Covington Catholic graduate Luke Maile puts stamp on Toronto Blue Jays

EDGEWOOD – Luke Maile has not been known for his hitting at the major league level. The Covington Catholic graduate has been able to stay at the highest level of pro baseball with his defense at catcher.

When Maile began spring training with the Toronto Blue Jays in February, his grandfather, Dick Maile, told a crowd at the Northern Kentucky Sports Hall of Fame that he was optimistic his hitting would improve after he had arthroscopic knee surgery late last season.

That has been more than prophetic so far this season. Maile is hitting .480 entering play on April 20, with 12 hits in 25 at-bats in seven total games, six starts. Four of those hits have been doubles, and he has driven in nine runs this season, helping Toronto to a 12-6 start.

Tuesday night, April 17, Maile had two hits in the last three innings. He started at catcher, and with the bases loaded in the seventh inning – a situation he was often pinch-hit for in the past – Maile hit a two-run double. With the bases loaded in the 10th inning and one out, he singled to right field to win the game, 5-4.

MORE: A video of Luke Maile’s walkoff hit April 17

The next night, he pinch-hit late in the game and went 2-for-2 with a walk, scoring two runs and driving in one. 

Maile had only seven RBI in 130 at-bats last season and he drove in 15 in 119 at-bats in 2016.

The early start has been a boon for Maile, who is the backup catcher for Toronto.

And a far cry from his first three years in the majors. Maile came into the new year with a career batting average of .183 in 284 at-bats, with five home runs, 15 doubles and 24 RBI and 22 runs scored in those years. He had started 79 games in three years before his hot start this season.

He played the 2015 and 2016 seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, who released him at the start of the 2017 season. Toronto picked him up and he spent part of the season in the minors, and on the disabled list with knee inflammation, which was fixed by the late-season surgery. He was active in September and did well at the plate, his grandfather said.

His defense has been a drawing card to both organizations. He threw out half of his base stealers in single-A in 2013. He has thrown out one-third of base stealers in his MLB career. Toronto pitchers had a 3.50 ERA last season with him. This season, only two steals had been attempted against him before he threw out a basestealer Thursday night against the New York Yankees. He only has seven career errors.

Fans on social media have derided his hitting over the years, but not lately. At one point Tuesday night, his name was second place in Canada on Twitter trending behind the just-deceased Barbara Bush. The Blue Jays Twitter account calls him “The Maile Man” and has made several references this week to him “delivering.”

“I’m just trying to get good pitches to hit,” Maile told MLB.com. “I think the biggest thing is I’m swinging at strikes. Last year, I think, it wasn’t so much a swing thing, as it was a plate discipline thing. Swinging at strikes is probably reason No. 1 I feel a little better…It means a lot to me. I’ve only got about 300 at-bats in the big leagues so I don’t have a ton of experience with it. I feel like I have a lot of experience behind the plate, but in big situations, I don’t have a ton. It means a lot. Just kind of put it in the reservoir for later, have a little success in late innings.”

Manager John Gibbons said he has played great.

“When we got him, he was basically known for his defense. He struggled last year, but when he came back from a knee injury, I thought he was swinging the bat much better. I think what’s helped him is a little bit more playing time,” he said.

The Blue Jays are relying on Maile a lot more this season because Russell Martin, a veteran starter and a former All-Star, is on a schedule where he only plays two out of every three games.

In a quote widely spread on Toronto media Tuesday night after Maile’s walkoff hit, Martin quipped with a smile on his face, “Forget Wally Pipp, I’ve been Luke Maile’d.”

At CovCath, he was the Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior. At UK, he was named to the 2012 All-SEC second team as a junior at the University of Kentucky and was a semi-finalist for the Dick Howser Trophy and the USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award. Originally selected by the Red Sox in the 43rd round of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft.

Struggling Blue Jays outfielder Grichuk finally shown the bench

Struggling Blue Jays outfielder Grichuk finally shown the bench

NEW YORK — Blue Jays right-fielder Randal Grichuk is hitting so poorly, the American Astronomical Society is apparently thinking of naming a black hole after him.

In 18 games, Grichuk’s .088 batting average is the second-lowest in MLB (behind Logan Morrison .068).

John Gibbons kept parading Grichuk out to right field to see if he could work his way out of his slump. But after Friday’s 4-3 loss at Yankee Stadium, where Grichuk went 0-for-4, often with runners in scoring position, striking out three times, Gibbons decided enough is enough.

Toronto’s manager put Curtis Granderson in right on Friday with Teoscar Hernandez in left and Kevin Pillar in his usual spot in centre.

Grichuk was a key off-season add — acquired from the Cardinals on Jan.19 for right-handed pitchers Dominic Leone and Conner Greene — but has not come close to delivering the goods for the Jays.

The original plan was for Hernandez — who was recalled from triple-A Buffalo on April 13 when Josh Donaldson was sidelined by an injury — to be sent back down to the minors when designated hitter Kendrys Morales came off the disabled list on Friday.

