It was never really going to be a fair fight, but the more the Blue Jays struggle at the plate this season, the more it is clear how ill-equipped they are to compete in the slugger-happy American League East.
It’s been evident at various points this season and the team is struggling in multiple areas right now. But the lack of production at the plate is high on the list.
With third baseman Josh Donaldson still hurt, the designated hitter position a dead zone and Kevin Pillar significantly cooled from his sizzling early start — just to name three — the offence is non-existent on too many nights.
Take away the outlier of the four-game series sweep against the Orioles last week at the Rogers Centre and the lack of production is glaring. In the five most recent games not including the O’s, the Jays have scored just seven runs and have been shut out twice and held to one run on another occasion.
“It’s the American League East, man. You’ve got to score runs if you want to win games,” said 2017 all star first baseman Justin Smoak, one of the team’s scuffling, frustrated hitters. “That’s the name of the game here. “I feel like we’re not getting it done, honestly. We’re hitting into a lot of double plays and making quick, easy innings.”
While batting average isn’t the only measure of offence given the preponderance of walks in today’s game, it is still an indicator of trouble. And the Jays team average of .232 is ranked 13th in the AL with only Texas and Baltimore lower.
The Jays run differential now sits at minus-27, glaring in comparison with the Red Sox (plus 103) and Yankees (plus 91.)
While those two teams continue to go bombs away, the Jays bats are getting quieter and quieter, the most recent example being Wednesday’s 1-0 walkoff loss to the Rays in which Toronto starter J.A. Happ pitched a one-hitter over five shutout innings.
In the just completed three-game brooming at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays, the Jays scored four, one and zero runs, including leaving seven runners in scoring position on Wednesday.
In each of the last two games the Jays didn’t manage an extra-base hit the first time they’ve gone consecutive games without one since 2011. With a day off to ponder those woes it isn’t about to get any easier with a very good Washington Nationals team coming into the Rogers Centre for three. First up is left hander Gio Gonzalez who will take his 6-2 record and 2.65 ERA against a team that has dropped its past 11 starts against lefties. And on Saturday right-hander Max Scherzer (10-2, 2.00) gets the ball. Smoak knows he’s one of the players that has to pick it up as well. With just one hit in his past 25 at bats and only nine homers after his breakthrough campaign of 38, he’s symptomatic of the Jays’ hitting woes. “There’s nothing we can do about it,” said Smoak. “We just have to keep going out and keep showing up and try to get better.”
TOP PICK READY As a high school player, Jordan Groshans is well aware that the journey to big-league baseball is just starting.
That said, the 18-year-old high schooler from Texas feels confidence will be a key to his development with the Jays. Toronto’s first-round pick (12th overall) in this month’s draft signed with the team this week and has already reported to Dunedin where he will play in the Gulf Coast League the rest of the summer.
“I’m really excited to be a Blue Jay and back out on the field,” Groshans said during a conference call on Thursday. “I’m here to make sure I’m getting 10 times better every day.
“I’m a positive kid. I believe that to be successful in baseball and you want to make it to the next level you have to be confident and you have to work hard.”
Though drafted as a shortstop, Groshans said he’s comfortable moving around the infield if the situation arises. And in his short time in Dunedin, he says he’s already had time to talk to shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who is recovering from surgery and Donaldson, who visited the team’s facility earlier in the week.
“I talked to them about baseball stuff, whether it’s fielding ground balls or mechanics of my swing,” Groshans said. “They’ve played a big part so far.”
’STRO SHOW Marcus Stroman’s recovery from shoulder fatigue took a major step forward on Wednesday in his first official outing since being placed on the disabled list back on May 11th.
Stroman was strong in his 4.1 innings of work for the Dunedin Blue Jays facing the minimum in the first two innings and not allowing a hit until the Charlotte Stone Crabs’ Jesus Sanchez hit a two-run homer in the fifth. Stroman, who is expected to have at least one more rehab start in Dunedin before rejoining the Jays, possibly as early as next week.
MAKE IT RAIN As he continues to recover from his latest injury — this time a strain of his left calf — Donaldson is attempting to keep frustration out of the equation.
“I’m ready to go and ready to get going,” said Donaldson, who, with an expiring $23 million US contract has even more incentive to return and return to form. “I know I can help this team but I can’t think about (rushing back). I’ve got to do what I can to get better and feel better.” Thursday’s off day was scheduled to be an important one for Donaldson as he planned to run the bases at the Rogers Centre. He came out of that fine, the Jays were pondering sending him to Buffalo for a game or two this weekend to continue his rehab.”
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Rays haven’t had much to be genuinely excited about in an up-and-down first third of the season, but a youth movement could do that with more games like Monday’s 8-4 win over the Toronto Blue Jays.
