TORONTO – It took 22 seasons for the Blue Jays to make the playoffs after winning it all in 1993. For every player that played in the interim, meaningful baseball in September was merely a myth.
For a fan base, that’s an eternity. For players, that’s the length of a career, and then some. None know this better than some of the long-time Blue Jays in those dark ages. Roy Halladay, Carlos Delgado, Vernon Wells, Adam Lind, and Casey Janssen were all drafted by the Jays, had varying levels of success in a Toronto uniform, endured the hardships, but never got to experience meaningful games down the stretch, despite their patience and faith.
For Brett Cecil, his patience is starting to pay off. A 2007 first round pick of the Jays, it took seven seasons and 276 Major League appearances before getting to experience it. With the club in the midst of another meaningful run in September and the American League East crown in the balance the left-hander is taking it all in.
“It’s a lot of fun playing in games like this, playing in September and playing in games that matter,” Cecil said last week before a game against the Boston Red Sox. “First four years or so of my career I was playing, I don’t like to call it meaningless baseball because you always want to try and improve yourself in some area every game that you go out… but, trust me, it’s a lot more fun to be playing real meaningful games and try to win a division.”
“Trust me, it’s a lot more fun to be playing real meaningful games and try to win a division.”
That shouldn’t surprise anyone, obviously any competitor wants to win, especially one who gets paid to help a franchise win games. However, what might surprise you is that the team’s struggles before their enchanted postseason run last season made the Jays’ recent success a little bit sweeter for Cecil.
“I feel like for myself, personally, it’s been good for me to have those struggles that I’ve had in the past and even now in your career because you look for ways to get better,” Cecil said. “You learn from your mistakes. You learn how to get better. You better yourself as a person. You better yourself as a pitcher.
“I don’t think anybody can have 100 % success in this game. There’s going to be some downfall at some point. Whether it’s a team, whether it’s your career personally. I think it’s great for everybody to have that.”
While the Dunkirk, Maryland native has experienced his share of losses and failures, both personally and as a team, he’s also had plenty of success at the Major League level, especially since converting full-time to a reliever in September 2012. In the three full seasons that followed Cecil revolutionized his game to become one of the best relievers in the game, posting a 2.67 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 11.5 K/9 between 2013 and 2015.
Out of the bullpen Cecil has flirted with the club’s closer role on a couple of occasions, but nothing was quite as impressive as his stretch in the second half of last season. From June 24, 2015 and into the playoffs Cecil was arguably the most dominant reliever in all of baseball. Sporting a streak of 39 straight appearances without allowing an earned run that included a 0.68 WHIP, and 12.3 K/9.
It all came to a tragic end for Cecil in the eighth inning of Game 2 of the ALDS series against the Texas Rangers at Rogers Centre. After retiring the first two batters he faced, including a strikeout of Prince Fielder, Cecil gave up a single to Mike Napoli through the right side of the infield that scored Marcus Stroman’s inherited runner to tie the game at 4. Then Cecil caught Napoli off of first base with a pickoff attempt and became part of a run down between first and second. In the midst of tagging out the Rangers’ first baseman for the final out of the frame he tore his left calf muscle. The injury forced him to miss the remainder of the playoffs, and left him cheering for his club from the sidelines as he voraciously attempted to overcome it.
While he chalked up just two innings of postseason experience as a result, it was more than a big enough bite for Cecil to want more. It’s that taste of success and finally experiencing meaningful baseball, combined with the club’s struggles earlier in his career that makes him want it even more this season.
“It’s both. It’s everything,” Cecil said. “It’s all the work you put off the field, in the weight room, and the off-season. You want it for your teammates. You want to do well for them
“We had a taste of it last year and we have a bad taste left in our mouth,”
“We had a taste of it last year and we have a bad taste left in our mouth.”
The Jays know how close they came last season, and that unfinished business has become a rallying cry for the team. But even with the contributions of Jason Grilli, Joaquin Benoit, and the ever-reliable Roberto Osuna at the back of the pen, a return to form by Cecil would drastically alter the Jays’ chances down the stretch.
The 30-year-old left-hander is trying to shake off an uncharacteristic season, and feels he’s almost there. Cecil, who hasn’t allowed a run since Aug. 21, now has a 1.72 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, and 12.6 K/9 in 22 games since July 22nd.
“I feel like my stuff’s been good all year,” Cecil said, who now has a 4.26 ERA on the season, nearly two full runs more than in 2015. “I feel like this year more than not it’s been bad pitches or poor pitch selection (that has hurt me). I feel like I’m going to fix that.”
“I felt really good my last couple of outings. I was telling people the other day that I don’t remember the last time I was consistently 94, 93, 94, 94 94 for two outings in a row. … It’s good for me to see that. Then obviously I know my breaking ball is where it needs to be. It’s sharp. I keep telling them, ‘guys, I have 30 innings. Throw me every day. I can go every other day for the rest of the season if you guys need me or want me.’ I’m a fresh arm right now. I’m feeling good so hopefully we can stretch this thing for a while.”
“I have 30 innings. Throw me every day. I can go every other day for the rest of the season if you guys need me or want me. I’m a fresh arm right now.”
Regardless of where Cecil is slotted in the bullpen depth chart as the season winds down, or what the stats say about his year, the six-foot-three lefty’s main concern is the team record. You can throw away any personal stats and ignore anything he’s accomplished this year. At this time of season, when it matters most, it’s all about what the team can do.
“This isn’t an individual sport,” Cecil said bluntly.
Taking matters further, Cecil knows his role and what it takes to be a successful reliever. Part of that is having a short memory on the mound and not letting anything affect you. The other part comes from some advice given to him by former Blue Jays ace and current special assistant to the club Pat Hentgen.
“Hentgen always told us ‘you got to treat every outing like its Game 7 of the World Series,’” Cecil said. “If you’re a reliever coming in the fifth and getting the last out of the fifth inning or you’re Osuna getting the last three outs of the game. Every single out is important.”
“I know this team. The team knows itself, they know they can comeback from a pretty big deficit. We can come back in a short amount of time. That’s why I say every out is just as important as getting three outs in the ninth or being down 11-2 and getting outs in the fifth or sixth. It’s just as important.”
Whether or not Cecil will actually see Game 7 of the World Series in the future is yet to be seen, but he’s going to treat every appearance like it is. Until he gets there himself, he’s going to enjoy some meaningful baseball for a second consecutive season after a long stretch of losing and will try to avenge last season’s disappointment to wash that bad taste out of his mouth.
Lead Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports