Tag Archives: Justin Smoak

“I Thought It Would Be Easier”

Quickly, who said that:  President Puffy Cheeto-Face or the collective of the Toronto Blue Jays and their fans reflecting on April 2017?  After what has been the ugliest slog of baseball in the franchise’s recent memory, with heartbreak served up seemingly inning by inning for four weeks straight, the most reassuring thing to note is that we exit the cruelest month now with only the second worst record in MLB.  That dubious honor belongs to the once-nigh-unstoppable Kansas City Royals, who steamrolled us in the 2015 ALCS on their way to an eventual World Series crown and who are likewise wondering how it all cratered so bloody fast.  Such is the way of the game where your fortunes can turn on a single pitch.

However.

Fortunes certainly turned this past weekend, where after a spectacular relief pitching implosion turned an all-but-certain Friday night victory into a curb-stomping loss at the hands of the eternally frustrating Tampa Bay Rays, both the bats and the bullpen decided they’d had quite enough of that for one month, thank you very much, and delivered two immensely satisfying wins in a row.  Yes, you read that right – wins.  Much craved for green shoots in a field that looked to be lifeless, even salted at times.  Toronto Blue Jays baseball as you want to see it:  shutdown pitching, ace defense and timely extra-base hits, with heroism at every berth in that lineup.  The course of this season has taught us to temper our optimism, to stare the upcoming schedule in the face (and in particular, three games against the ever-entitled yet undeniably good Yankees) with a good dose of trepidation, but damn, we simply need to believe that we’re done appeasing the baseball gods with bad karma for one year and this, to borrow last year’s official hashtag, is where our moment truly begins.

I had the good fortune to attend Saturday’s game, and sitting there beneath the sealed roof that always casts a faint air of factory warehouse across the lively green and brown of the playing field, you could sense the resurgence of a vibe from years past – the dreaded scent of lowered expectations.  Despite the best efforts of Ace and the lovely J Force girls to draw forth the exuberance that has become this stadium’s signature these past seasons, this was a crowd not quite ready to open its heart lest it be splintered again by a late-inning Rays rally.  Wariness ruled at first, and when the Rays snuffed out an early Jays lead by successfully appealing an out call at the plate and trainers emerged from the dugout to attend to Russell Martin’s neck, the predominant sentiment rippling through the seats was “here we go again.”  Christ, what the hell else can go wrong?  As the score lingered at a stagnant 1-1, a group of fans over in the 500’s by right field attempted to start The Wave, and it dribbled over a mere two sections before fizzling out.  Not now, we all said.  Not in the mood.  Toss me another $13 Stella to dull the pain.

Though flames can dwindle, they seldom go out.  When the Jays rallied to take the lead, forty-two thousand seats creaked with bodies leaning forward again, stirred from their disinterest, with a few unfamiliar drops of hope trickling between the rivers of overpriced beer.  When the under-loved Justin Smoak connected lumber to horsehide and planted it in the center field seats, the roof itself bulged at the explosive uncorking of long-suppressed, highly carbonated joy.  We were suddenly all in it together again, and now The Wave could surf across the entire stadium for multiple turns, giving our guys the boost they needed to snip the Rays’ tails and send them shuffling back to the dugout – despite a tenser-than-usual ninth as three straight Rays batters sent Roberto Osuna fastballs to right field, only to have them land safely in Blue Jay gloves.  No miraculous comeback for the other side today, no need to load up the bats for yet another bottom of the ninth.  This one was ours, and as relatively meaningless as wins in April tend to be, we would happily take it.

Now that April is done, we’ve perhaps exhausted the excuse – paraded often these last weeks by Sportsnet’s Mike Wilner – that it’s early.  Likewise is it early after a mere two straight wins to begin projecting a trend, especially looking ahead at three games against the red-hot Yankees in their hood, followed by a return to the horrendous Tropicana Field and what will undoubtedly be an uncomfortable reunion with Edwin Encarnacion and his first-place Clevelanders.  But I will choose to take these last two games and the return of the namesake blue jay birds to my backyard feeders along with the green shoots of spring as the start of things getting better, of that point in the story of 2017 where we begin to astonish everyone who’s already written us off and grind our way back into the race.  Because frankly, we’ve absorbed far more than our share of bad baseball mojo this year.  At times, it feels like we’ve shouldered the burden for the entire league.  It’s time for some of that hideous stuff to rub off on the other guys, to the benefit of our “W” column.  Time for us to reap the bounty of late-inning rallies against flailing relievers and mighty opposition offenses rendered suddenly, inexplicably inert.  Time for us to make April merely the shadowed contrast by which May stands up and shines.

We are so due, folks.

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We Still Believe We Can Fly

In that slice of a second as Chris Coghlan’s feet left the dirt, it was like those first nineteen games of 2017 had never happened.

Just for a moment, the gut-churning misery of dozens and dozens of swings and misses on third strikes and a seemingly infinite stream of zeroes chucked onto the scoreboard at the whims of brilliant-to-utterly-rubber-armed pitching felt like it had happened to some other team in some other town in some other long-forgotten year.

This was the moment when you were reminded that for all the agony hard-coded into a sport where the elite guys fail seven out of every ten tries, baseball is supposed to be fun.

For the Toronto Blue Jays, the 2017 season thus far has been “fun” as drawn from the imaginations of the Spanish Inquisition:  Impotent offense.  Blown leads.  Pitching meltdowns.  A veritable curse on the lineup composed of a witch’s brew of brittle hamstrings, inflamed elbows, natty calf muscles and even, in Aaron Sanchez’s case, a lowly fingernail.  Worst of all, perhaps, a complete and utter failure to live up to that most impossible of standards:  the expectations of their fans.

In 1992, the Blue Jays opened the season with six straight wins and a Toronto newspaper had the hubris to run the headline:  “Could The Jays Go 162-0 This Year?”

The appropriately inspired Jays lost their next game.

Yet it seems that’s still the expectation that many of us come to the park (or flip on 590) with.  A win is the natural course of World Series history unfolding as it should.  A loss – or repeated losses, in this case – is time to throw away your season tickets and go bellyache online about how it’s all over and they need to trade everybody and start the rebuild with 16-year-olds who’ve never played above class-A ball and fire Gibbons and Shapiro and Atkins and Ace and the guy selling the hot dogs and of course you knew this would happen two years ago and said so but nobody listened and blllllarargargargahahhh!!!!!!

Like John Lennon famously said, nobody loves you when you’re down and out.  The Jays have the worst record in the majors and the vultures in sports media have been circling, salivating at the prospect haul a mid-year Josh Donaldson trade might net – when they’ve bothered to talk about Toronto at all.

At least, until the night Chris Coghlan took flight.

Baseball has always been about the narrative crafted by the season.  With 162 games to plow through between April and October there are plenty of pages available to chronicle the rise of underdogs and the fall of expected heroes.  It’s a relentless grind where highs and lows are dished out in equal measure until one squad of misfits manages to climb, against odds, to the top of the pile.  It’s amazing to me why both professional sports columnists and fans are always eager, like a child flipping impatiently to the last page of the murder mystery, to write that narrative long before it’s even gotten started.

What happens in April should be taken for what it is, not as prescriptive for how the coming months will unfold.  At some point, you know that home-run-bashing comeback Eric Thames is going to sink into a major hitless drought and the untouchable Chris Sale is going to get touched up for a five-spot in the second inning of some meaningless game against a last-place team.  Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, baseball keeps building these surprise plot twists into its narrative to keep us clinging to the edges of our seats, to keep us invested in hope at the unlikely no matter how many sabermetric patterns we rely on to make the game safe and boring.

The 1989 Blue Jays opened their season 12-24 and then turned it around and won the AL East.  Weirder things have happened.

Piscotty probably should have caught that ball last night, and even if he didn’t, Jays coach Luis Rivera probably should have held Coghlan at third.  But the confluence of improbable events building upon one another that makes up the nine (or more) innings of a baseball game wasn’t content to leave it at that.  For a team struggling to make highlight reels, or indeed accomplish much of anything at all, the wildness that followed was a positive injection of nitroglycerine.  Who knows if Marcus Stroman has enough adrenaline sizzling in his veins to rocket a double into left field in the top of the 11th if he’s not already jazzed by watching Coghlan go airborne, and at the realization that this team is never out of it.

It’s important to remember that apart from a couple of ugly losses this year, the Blue Jays have been in the fight in each of their games until the very last out.  In several of the games you can point to one pivotal moment where if the play goes the other way, they’re sitting in a tie for first with the Orioles right now.  They’re hardly lying idle and letting themselves get rolled for everyone else’s amusement.  And we’ve already seen the inklings of some unheralded new narratives to carry us through the summer:  nobodies like Joe Smith and Dominic Leone doing lights-out bullpen work, Kevin Pillar’s emergence as a solid leadoff hitter and stolen base man, and the put-upon, can’t-do-anything-right-in-the-eyes-of-fans Justin Smoak suddenly becoming one of the most potent bats in the lineup.

There is lots of 2017 to come.  We’re barely into Chapter One.

The presumption among the faithful is that this team is too talented to keep piling up the L’s.  That the ship will right itself and that once Donaldson, Tulowitzki, Happ and Sanchez have healed the sheer force of nature that was the Toronto Blue Jays between July of 2015 and September 2016 will return with a bat-flipping, showboating, opposition-crushing vengeance.  But even as they are now, playing hurt, with a rotating roster of no-name pitchers and unwanted utility guys plucked from the Island of Misfit Toys (i.e. the waiver wire), they retain the capacity to be one of the most exciting teams in baseball, regardless of whether anyone is paying attention.  When you’re scuffling, when everyone is waiting for you to fail again so they can file their tsk-tsking op-ed pieces, the only option is to take more chances, play harder, and push against the wall of expectations until you smash through it – no matter how bloody you get in the process.

In a game nobody cared about, a replacement-level player nobody expected a damn thing of did exactly that, and delivered us the most spectacular play of the year.

And he just happened to be wearing a Toronto Blue Jays uniform.

That’s why we still believe we can fly.  All the way to the postseason again.

Chris Coghlan showed us how.

On the Day Before

jays

Though it’s been difficult to locate a consistent sense of hope and optimism amidst the general daily deluge of assholery and batshit nuttery that characterizes the news of late, there is one lonely island that cannot, for the moment at least, be soiled by the antics of the present inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (or wherever the hell he chooses to park his flabby orange ass on any given day).  One tiny beacon that can permit liberals and conservatives alike to shelve their ideological spite and instead rejoice in the spectacle of grown, uniformed men chasing a tiny sphere of cork and horsehair around a manicured field for a few hours at a time.

Major League Baseball is back.

Pitchers and catchers reported to spring training camp on Valentine’s Day, and this Saturday, the 2017 Toronto Blue Jays take the field for the first time in a Grapefruit League exhibition game against their first-ever World Series rivals, the Atlanta Braves.  It’s not “real” baseball, one could argue:  the lineup will be largely absent any of the team’s stars, and it will be more of a tryout for the second-stringers and the minor leaguers hopeful of even just a solitary shot in The Show.  But it’s a welcome dawn after a long night, when the storybook triumph of the Chicago Cubs after 108 years without a championship faded with the stadium lights and the world awakened on November 9th to its worst hangover in our young lifetimes.  We’ve craved the purity and the innocence of the pitch and the swing and the wonderfully endless possibility of what might happen next.

The off-season for Blue Jays fans has been typically painful.  There’s a reason why “inside baseball” is a useful colloquialism for any industry in which peeking behind the scenes is an exercise in self-flagellation, and one might long for the younger days when you’d just show up at the stadium in April and cheer for whomever took the field.  The front office is never doing enough, the corporate owners are never spending enough, and any cobbled together twenty-five that doesn’t consist of the reigning champions in every single batting and pitching category is bound to be a disappointment.  And as always, the most bitter part of the off-season is the habitual departure of one or two of the favorites.  Watching David Price slap on a Boston cap last year wasn’t great, but he hadn’t been with us very long.  Seeing Edwin Encarnacion sheathe himself into a Chief Wahoo jersey was wound-salting agony.  Making it worse is that you can’t even really blame him for jumping the puddle to Cleveland.  Free agents earn the right to play wherever they want for however much they want, and Edwin worked his ass off to get there, even if there isn’t here.  But what does the subtraction of all those delectable parrot walks do to the team he left behind?

There’s been plenty of speculation of course, because that’s what we do in the absence of new box scores to dissect.  Sportswriters keen to claim the mantle of this year’s Nostradamus are ever eager to craft the season’s obituary before the first pitch is thrown.  The day the Red Sox traded for Chris Sale, they were immediately anointed the 2017 AL East champions, even though the truth of baseball is that there are 162 games to get through, and numbers aren’t always the best measure of the randomness of reality.  That rotation does look fearsome, but you never know:  Price could continue his downward trend, Rick Porcello could have a natural regression from his Cy Young season, and Sale’s wonky delivery could finally blow out his arm.  The point, one supposes, is that you can feign expertise but simply can’t say with any certainty, and for a sport that is often in danger of getting BABIP’d and fWAR’d to death by a parade of increasingly perplexing statistics designed to shackle the future to a handy script, its enduring appeal lies in its essential unpredictability.  That slow, tantalizing burn where new event builds upon new event and the final outcome is light-years removed from what anyone imagined it might be at the commencement of play, is the beauty of the baseball game.

On the day before the first spring innings, every team has an equal chance to do what the Cubs did last year.  Guys outplay or underplay their expectations year after year; goats become heroes and then suddenly grow the horns back on a lightning turn:  you can be Mike Trout for a hundred and fifty-five games and then on one missed grounder you’re Bill Buckner (or Rougned Odor on the final play of Game 3 of the 2016 ALDS).  In Florida and Arizona right now, there are a thousand breakout stars waiting to ignite, and the same thousand ready to slip away unheralded into the darkness.  In Dunedin, where the Blue Jays are doing situps and wind sprints as we speak, Justin Smoak is hoping he can consistently be the guy who decided to tie and then walk off a 2016 game with two back-to-back home runs.  Melvin Upton Jr. is craving a leadoff spot and another 20 stolen bases/20 home run season.  Jarrod Saltalamacchia wants fans to learn how to pronounce his last name.  Kendrys Morales wants to make everyone in Toronto forget how to pronounce “Encarnacion.”  J.P. Howell wants to be Andrew Miller.  Marcus Stroman wants to be Cy Young with a record deal.  Joe Biagini wants to be Cy Young with a clown nose.  And Jose Bautista just wants to be Jose Bautista again, consistently, from April straight through to October, regardless of what the (suitably humbled, one would imagine) Texas Rangers think.

They may be none of those things.  They may be all of them.  We’ll spend the next eight months finding out alongside, leaping out of our seats with fists pumping the air in one moment and hurling beers against the wall (and hopefully not at Orioles outfielders) in the next.

About the only certainty is the inevitability of change.  This time last year, Drew Storen was a likely lock to be the closer, Gavin Floyd had a better than average shot to be the fifth man in the rotation, Chris Colabello was the set-in-stone starting first baseman, and the bullpen would be anchored by guys like Jesse Chavez, Arnold Leon and Franklin Morales.  And Bautista (allegedly) wanted a $150 million contract extension with no hometown discount or he was outta here.

Yeah.

The people who get paid a lot to know this stuff better than we layperson fans have done their best to put together a squad that can contend.  There are always questions of how long they will, as the core ages, contracts expire and the looming threat of a rebuild (i.e. sucking for five straight years or more with a roster of cheap nobodies) after a bad season nibbles away like a tick at the base of one’s skull.  They said they wanted to get younger, more athletic, and more left-handed, and really none of that happened.  Maybe that would have bettered their chances for this year, maybe it won’t make a difference.  Maybe those mathematical projections that have the Jays pegged at a middling 81-81 and missing the playoffs by a country mile are spot on.  Maybe they’re utterly bonkers.

Baseball has to write its own narrative anyway.

On paper, teams look however they are going to look at this point.  Once the game begins, paper’s only role is to wrap the hot dogs.

On the day before, the 2017 Toronto Blue Jays are both the best and the worst team this franchise has ever fielded.  The cast is assembled, the jerseys are washed and pressed, the infield grass is trimmed, the chalk lines are precise, and the stage is set, awaiting only two little words.

Play.  Ball.