Gibbons has options, but Hernandez is hitting .375 with an 1.108 OPS, forcing a change in plans and for Grichuk to sit. Hernandez tied Friday’s game in the third inning with a two-run blast to left.

“I think would be crazy not to have him in there,” Gibbons said of Hernandez. “He’s giving us good at-bats, he’s been producing. He’s really locked in.”

Gibbons must find a way to get his five outfielders and his DH into games. But don’t be surprised to see Grichuk on the bench more often.

“We do have a little logjam. It won’t be ideal. But we’ll make sure they all get something,” Gibbons said.

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Blue Jays show they are class above also-rans with Royals sweep

Blue Jays show they are class above also-rans with Royals sweep

Justin Smoak has been on point all season long for the Blue Jays. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays are a far better team than the Kansas City Royals right now.

This statement is far from a shock. The Blue Jays are a team hoping to contend while the Royals came into this season expecting to tread water – at best. When they opened the series Toronto had a 9-5 record to Kansas City’s 3-10. So, it wasn’t altogether surprising to see the Blue Jays earn a sweep, culminating in a 15-5 win on Wednesday.

It was, however, a good sign for a team that was living in also-ran country thanks to an anemic offence just one year ago.

“I don’t know what I expected [from this lineup],” J.A. Happ said after a six-inning four-run outing. “But it’s fun to watch. I know I say that a lot, but we stayed on them again today and that’s how you win ballgames. It’s tough to sweep anybody.”

Simply put, the Royals came into Toronto and played bad baseball. They committed four errors to the Blue Jays’ one. They hit 5-for-28 with runners in scoring position. They allowed eight of 12 inherited runners to score. They got blown out in the first game of the series, coughed up a lead in the second, and did both in the third. By the time they left town they’d been outscored 31-12.

Poorly-played baseball is hard to quantify, but it’s often easy to identify – and that’s the kind of baseball the Royals played in this series. The Blue Jays had a major role in the drubbing to be certain – you can’t score 31 runs solely on your opponent’s mistakes – but they were given the opportunity to succeed. The difference between this club and the disappointing 2017 version is that they took it.

“We’re playing good baseball, bottom line, and doing everything well,” manager John Gibbons said of the series. “So you try to ride that.”

Right now the Blue Jays sit at a sterling 12-5. The reason for that, more than anything else, is that they’ve beaten up on teams less talented than them. Like the Royals, the Chicago White Sox, Baltimore Orioles, Texas Rangers all projected to be subpar outfits and they’ve proven worthy of that designation so far. In four series against these squads the Blue Jays have now gone 9-3.

That information could be used to diminish the Blue Jays’ start, and there would be some validity to that. However, this team doesn’t write its schedule and its ability to pummel the presumed cellar dwellers does tell us something about them. Does it tell us that they’re ready to take the division away from the clutches of the sizzling Boston Red Sox or the sure-to-rebound Bronx Bombers? No, we don’t know that yet – though a 3-2 record against the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians is a solid start down that road and we’ll learn a little more when they travel to New York on Thursday for a four-game set.

“They’re going to be rocking and rolling at Yankee Stadium, obviously a tough ballpark to play in an opponent,” Curtis Granderson – who capped the series with a late grand slam – said. “But we’ve just got to come in and do the things we’ve continued to do up to this point.”

For now, the Blue Jays have won the games they’re supposed to win and done so convincingly. The American League has some intimidating squads in its upper tier, especially with the Los Angeles Angels looking like the real deal, but it also has a number of clubs going nowhere fast. The Blue Jays aren’t necessarily in either category, but they certainly don’t look like they’re in the latter – and that’s excellent news for fans who watched this team fall into a sinkhole from the get-go last year.

Now is not the time to let wild optimism run amok or change our collective conception of the Blue Jays too much. This team has many hurdles to clear. The bullpen probably won’t be this good all year. Skepticism about Yangervis Solarte and Teoscar Hernandez is still fair. Josh Donaldson’s season outlook has to be on the murkier side. Luke Maile’s heroics have an expiration date.

Theoretically speaking, it’s impossible to prove a negative, but the Blue Jays have done their darnedest this year to demonstrate they are are a class above the dregs of the AL. The next step will be proving the aren’t a class below the Junior Circuit’s juggernauts.

That’ll be a significantly harder task.

More MLB coverage from Yahoo Sports

Verdict in early: Blue Jays fans don't like Facebook Watch game

Verdict in early: Blue Jays fans don't like Facebook Watch game

Blue Jays fans prefer to watch their team on TV as opposed to Facebook. (Photo credit should read RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Much like baseball players, baseball fans are creatures of habit — and Toronto Blue Jays fans saw their routine disrupted on Wednesday afternoon.

The Blue Jays had their game against the Kansas City Royals broadcasted on Facebook Watch, and the fan reaction was not exactly positive. Before we dump a boatload of Tweets in here keep a couple of things in mind:

  1. People are generally biased against change of any kind

I mean, fair enough, change is scary. That said, any type of deviation from the status quo in matters of this nature tend to receive outsized backlash.

2.  Facebook isn’t super popular right now

It’s safe to say Facebook’s PR situation could be better at the moment. Having a hand in influencing a major election in a way that results in a Donald Trump presidency isn’t going to sit well with a certain type of person. That type of person is most people.

3. Blue Jays fans are really attached to Pat Tabler and Buck Martinez

Why this is the case is up for debate. When FanGraphs last did its Broadcaster Rankings in 2016 this team ranked 53rd and they’ve traditionally been lower than that. When Buck and Pat have been taken away for the playoffs, people have gotten upset.

With that in mind, here’s a sample of some of the rage that has come Facebook’s way on account of Wednesday’s Facebook Watch game:

Not all of the anger was well-informed, but the general take was pretty uniform. The Blue Jays universe is not in favour of Facebook Watch games.

Unfortunately for those who aren’t liking the new format, it isn’t going away. These games are part of a partnership between Facebook and MLB and there’s nothing the Blue Jays or Sportsnet can do about it.

More MLB coverage from Yahoo Sports:

Grichuk shows the best he has to offer in Blue Jays' doubleheader

Grichuk shows the best he has to offer in Blue Jays' doubleheader

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Randal Grichuk is a tantalizing talent and he showed why on Tuesday. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

TORONTO — There is absolutely no doubt that Randal Grichuk is capable of doing remarkable things on a baseball field.

He’s been a Statcast darling for years because the ball explodes off his bat. He’s a minor-league Gold Glove winner who’s athletic enough to handle centre. He’s far from a station-to-station plodder.

So far, though, the Toronto Blue Jays haven’t seen nearly enough of the skills that made him an appealing trade target in the offseason. Prior to Tuesday’s doubleheader he had an ugly .071/.149/.167 line to his name with just one home run on the year.

“I feel like [prior to today] I hadn’t done too much to help the team win lately,” he put it bluntly after the day’s action.

In the first game, Grichuk exploded for by far his best day as a Blue Jay. The right-fielder earned his first multi-hit game of the year and managed his second full day at the plate without a strikeout. Both of his hits went for extra-bases, including this 114 mph laser that helped break the Blue Jays’ 11-3 win open.

Perhaps even more impressively, both that home run and his fifth inning double came on 1-2 counts. Grichuk came into the game hitting .152/.188/.261 in a 1-2 count, striking out 53.1 percent of the time. Seeing him get big knocks in that spot was legitimately encouraging.

In the early blowout he also demonstrated one of his more subtle skills: the ability to hold base-runners. Although you’re not going to see preventing runners from advancing making highlight reels, it can be very valuable.

The first instance came in the second inning when Grichuk reached a ball in the gap quickly and turned a potential Lucas Duda double into a single.

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Via MLB.tv

Although Duda is no speedster, if Grichuk hadn’t hustled to the wall, collected the ball quickly off the hop and made a good throw, this play could easily have been worth two bases. If nothing else, Duda showed he had no interest in testing the Blue Jays right fielder.

Three innings later Grichuk saved a run with the deterrent of his arm. Even though he caught this Whit Merrifield fly a little awkwardly, Cam Gallagher didn’t try to make a sacrifice fly out of it.

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Via MLB.tv

Again, Gallagher is no burner, but given the lurch Grichuk makes to catch the ball and how deep he is in to foul territory, you’d think it’d be worth an attempt. Instead, a quick recovery and strong throw stops the Royal in his tracks.

“I kinda want to know what my scouting report on my arm in the outfield because I feel like there’s been times when I thought guys would tag up or try to take an extra base and they haven’t,” he said. “Those pitchers are going out there and give us all they’ve got and the least we can do is try and give them a play every few innings.”

When Game 1 was all done and dusted, Grichuk had performed like a multi-dimensional stud coming out of his cold streak ready to provide the zip the bottom of the Blue Jays order has often lacked.

To be fair, in Game 2 he didn’t exactly cover himself in glory.

In the Blue Jays’ 4-3 win, the 26-year-old wasn’t exactly a crucial contributor. He went 0-for-3 at the plate with two strikeouts and didn’t show significantly in the field. In his first at-bat he was caught looking on a pitch that seemed clearly in the zone. In his second, he went down swinging after chasing two pitches that were certainly destined to be balls.

Grichuk’s third trip to the dish was an impressive one though. The slugger fought off some tough pitches to earn a seven-pitch walk off Justin Grimm.

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Via MLB.com

He finished the game getting hit by a pitch in the 10th. It may not have been enough to make the game a rousing success for him, but the whole day certainly was. The Blue Jays will take 2-for-7 with a walk, home run and double any day of the week. Grichuk will too.

The day perfectly encapsulated what the outfielder can bring to this club with his combination of power, defence and even a spattering of patience. Ugly strikeouts are just part of that package.

On Tuesday, the Blue Jays saw him put everything together for the first time. They’re hoping to see it a lot more often.