It’s been a good week for the Toronto Blue Jays.
After ending the month of April three games below .500 with a 11-14 record – a month in which both the offense and bullpen struggled mightily – the Jays welcomed May with open arms and have begun the month 5-2 and are now an even 16-16 in 2016, which is exactly where they were after the first 32 games of their historic 2015 season. What is more important than their recent four-game win streak, perhaps, is the fact that there are signs of improvement in some of the more troubling areas of concern.
While it’s still early (notice how that line is never used when a team gets off to a good start?), there are two critical reasons why it’s vital that the Jays step up their game. First, despite their slow start, the Jays sit just 2.5 games back of the Baltimore Orioles for first in the A.L. East, and although anything can happen over the course of a 162-game season, it would be nice to take advantage of the (currently) weak division. Second, Mark Shapiro stated towards the end of April that he works hard “not to draw any conclusions until 40 games in”, a threshold upon which the Jays are quickly closing in. Ross Atkins has also said that the “it’s early” excuse has just about run its course, and that after thirty games one has enough information to start evaluating trends. It is entirely possible based on these comments that if these two decision-makers are unsatisfied with what they’ve seen from this team, they may make some changes before the month of May has concluded.
It was a turn-around week for Justin Smoak, who has been thrust into the every day first baseman role due to Chris Colabello’s 80-game drug suspension. Smoak, who had been effectively replaced by Colabello during the playoffs, hit just .189/.375/.216 during March/April. This month, he is .389/.500/.722 with two home runs – one to tie Tuesday’s game in the bottom of the ninth against the Texas Rangers, and one to win the game in the bottom of the tenth. Not only did this kick off the four-game win streak, but his first home run also ended a 14-inning scoreless drought. Given that he no longer has his platoon mate, it is imperative that Smoak be able to contribute offensively.
One of the most “concerning” players thus far, Richard Griffin of The Star suggests, is Russell Martin. As Griffin points out, “The Canadian catcher has had slow starts in the past, but when his batting average has been low he would draw walks and keep his OPS reasonable. He reported to camp in better shape, lighter than he had ever been, but his bat has been AWOL.” With the hopes of turning his season around, Martin shaved his famous beard when the calendar turned to May, sporting just a mustache that has been affectionately referred to on Twitter as the “Russtache”.
Sans facial hair, Russell Martin has been “playing like a man possessed“, writes Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi after Martin hit a bases-loaded game-winning single on Wednesday night to give the Jays their second walk-off win in a row. And, though it’s a small sample size, Martin I hitting .263/.300/.263 thus far in May, compared to .150/.224/.167 in March/April. Said Martin: “Sometimes you’ve just got to keep things simple and one of the best parts of my game is just what I put into it…When you get your mind right, you don’t take anything for granted. Keep it as simple as possible, tomorrow is never guaranteed. My goal is to try and play today’s game like tomorrow is not guaranteed…that’s how I’m going to go about it…I’m going to go hard.” Whether his slow start was due to injury (he had been suffering from neck spasms) or some other factor, his bat is just one that must heat up if last season’s best offense in baseball is going to defend their championship this season.
Thursday’s game against the Rangers was a laugher, as the struggling Edwin Encarnacion drove in six runs (in the first two innings!) to help crush the Rangers 12-2. It was the first time this season that the Jays scored double-digit runs (something they had accomplished six times in the first thirty games last year) and was the first true glimpse of the dominant offense seen in 2015. It felt as though such a catharsis was needed by the team and fan base alike, if for no other reason than to be reminded of just how much fun baseball is.
On Friday night against the Dodgers, it was Kevin Pillar’s turn to play hero, jacking a three-runner home run in the bottom of the eighth to break a 2-2 tie and give the Jays their fourth consecutive win. No one was more surprised than Pillar, who has been shuffled between the lead-off spot and batting eighth in the order due to his early-season slump, that he was able to put one over the fence. When asked if he knew he had hit it out of the yard, Pillar responded “Oh, I don’t hit enough of them to know that they’re going to be homers.” The beauty of it, aside from the fact that the offensive production came from an unexpected source, is that Smoak had been intentionally walked ahead of Pillar despite only one out in the inning. Again, it’s a small sample size, but Pillar is batting .391/.440/.696 this month, while continuing to provide the Superman-esque defense for which he’s become known.
A hot Kevin Pillar means that pitchers can no longer bat around the big boppers to get to an easier match-up; it may also mean that Pillar will see more time at lead-off, which seems to be John Gibbons’ preferred spot for him in the lineup. Regardless of batting order, a hot bat in Pillar’s hand ought to bolster the offense, at least until some of the other bats fully wake up.
What exactly does all of this mean? I’m not yet prepared to shout from the rooftops that the Jays’ offense has finally figured it out, the results this week have been promising. If it’s too early in the season to say that the Jays are terrible, then it is also too early to say that what we’ve seen this week is what we can expect the rest of the season. However, I do believe they’ve turned a corner and that fans should be optimistic. In a radio hit with Mike Richards on TSN 1050, Blue Jays analysis Dirk Hayhurst provided a voice of reason when he said the Jays, “showed better baseball poise,” during the close games than when they’re able to beat up on a pitcher, and that there is some “psychological roll-over” when a player has a good game. Combine that with the fact that the starting pitching has thus far been exceptional and the bullpen is beginning to get it together, the Jays as a whole may not quite yet have it all figured out, but they are finally demonstrating their potential.
- Brett Cecil, who has struggled out of the bullpen this season, responded to fans who have taken to booing him recently. “One thing I will say If you’re going to boo me, don’t cheer for me when I’m pitching good.” Jays fans are not wrong about Cecil’s performance to date this season – he is the first reliever to post a 0-5 record in the month of April since 1913, which is when Major League Baseball began keeping records. Some fans seems to forget, however, that beginning June 24 last season, Cecil had a 37-game streak in which he did not surrender a single earned run. Fans – if you purchase a ticket to a game, you most certainly have the right to boo a player. Conversely, I (and others who share my mindset) have the right to judge you as a lousy fan. Remember that these players are human beings who go through ups and downs in life and in their careers just like the rest of us, and that booing members of your own team when the are struggling says more about you than it does about them.
- The series against the L.A. Dodgers meant a return to Toronto for former general manager Alex Anthopoulos. In a press conference with Toronto media, he reminisced about what could have been had the Jays traded for Ben Zobrist, and discussed his relationship with Jays’ ownership. He said his dream is for the Blue Jays to play the Dodgers in the World Series – which, quite frankly, is a dream of mine. (As a follow-up, Ian Hunter posed five lingering questions about the Alex Anthopoulos era that he, and others, would love to have answered.)
- Free agent and two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum threw 41 pitches in a showcase for interested scouts. The former Giants pitcher is hoping to make a return to the big leagues after undergoing hip surgery, and the Jays were amongst the teams who took a look at what he had to offer. Make of that what you will.
- And, finally. After recording his first big-league win on Tuesday, Joe Biagini gave a post-game interview that was, well, a tad unconventional. I’m just going to let the video speak for itself.
One final thing: you have no doubt seen the devastating images out of Fort MacMurray of the wildfire that has left tens of thousands of people homeless while running for their lives. The Blue Jays have created an auction to help raise money for the Red Cross to assist in the aid relief. You can also text FIRES to 45678 to make a $10 donation. As of Friday, fans making a purchase in the Jays Shop could add a donation to their purchase. The Canadian government has pledged to match all public donations, so please – give generously.
Lead Photo: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports