Tag Archives: J.A. Happ

We’ve Been Down Here Before, and We Know the Way Out

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If one was a member of the Toronto Blue Jays imagining the course of the 2016 American League Championship Series, the most ideal situation would not necessarily be rolling into Game 3 down two and needing to win four of the next five to move on to the big finale.  The Cleveland Indians are sitting far more comfortably after their first two victories and five straight so far in their 2016 postseason.  They can afford to absolutely tank the next few games confident that even in the Blue Jays’ most optimal outcome, this series will be decided on Cleveland’s home turf of Progressive Field by the end of this week, with a legion of red-clad fans on their feet for every strike hurled against an opposing batter.

No, not really what you want to see as a Toronto player or a fan, especially given the doses of playoff magic we’ve been treated to thus far:  Edwin Encarnacion’s walk-off home run in the wild card, Josh Donaldson’s faceplant walk-off slide into home in the ALDS.  We want more of that to keep us sustained over the long winter to come.  It’s crunch time now, backs against the wall, the importance of every at bat magnified by expectant eyes and television cameras.  And yet, there is perhaps no team with as much potential to reverse this perilous course and claw its way back to a triumphant finale.  Because this isn’t last year, when you had an essentially virgin playoff roster flailing to find its way against the more experienced and more clutch Kansas City Royals.  And the losses to Cleveland thus far have contained more than a few silver linings to keep the faith going (as indeed, I had to be reminded of by my better half through more than a few grimaces and obscenities as I watched Game 2 slip away).

The consensus among sportswriters was that these were going to be low-scoring games as the pitching on both sides is elite.  No argument there.  But for one bad pitch each from Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ, these two games have entirely different outcomes.  Bummer if you’re a Jays fan looking for a crucial win, obviously, but reassuring to know that we won’t likely be treated to a reprise of last year’s horrifying Game 4, when Toronto’s pitchers might as well have been tossing underhand tennis balls to Kansas City.  Lost perhaps in the talk of the Blue Jays’ inability to scratch out hits with men in scoring position or indeed do anything but whiff against Cleveland’s Andrew Miller is the fact that those two errant home run balls have represented the sum total of Cleveland’s ability to score over these past two games.  Estrada and Happ were largely lights out except for those couple of forgivable mistakes (which would have been meaningless had their offense supported them in the manner to which they became accustomed in the ALDS).

We didn’t need to use our bullpen in Game 1, but in Game 2, Joe Biagini and Roberto Osuna combined to silence Cleveland’s lineup over three innings as effectively as Miller, even if they weren’t doing it in as flashy a manner – a zero on the scoreboard is a zero, whether it’s by strikeouts or groundouts.  And because Estrada was so solid in Game 1, those are the only two of our relievers that Cleveland has had to face.  Jason Grilli, Brett Cecil, Francisco Liriano, Aaron Loup and Ryan Tepera are all rested and ready to go when needed, and Cleveland doesn’t have much experience facing any of them.  It is true that Osuna had begun to struggle a bit in the closing days of September, but when you recall that it was against AL East teams who’d seen him umpteen times throughout the season, it’s not surprising at all – and he’s been able to recoup his mojo quite handily in October against guys who haven’t had to face him in months.

On the Cleveland bullpen side, manager Terry Francona has relied exclusively on Miller and closer Cody Allen, who have combined to render the Blue Jays’ bats impotent.  The danger with this approach is that the more times the Jays face Miller, the better they’ll be able to read what’s coming – and because Miller has thrown multiple innings each outing, everyone down the lineup has had a chance to see him.  As good as Miller is, he’s not immortal, and he’s going to make a mistake at some point – or worse, become predictable.  One of the most satisfying moments of last season’s drive was watching Dioner Navarro rip an “unhittable” Miller pitch into the Yankee Stadium seats, and something similar is inevitable during the course of this long series (the hand-wringing likely to result for Francona, along the lines of Buck Showalter’s criticism for not using Zach Britton in the wild card game, is amusing to contemplate).

I and a few others wondered if the long layoff between the sweep of Texas in the ALDS and the start of the ALCS might lead to the Blue Jays losing the crucial edge that had served them so handily starting with the final two games of the regular season at Fenway.  When hitting is so much a matter of precision timing, any disruption in routine can trend it south, and while the Jays certainly used their well-earned downtime to continue training and practicing, lazy drills in an empty stadium simply don’t have the electricity needed to keep that edge sharp.  Sinking into a must-win situation, however, does, and with Marcus Stroman coming to the mound tonight as he did for the wild card game, the ingredients have been assembled for a repeat breakout that will both knock Cleveland back on its heels and put our guys smack back in it.

It’s been the story of the Toronto Blue Jays 2016 season.  They may look lost from time to time, but they’re never finished.  To paraphrase Leo McGarry, we’ve been down here before, and we know the way out.  It was punctuated, you may recall, by a particularly notorious flip of the bat.

That’s the hope, anyhow, as the playoffs are not notorious for providing a wealth of second chances, and a loss tonight could result in a lot of early obituaries for Toronto’s season.  But it’s not as though the Blue Jays are being pounded into the dirt by a far superior team with no hope of recovery.  The narrative has been simply that of one evenly matched team edging out the other by the narrowest of margins.  That trend isn’t sustainable, and even though Cleveland’s offense is probably due to break out, one can’t see that happening under the blazing lights and deafening roars of the Rogers Centre.  The odds have most definitely turned in our favor.

Former Jays utility player Munenori Kawasaki had a delightful quote last year about how his team would make its run:  “Don’t thinking! Don’t don’t thinking. Just swing! Just catc…uh throw! Just catch. Don’t think everybody. Just win!”  I can’t think of any better advice to my team than that.

Just win.  You know how.

You’ve done it before.

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The Last Days of the Philosopher King

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Wednesday night, as the final game of the Blue Jays-Mariners series rolled into the bottom of the 12th inning with both teams deadlocked at 1, and with the Blue Jays’ bullpen depleted of relievers, manager John Gibbons turned to an unlikely savior:  knuckleball starter R.A. Dickey.  Thinking presumably that should the game drag out into another exhausting 19-inning affair like the Canada Day grind against Cleveland, it would be wise to have someone on the mound who could chew through however many outs would be required before the slumbering offense could kick itself into gear.  It was not to be, however, and after having been let down by a couple of errors by the defense, Dickey shambled off with the walk-off loss, with only 1/3 of an inning pitched as Seattle took it 2-1.  With the possibility of the postseason still not entirely solid enough for Toronto fans’ liking, and Dickey unlikely to make the roster regardless, opinions both amateur and professional flew that this ignominious outing might very well be Dickey’s last in a Blue Jays uniform.  With Dickey turning 42 this winter and hitting free agency, it might even be the last time he steps onto a mound.  A career of struggle, crowning achievement and then the failure to repeat impossible expectations might be, in the end, fated to fade away rather than burn out.

Baseball is full of guys like that.  Few if any get a year-long (and let’s admit it – increasingly tiresome) farewell tour like David Ortiz is getting, coupled with his team’s seemingly unstoppable late-season pennant drive.  The ranks of baseballers are divided much like the circles in Dante’s Inferno, with a shining echelon for those who are anointed legends, and everyone else falling into their respective dark circles of almosts and never-weres.  There’s probably a guy wiping down the bar in your local watering hole who had twelve at bats in The Show back in the 80’s or 90’s.  There’s others who move on from middling careers as players to mediocre retirements as coaches, availing the youngsters of today of their decades of inexperience.  There are the sorts who flew too close to the sun on borrowed wings of wax:  Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, latterly Alex Rodriguez.  And there are the men like R.A. Dickey, the workhorses who will quietly close out a long career with beautiful memories of The Year It All Went Right and the lingering question of How It Never Was Again.

In how he approaches the game both on the field and before the TV cameras, Dickey seems like a throwback to a gentleman’s era of baseball that probably never existed except in fantasies colored by repeat viewings of The Natural.  As a knuckleball pitcher the fraternity he inhabits is a small one; as an erudite former English major given to extemporizing beyond the typical pre-fab soundbites about team efforts, that group is even smaller.  His steadiness of manner whether winning or losing is a remarkable contrast to the unpredictability of the knuckleball, a flabbergastingly peculiar pitch that can see him blast through opposing lineups through nine full innings or have him shrugging his way to an early exit to the dugout as that very same pitch sails once again into the outfield bleachers.  Chance always seems to play much more strongly into Dickey’s starts – even though statistically it’s likely no different than any of your standard four-seam hurlers – and too often fans have started to wring their hands the instant someone slaps one of Dickey’s pitches up the middle for a base hit.  Regardless of whether it’s a good night or a bad night, Dickey is hopeful, out there doing his best, and refusing to succumb to petulance if things don’t go his way – just as he won’t take a boastful curtain call if they do.  It isn’t who he is.  When you see players in their early 20’s – who probably can’t spell half the words that roll easily off Dickey’s tongue – sneering in the batters’ box as they lean in against him, you see how far removed Dickey is from where the game is going.

In Game Four of the ALDS in Texas last year, Dickey was lifted after 4 and 2/3 innings of solid work in favor of David Price.  Gibbons’ rationale at the time was that Price was simply a better matchup against Rangers outfielder Shin-Soo Choo who had been something of a menace to the Jays throughout the series.  The Jays held on to take the game, but because MLB rules state that a starter has to go 5 full innings to qualify in the scoring, Dickey didn’t receive his coveted first post-season win.  Sitting next to Price in the post-game press conference, Dickey opined that no competitor wants to be taken out in a situation like that, but that ultimately it was what was best for the team.  (Price earned the official win after notching an inning and a half.)  Refusing to take reporters’ feud-inducing bait, he moved on quickly and revealed his penchant for trivia, noting with a twinkle in his eye that it was the first time one Cy Young winner had been replaced by another in a post-season game.  It was the gentle Southern humility of a man who knows the game is bigger than any single player, and certainly much bigger than himself.

The level of abuse flung at R.A. Dickey by people who should be cheering for him is sad.  Plenty of fans are ready to concede the game as soon as he is penciled in to start it.  They’re equally disdainful of the weak-hitting Josh Thole, Dickey’s personal catcher and an expert at containing the knuckleball, for needing to occupy a roster spot so Russell Martin can have occasional days off.  Much of it has nothing to do with Dickey (or Thole by extension) at all.  After his phenomenal 2012 season with the Mets in which Dickey captured the Cy Young, won 20 games and struck out 230 batters, he, Thole and another catcher were traded to Toronto for a package of players which included a young prospect named Noah Syndergaard.  Syndergaard, or “Thor,” has grown into one of baseball’s premier starters, while Dickey has never been able to equal, let alone eclipse the magnificence of 2012.  Some fans continue to rue this deal as the singular worst in franchise history, as if somehow magically undoing it would result in three retroactive World Series titles – setting aside of course the airplane hangar’s worth of terrible starting pitchers that flowed through and out of the ranks of the Jays roster during that time who certainly didn’t help matters.  Which guy endured, through those agonizing summer months in half-empty stadiums as playoff hopes drifted away early, and kept heading out there every five days to do what he did best, while the others were traded away and forgotten?

Pitcher is the most stressful job in baseball, bar none.  A position player can strike out three times with guys on base and still be considered to have had a good night if his fourth at-bat is a three-run blast into the seats.  But a pitcher goes out there knowing the game can hinge on him making a single mistake.  One meaty fastball too near the center of the plate to one David Ortiz and all is abruptly lost.  Pitchers can even lose games through no fault of their own, as befell Dickey on Wednesday night.  Two grounders and a fly should have been a three-up, three-down inning, but a tired defense and an aching Josh Donaldson booted the game into the loss column, Dickey’s 15th on the year and an unwanted career record.  It was all too reminiscent of what happened with Mark Buehrle last year about this time:  Buehrle was two innings short of hitting the 200-inning plateau for the fifteenth straight year in his career, and Gibbons let him start on two days’ rest against the Tampa Bay Rays in an inconsequential game – presumably he’d let Buehrle throw the needed two and then turn it over to the September call-ups in the bullpen.  But shoddy defense let what should have been a routine first turn into seven unearned runs for the Rays, and Gibbons had to pull Buehrle before he could record a third out – with the TV cameras cutting repeatedly to Buehrle’s mortified wife cringing in the stands.  Buehrle was left off the playoff roster and hasn’t pitched since, and a guy who once threw one of only 23 perfect games in MLB history deserved better than to have his career sputter to an end like that.  As cool September winds begin to blow across baseball diamonds, we can sadly see R.A. Dickey walking a similar path.

The peculiarities of baseball can perhaps explain why on the same team in the same year, you can have one guy who gets enough run support to achieve 20 wins (J.A. Happ) and another who can throw decent games and get absolutely nothing back from his hitters.  Witness Dickey’s August 15th outing against the Yankees, in which he held them to a single run across five innings, striking out six, and still lost the game when Toronto couldn’t notch a single run.  (You can also have the weird outing against the White Sox when Dickey gave up four home runs and still won the game, thanks to the Jays scoring 10 to the Sox’s 8.)  Arguably, Happ’s career year could have easily belonged to Dickey.  Is it that the Blue Jays just don’t feel as inclined to win when Dickey is on the mound?  Hardly, but that won’t stop the fans and the opinion-makers from shaking their heads, and, should this really be the last days in uniform for him, judging Dickey’s tenure as a Blue Jay to be a failure.

When Mark Buehrle was left off the 2015 playoff roster in favor of the shinier late additions that were David Price and Marcus Stroman, it had to have been an additional kick in the teeth, especially as the Blue Jays would not have made the playoffs at all without Buehrle’s 15 wins that year.  The same can be said in 2016 about R.A. Dickey – that the Blue Jays don’t get where they are without him, regardless of what you may think of his overall performance when plucking each game out of its season-long context.  With Dickey, the Blue Jays’ rotation has boasted remarkable endurance, with only 7 different guys starting games (including two spot starts from the since-traded Drew Hutchison), and apart from a few days off here and there for Marco Estrada and his wonky back, not one has gone down to injuries, or been demoted to recapture his groove.  In his four years with the Blue Jays, Dickey hasn’t been on the DL once, and the fact that he is still pitching and winning games in his 40’s when bucks ten years younger are blowing out their arms, says a lot about his commitment to the idea of a career in baseball, not just a couple of bright years and lucrative endorsement deals.  He probably knew as he donned the blue and white for the first time after his trade that he’d never be as good again as he was in 2012, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t going to try, that he couldn’t make an important contribution, or that he didn’t see himself as an important piece in this phase of the history of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Which he has been.  There can be no argument.  As great as Roy Halladay was, he never pitched the Jays into the playoffs.  R.A. Dickey has helped do it at least once, and unless the Jays completely tank the next 10 games, probably twice.  For a four-year stint with the team, that works out to a .500 average.  Not too bad.

The storybook ending you want to see is R.A. Dickey throwing a no-hitter to clinch Game 7 of the World Series.  What you’ll likely see instead is a quiet, deeply thoughtful man saying his farewells and retreating down the corridor out of the clubhouse for the last time, and plenty of post-mortems about how it was never as good as it could have been.  Perhaps that is a fair assessment – statistics, after all, are incapable of lying.  Statistics are far less capable of measuring the worth of introspection versus showboating, of lingering philosophy versus momentary flash.  There is something more deeply satisfying to the spirit in watching a contemplative veteran like R.A. Dickey grind out a hard, well-earned win than in witnessing a monosyllabic high school draftee paid a metric ton of money to smugly crush one home run after another.  A victory for the humble man is a triumph that can be shared; a victory for the arrogant is savored by the arrogant man alone.

R.A. Dickey is a vanishing breed of old-time ballplayer, with a sense of the history of the game that you simply don’t see reflected in the eyes of the younger guys coming up in his wake.  He is no less a competitor, and has no lesser will to win, but he seems to remember, more than the others do, that this is fundamentally a game of little boys in sandlots transformed into an entertainment for the masses played by overpaid adults tracing its lineage to the arenas of ancient Rome.  Whatever else R.A. Dickey wants from his baseball career, it is ultimately to leave the game better than he found it.  When #43 hangs up his cleats, that perspective will be lost, and it will be a loss for the Toronto Blue Jays that will be lamented, even as fresher and stronger arms trickle in after him.  One does hope that we get another chance to cheer for him as he takes the mound, and that in these last days of baseball’s philosopher-king, he gets the send-off that he’s earned – even if, like the man himself, it is a quiet one.

It’s the Other 54 Games that Matter: The Blue Jays’ Season So Far

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There’s a saying in baseball, I first heard it paraphrased on The West Wing but I’m sure it originates somewhere else:  Every team is going to win 54 games, every team is going to lose 54 games; it’s what you do with the other 54 games that matters.  162 games is a brutally long season, and completely botching 70 of those outings could still net a team a record decent enough to win a division.

As the Toronto Blue Jays sit in third place just having clawed their way back to a .500 won-lost percentage (15-15), while elsewhere about MLB the Cubs, White Sox, Red Sox, Mariners and Nationals are off to explosive starts, both longtime fans and bandwagoners who marveled at the can-do-no-wrong 2015 Toronto squad have been left scratching their heads.  Last night’s 12-2 blowout against the Texas Rangers was a welcome dose of ointment for that itch, a hint of the promise this team still holds in its reserve tank.  And there are 132 games left to play.  39 more wins, 39 more losses, and a whole lot of possibilities in those remaining 54.

When I was eight years old and going to games at the Ex with my dad, I didn’t pay attention to off-season maneuvering – trades, free agent signings and so forth.  So long as those guys on the field were in blue and white, I and the rest of Toronto would be cheering for them.  The same cannot be said for the electron microscope that was placed on every rumor, both legitimate and cockamamie, surrounding the Blue Jays as a Kansas City glove closed on the last out of the 2015 World Series.  What kind of team would newly appointed team president Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins assemble?  Would the notoriously tight-pursed Rogers Communications pony up enough loonies and toonies to get the band back together?  Did some of those guys even want to come back?

We found out the answer pretty quickly as the ramifications of outgoing GM Alex Anthopoulos’ decision to go all in on 2015 by purging the farm system crashed down like a bad hangover.

It was something of a poison chalice handed to Shapiro and Atkins, and while one can still legitimately question some of the choices they made, as fans, we were fortunate that as many of those same heroes of 2015 came back as they did.  Maybe for one last hurrah as it turns out, as the impending free agencies of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion loom in November, and plenty of teams with big bucks and hungry for big bats are salivating at the prospect of snapping one or both of them up.  (The thought of either in a Red Sox uniform in 2017 filling David Ortiz’s soon-to-be-hung-up cleats is enough to inspire cold sweats.)

We said goodbye to David Price, Mark Buehrle, Ben Revere, Mark Lowe, Liam Hendriks, Dioner Navarro, Cliff Pennington and the lovable Munenori Kawasaki.  We welcomed back J.A. Happ and Jesse Chavez.  We said hello to Drew Storen, Gavin Floyd, Joe Biagini, Franklin Morales, Pat Venditte and a whole slew of new and eager arms.  We finally saw a return on investment in Michael Saunders after he narrowly escaped a last-minute pre-season trade.  For the past couple of months this mix of veterans and newcomers has been struggling to jell as a team under the lights of the television cameras, the stares of thousands of fans and the weight of an entire country’s collected expectations.

So far, in 2016, we’ve seen our share of heartbreak.  The season’s first loss to Tampa Bay, when the Jays got smacked with a questionable application of the new “Chase Utley Rule,” reminded us again how vulnerable we are in close games and that Major League umpires in the clutch tend not to be on Toronto’s side.  (Recall that questionable umpiring handed Game 6 and the ALCS to Kansas City by awarding the Royals a home run on obvious fan interference, being too generous with the strike zone on poor Ben Revere and failing to call a blatant balk on Royals’ closer Wade Davis when the go-ahead runs were on base.)  We watched reliever Brett Cecil’s incredible scoreless pitching streak come to a spectacular dumpster fire of an ending as he, along with our carefully crafted bullpen, let lead after lead slip away.  And we shook our heads in stunned disbelief as we watched one of last season’s most beloved players, Chris Colabello, take an 80 game suspension when a banned substance was found in his urine.

April 2016 hasn’t just been a hangover from last year’s high; it’s been the full-on nauseous throes of heroin withdrawal.  Perhaps one consolation is that however the Blue Jays seem to be struggling, the hated New York Yankees are doing far worse:  9-17 out of the gate and poised for possibly their worst year in decades.

But let’s be honest with ourselves.  As much as Toronto sportswriters like to fantasize, the Blue Jays were never going to go 162-0 and sweep all three playoff series.  Baseball remains a game of obsessive statistics, and as hot as those other teams are right now, slumps (or regressions) are inevitable.  It could be that the Blue Jays have just spent April purging their bad karma, and that May 5’s trouncing of the Rangers – karmically embarrassing Texas starter Derek Holland, who wiped himself with a Blue Jays rally towel during the ALDS last year – is the Jays settling back into where they’re supposed to be.  They’ve won three in a row now, and while this weekend’s inter-league matchup against the Dodgers won’t be a cakewalk (particularly with the strikeout-prone Jays facing MLB strikeout leader Clayton Kershaw on Saturday), it’s a chance to solidify the team’s direction and remind themselves, the fans and the world that they are no fluke, that they remain a force to be reckoned with and a serious contender to take it all in the fall, no matter how many people say the Chicago Cubs are due.

The alternative, what Blue Jays fans dread most, is more slips and stumbles, a fall out of playoff contention, and greedy front office suits champing at the bit to launch a Marlins-esque fire sale at the trade deadline in favor of cheaper, lesser players who will proceed to suck for the next ten years – what baseball executives charitably like to call “rebuilding.”

We endured 22 years of that, we don’t have the patience to go through it again.  The franchise itself might not survive it.

The Blue Jays have all the ingredients of a championship team.  The defense is borderline flawless.  If Troy Tulowitzki isn’t producing at the plate, he’s making up for it in the hits he’s denying opposing batters.  The starting pitching has been the highlight of the season so far, on balance arguably the strongest five-man rotation in baseball.  Happ in particular, who was exceptionally average in his first stint as a Blue Jay and whose off-season signing was greeted with resigned sighs given that it slammed the door on any lingering hopes of reacquiring David Price, has been simply exceptional, going 4-0 with one no-decision and proving to be that guy about whom you can relax and let out a long breath when you know he’s going to be on the mound that day.  Yes, with the exception of Roberto Osuna, the bullpen has been a source of many jangled nerves, shouldering the blame for nearly every single loss so far this year, but they seem to be settling down finally, with Chavez starting to rack up the K’s and Biagini throwing clean innings (and curveballs in his post-game interviews) and once Cecil and Drew Storen figure things out the whole crew should prove to be as lights-out as any bullpen in the majors.

The big difference between this year and last is the hitting, or lack thereof.  It’s almost as though the Blue Jays read too many of their own clippings and league-leading 2015 stats, and have been so focused on belting the ball out of the park that they’ve lost their timing and failed to recall that small ball can win games as well as home runs can.  Interestingly enough, of last night’s twelve runs scored, only three of them came from homers, and those three were the result of one three-run blast by Encarnacion in the bottom of the third.  Whatever magical combination of circumstances was working for the Blue Jays on May 5th, 2016, they need to etch it into their brains and hearts and continue to summon it as they face Kenta Maeda and the Dodgers this evening.  If the bullpen can’t save you, and the umpires are against you, just keep the line moving, keep padding the lead and make the games into no-doubters.

It’s still too early to say that the corner has been turned.  There are at least 39 losses yet to come, and some of those are going to be nail-biters, and teeth-gnashers, and set-your-jersey-on-fire heart-shredders.  That’s baseball for you.  Like any team sport, it demands faith.  Toronto fans have been tested by far worse before, and last night was a crumb of that fabled manna falling from the heavens into a well-worn leather glove.  Let’s hope that it portends bigger and greater things, and if it doesn’t right away, there’s lots of baseball left.  It’s the other 54 games that will make the difference.