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.