For the first time in the major leagues, two of the franchise’s top prospects, shortstop Willy Adames and first baseman Jake Bauers, played together. Each drove in two runs to open a three-game series against Toronto.
“Our two young guys came in, really impacted us in a big way and helped us win a game,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said.
Bauers got his first home run in his first game in the majors, and Adames had two RBIs in his return to Tampa Bay after a three-game cameo last month.
“I told him, ‘Were you waiting for me to get here to hit your first homer?’ and he said, ‘Yes, buddy,'” Adames said.
The Rays (30-35) inched ahead of the Blue Jays (30-36) in the American League East standings, though they’ll be back to a familiar adversity Tuesday, going without a traditional starter.
Tampa Bay is pushing through a rash of injuries with its starting pitching, with news Monday that top starter Chris Archer had a setback and is now on hold after once having hopes of returning to the rotation Sunday.
On Tuesday, that means Ryne Stanek will be the Rays’ “opener” — he was originally scheduled to do so Monday but was pressed into duty in the ninth inning Sunday, pushing back his scheduled start. Stanek (1-1, 3.14 ERA) has pitched well in June, with four appearances and a 0.00 ERA, allowing only two hits in 4 2/3 innings while striking out seven.
He’ll likely pitch no more than two innings, setting up a bullpen day after three Rays relievers each pitched a scoreless inning to seal Monday’s win.
Toronto has stuck with traditional starters, even when they haven’t fared well, like Jaime Garcia, who pitched for three teams last season and is on his fourth in less than a year with the Jays. Garcia is 2-4 with a 5.57 ERA, though his last outing was a solid one, holding the Baltimore Orioles to one run and four hits in six innings.
Garcia, who spent most of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals, has only faced the Rays once, holding them to one run in 4 2/3 innings last year for a 1.93 ERA.
The Blue Jays, who had top prospect Vlad Guerrero Jr. at Tropicana Field as a guest as he works through an injury, had come to St. Petersburg fresh off a four-game sweep of the Orioles, but they let an early lead slip away Monday.
“It was the first time in a while I can remember us scoring a bunch of runs early here,” Jays manager John Gibbons said. “Every time we did, they came back and answered and took the lead, and they broke it open late.”
In Boston at the end of May, Red Sox infielder Mitch Moreland hit a shot to right that should have been caught by Toronto right fielder Teoscar Hernandez.
Hernandez sluggishly took a poor route to the ball and it sailed past him to the wall, turning into an RBI double instead of the second out. There were also a couple of times this month when Hernandez — who has been a revelation at the plate for the Blue Jays since arriving in Toronto last September — let seemingly catchable fly balls bounce in front of him.
But since that late May game in Boston, Jays manager John Gibbons has put the rookie outfielder in left field for straight eight games and Hernandez has really come into his own defensively, making some outstanding catches, charging hard for balls and hustling to prevent hits down the line from turning into doubles. Hernandez clearly looks more comfortable in left, but his improved play — and hustle — also has something to do with his centre fielder, Kevin Pillar. After one particularly lackluster play, Pillar took Hernandez aside and laid it on the line to the rookie.
“Teoscar of late is showing that he can be an elite defender when he puts his mind to it,” said Pillar. “I talked to him about just how elite he is offensively, how he could be a special player in this game. But he has to do it every single day defensively and I think he’s taken that challenge and he’s gone out there and not only made plays with his arm but he’s made plays with his legs too. And I remind him that if you want to be the best player on the field every day you got to continue to play this way. You’ve already set the bar high, you’ve showed you can be an elite defender. The challenge is going out there and doing it every day. The challenge is not getting caught up in your at-bats and taking it on to the field. And you’re starting to see that with him.”
When he did take him aside, Pillar didn’t scold his outfield mate. Now in his sixth year in the big leagues and established as one of the best centre fielders in the game, Pillar has taken it upon himself to become more of a leader, and he certainly has taken Hernandez under his wing in the outfield.
“He’s still a young guy in this game and people forget that because of how poised he is and how successful he’s been since he’s been up here,” said Pillar. “He doesn’t have a ton of Major League service time and he’s making mistakes. That was the message I sent him. Obviously Gibby sent the message by taking him out of a game (after a sloppy play in Boston). Since the (Boston series) he’s been really, good out there, really consistent and playing hard and that’s what you expect from a guy who wants to be great.
“We’ve told him, ‘Hey, if you think you can catch it, go get it, no hesitating,” added Gibbons. “If you make a mistake doing it the right way, that’s the way it goes. But if you get a little bit hesitant, that’s when you make mistakes.”
Gibbons said in Hernandez’s case it’s just a matter of his defence catching up with his offence. Since joining the Jays’ big-league roster on Sept. 1 last season, Hernandez leads the team in triples (5), home runs (18) and RBI (49). He’s had 30 of his 52 hits go for extra bases (57.6%) – the third highest rate MLB (min. 30 hits).
“I think he’s a natural with the bat and I think he’s got the chance to improve and be a real good outfielder, because he’s athletic and he can run,” said Gibbons. “We’ve had some communications problems, not just him, but throughout the outfield. Sometimes if you have a real aggressive centre fielder that covers a lot of ground (Pillar), sometimes the guys in the corners will shy away a little bit and that can lead to (mistakes).”
Pillar agreed, but said the communication between himself, Hernandez in left and Randal Grichuk in right is on the upswing.
“I’m going to continue to be aggressive and call balls,” said Pillar. “It’s just something that they’re going to have to make an adjustment to. I expect to catch it, otherwise I’m not going to (call it). As the centre fielder, as the captain of the outfield, your voice is the one that matters out there. But my understanding both their range and their speed and what they’re comfortable getting to is going to allow me to maybe pull off some balls a little bit earlier knowing that they’re going catch them.”
JAYS TRENDING UPWARD IN OUTFIELD
There are some great outfields in Major League Baseball, perhaps none better than the Boston Red Sox trio of Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Mookie Betts.
But looking at what’s happening in Toronto right now, long-time Blue Jays centre-fielder Kevin Pillar believes his club is on the verge of having a great outfield threesome — with Randal Grichuk healthy and playing well consistently in right and Teoscar Hernandez swinging the bat well and having the tools to become a quality left-fielder.
“I think it definitely has the makings of an outfield that has the potential to be here for a long time, has the potential to be very elite,” said Pillar, one of the top centre-fielders in the game. “You think about an outfield like Boston, with three fairly young, athletic guys who can all play centre-field, all throw the ball pretty good, all enjoy going out there and making plays, I think that’s kind of what you’re seeing the beginning of here.
“Obviously there’s still been some miscues out there (between us) but that’s just going to come with time. I think me and Grichuk have played together maybe 16-20 games this year. He missed some time in spring training, so I didn’t get a lot of reps with him out there. But I think it leaves this organization in a good position if the three of us are out there running down balls and putting together good at-bats.”
Pillar (29 years old) and Grichuk (26) are under contract for two more seasons while the Jays have control of Hernandez (25) until 2023.
It has been rare enough for the Blue Jays to have won a series this season, especially at home, let alone a sweep.
By defeating the Orioles 4-3 in 10 innings on Saturday afternoon, the Blue Jays have won three games in a row for the first time since April 29-May 1. They have won their first series at home since April 17-18.
Almost fittingly, the winning run scored when Baltimore’s Mychal Givens walked Luke Maile on four pitches with the bases loaded with two outs in the 10th.
The first three games of the series between struggling teams have been mostly close. The Blue Jays needed 10 innings twice to win and on Friday prevailed 5-1 by scoring once in each of their final four innings at the plate.
Toronto (29-35) will start right-hander Marco Estrada (2-6, 5.29 ERA) on Sunday afternoon while Baltimore (19-44) gives the ball to Alex Cobb (2-7, 6.19).
Estrada will be trying for his first win since April 20. In eight starts since, he is 0-5 with a 5.27 ERA. The team is 2-6 in those starts.
Estrada took the loss at Baltimore on April 11 when he allowed four runs, six hits and three walks. He is 7-2 with a 3.49 ERA in 16 career games (14 starts) against the Orioles.
Cobb is 3-3 with a 3.23 ERA in eight career starts against the Blue Jays.
“We’ve been playing good baseball since the end of last week,” said Blue Jays right-hander Aaron Sanchez, who did not factor in the decision Saturday after allowing two runs in 6 1/3 innings. “To finally scratch out some wins, it’s good for us. It keeps guys a little bit loose in here. We don’t play so tight out there.”
The Blue Jays played without second baseman Devon Travis, who had a sore right knee, the result of a play in which he and center fielder Kevin Pillar had a minor collision Friday.
The Orioles fell to to a major league-worst 9-26 on the road.
“We did create more opportunities,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “But there’s two parts to that, creating opportunities and cashing them in. That big hit has been elusive for us.”
Showalter almost said his team failed to make “about” three plays in the field that will not show up in the box score. That pretty well sums up the way these two teams have been playing.
The Orioles received some help Saturday when right-handed reliever Darren O’Day was reinstated from the disabled list after missing five weeks with a hyperextended elbow. Left-hander Tanner Scott was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk to make room for him. O’Day did not pitch Saturday.
Closer Zach Britton could rejoin the team Monday. He has been out all season after surgery to repair a ruptured right Achilles tendon.
The Blue Jays are expecting the return of third baseman Josh Donaldson from tightness in his left calf any day. He had indicated that he might return from the disabled list on Friday, but it was decided to give him a couple more days.
The Blue Jays claimed right-handed pitcher Preston Guilmet off waivers from the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday and designated right-hander Deck McGuire for assignment to create a spot on the 40-man roster.
TORONTO — The Toronto Blue Jays are trying to take small steps in their attempt to get their season back on track.
Picking up back-to-back wins for the first time in five weeks was a good start.
J.A. Happ earned his 100th career victory and the Blue Jays hit three solo homers in a 5-1 win over the Baltimore Orioles on Friday night at Rogers Centre.
“I definitely feel like we have the potential to be a great team,” said Toronto catcher Russell Martin. “We’ve just got to get on a little hot streak and get our swagger back.”
Martin went deep in the second inning, Randal Grichuk homered in the fifth and Kevin Pillar went yard in the eighth as Toronto (28-35) won its second straight game over Baltimore (19-43).
The Blue Jays guaranteed themselves at least a split of the four-game series. It’s the first time Toronto has posted back-to-back victories since Apr. 30-May 1.
Happ (8-3) held the Orioles to a pair of hits and an unearned run over a strong seven-inning performance.
“It’s a cool number, it’s a nice number that I’m proud of,” he said of the milestone win. “I’m going to enjoy it tonight and try to get (No.) 101 the next time.”
Ryan Tepera got the final four outs for his third save.
The Orioles took advantage of a Devon Travis error to get on the board in the second inning. The Toronto second baseman was low with a throw to first on a double-play attempt, allowing Danny Valencia to score.
Happ, who has been the lone rock in the Toronto rotation this season, was in form the rest of the way. He walked a pair and had three strikeouts over a 105-pitch outing.
“He just looks like he’s fearless out there,” Martin said. “He just believes that he can get anybody out and just attacks the zone. He does a good job of moving in and out and up and down.”
Martin got the green light on a 3-0 pitch from Andrew Cashner (2-8) for his sixth homer of the year.
Grichuk, coming off his first three-hit night as a Blue Jay, led off the fifth by taking a 1-1 pitch deep for his fourth home run of the season.
The Orioles fell to 9-25 on the road. Their .265 winning percentage away from home is the worst in the major leagues.
Cashner worked six innings, allowing nine hits, three earned runs and two walks with four strikeouts.
“The last two nights have been tough,” said Orioles right-fielder Craig Gentry. “We’re having a tough time getting run support for (the starters).”
Pillar’s homer was his sixth of the season. Aledmys Diaz chipped in with three hits and Teoscar Hernandez added a triple and a single as Toronto outhit Baltimore 13-5.
Announced attendance was 28,863 and the game took two hours 44 minutes to play.
Notes: It was Blue Jays Pride Night at Rogers Centre. The Forte Gay Men’s Chorus sang the national anthems. … The Blue Jays are expected to provide an update Saturday on the injury status of blue-chip prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The double-A star had his sore left knee examined Friday in Dunedin. The New Hampshire Fisher Cats have placed him on the seven-day disabled list… Toronto’s Aaron Sanchez (3-5, 4.48 ERA) is scheduled to start Saturday afternoon against fellow right-hander Kevin Gausman (3-5, 4.63).
The Blue Jays celebrated their first back-to-back win since May 1 on Friday night, taking down the Orioles 5-1 and backing J.A. Happ for the southpaw’s 100th career win. The left-hander rattled off seven innings of two-hit, one-run ball in his seventh quality start of the season; beyond Trey Mancini‘s run-scoring force out in the second inning, Happ didn’t allow a single runner past second base.
Happ has yet to replicate the 3.53-ERA, 2.9-fWAR totals of yesteryear, but he’s been a steady presence in the Jays’ rotation with a 7-3 record in 12 starts and a 4.08 ERA, 2.5 BB/9 and 11.5 SO/9 across 70 2/3 innings in 2018. He’s also benefitted from a generous helping of run support — leading up to Friday’s win over Baltimore, Happ enjoyed an average of 6.81 runs of support per start (including three double-digit blowouts).
That run support was on full display with a trifecta of home runs from Russell Martin, Randal Grichuk and Kevin Pillar. Martin tacked on another RBI single in the sixth, while Teoscar Hernandez returned in the seventh with an RBI triple, his fifth of the year. Thanks to a strong showing from the offense, Happ earned membership in yet another exclusive (and oddly specific) club:
Hey #BlueJays fans, searching for something positive? Toronto has four consecutive quality starts for the first time since Sept. 21-28, 2016! They did it seven in a row that time.
That may not be enough consolation for the team’s fanbase, however. Following their win, the Blue Jays have still only clinched three of their last 10 games and currently sit fourth in the AL East with a 28-35 record.