TORONTO – The Blue Jays are waiting and hoping. Again. If this happens and if that happens has kind of become their mantra. If Jose Bautista gets healthy and if Edwin Encarnacion again becomes Edwin Encarnacion. If someone can step up to lead the rotation. If the bullpen gets straightened out. If the injuries stop.
You get the picture. But the hope isn’t without merit. They’re the majors’ highest-scoring team, even with Bautista and Encarnacion still both hitting under .230 and Jose Reyes on the disabled list (again). They can thank newcomers like Devon Travis, Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin for that.
The real issue is on the mound, where the starters aren’t providing much length and the bullpen is already pretty ragged. Starters Mark Buehrle and Drew Hutchison have somehow combined to go 6-2 despite ERAs of 6.00 and 7.47, respectively. There’s no way the Jays break their 22-year playoff drought if that continues.
“It’s still early, but we have to start pitching better if we’re going to do anything, no doubt,” manager John Gibbons mused last week during one of his daily pregame media briefings in his Rogers Centre office. “We’re going to be one of the better offensive clubs all year, scoring a lot of runs and that’s really without Bautista and Eddy hitting their stride yet. So we’ll see. But the game always comes down to pitching. Always has, always will. You play that many games, it comes down to starting pitching and being able to close it out with your bullpen.”
The starters’ lack of length has really stretched the Blue Jays thin at times in the bullpen, requiring the speedy shuttle from Buffalo. When Ryan Tapera was summoned from the Bisons on Friday, he became the seventh Buffalo player called up in the last week and the fourth relief pitcher.
It will be interesting to see how long the Blue Jays go with starter Daniel Norris in Buffalo. His first start Wednesday night in Durham was decent, although he still struggled with his strike percentage (just 53 of his 95 pitches). There’s rumblings that another good outing by Norris in a rematch with the Bulls Monday night in Coca-Cola Field might be all the Blue Jays need to see to bring him back to the big leagues.
The Blue Jays, remember, called up Marcus Stroman last year after his scintillating April in Buffalo, sent him back down after 15 days and then called up again for keeps 11 days later – after he made just two more starts here and lost both. Stroman, of course, went on to win 11 games for the Blue Jays last year and was expected to be a staff ace this year until suffering a season-ending ACL injury during spring training.
“Over 80 percent of the players that get to three years get optioned at least once,” Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos said last week. “We mentioned this to Norris. Clayton Kershaw got optioned, as good as he is. It happens. This happened to Stroman last year and he came back. Hopefully, they’re not down long, they get right and they come back and give us a boost.”
It would obviously help if Bautista and Encarnacion were themselves. Bautista has been limited to DH duties for several games due to a sore shoulder that hasn’t improved much since he hurt it trying to throw out a runner at first from right field during the chippy game against Baltimore. That game also saw him pimp a home run and chirp at Adam Jones after the Orioles threw behind him.
The Blue Jays say Bautista has no structural damage in the shoulder and can’t hurt it any more by hitting. But he’s not able to lift his arm much or throw. Hmmmm.
“Jose is a huge part of our offense. Eddy is too,” Gibbons said. “They’ve both done it the last few years, two of the top hitters in the game. We’ve got to have them both out there. It’s taking a little longer than I thought, but he’s making progress.”
The Blue Jays are finally getting outfielder Michael Saunders back after he suffered a knee injury stepping on a sprinkler head early in spring training. And Danny Valencia is getting better as well after he was injured after Monday’s game – spraining his ankle while stepping in a floor drain while heading up the steps to the clubhouse.
Who benefitted from the freak Valencia injury? It was Chris Colabello, who did nothing in Buffalo but hit. All he did in his first two nights in Toronto was hit too.
The IL Player of the Month for April went 6 for 8 in his first two games with the Blue Jays, including a four-hit night Wednesday against the Yankees that was a first for him in the big leagues.
“I’m just trying to have good at-bats and compete. It’s really not about getting hits,” Colabello insisted. “It’s about going out and trying to help the team win every day.”
Colabello had a similar run with the Twins last year, going 5 for 10 with six RBIs in his first three games and eventually breaking Kirby Puckett’s franchise record for RBIs in April. But he was hit by a pitch on the thumb by Tampa Bay’s Grant Balfour and was never the same, eventually getting a ticket back to Rochester and his release following the season.
“Every day when I was dealing with the thumb, it was more about going to the field and figuring out a way to try to get hits and scramble,” Colabello said. “It wasn’t about taking care of my swing or focusing on the task at hand. It was ‘How do I make my hand not hurt?’ Being healthy is huge. ... That was something I had never dealt with and didn’t really manage it that well.”
Streaky minor matters
What a weird run of huge streaks going on in the minor leagues.
Las Vegas, the Wally Backman-led Mets Triple-A affiliate, won its 14th straight game Thursday night by beating Albuquerque. The 51s opened the season 6-8 before this run. Mets fans continue to pound me on Twitter for running the Amazins out of town after 2012, especially since Vegas has had back-to-back playoff seasons. But you can’t compare leagues for one thing. And there’s different opponents/parents, ballparks and free agents too. There’s this thought as well: Maybe the Mets learned they had to spend more time trying to win in Triple-A after their experiences here.
The Richmond Flying Squirrels, the Double-A team of the Giants, set a franchise record by losing 15 straight games to turn a 3-2 start into a 3-17 abyss. They broke the nosedive with a 5-1 victory Monday in Altoona to start a four-game winning streak. Erie, the Tigers’ Double-A team and an Eastern League division mate of Richmond, lost 12 in a row until posting a 6-1 win Monday at Trenton.
For some perspective, the Bisons’ longest winning streaks are 10-games in 2002 and 2004, and their longest skid also lasted 10 games. That was the final 10 of 1994, the run-for-the-bus charade put forth by the Pittsburgh Pirates’ last team here.
Around the horn
• The Red Sox hired former Bisons pitching coach Carl Willis to be their pitching coach after the firing of Juan Nieves. Willis worked here in 2001-02 under Eric Wedge and was with the Tribe and Seattle with Wedge from 2003-2013. He started this year as the pitching coach in Columbus. Boston manager John Farrell was Cleveland’s farm director from 2001-2006.
• Bryce Harper’s three-homer game for the Nationals Wednesday against the Marlins made the 22-year-old the youngest player to pull off that feat since Boston’s Joe Lahoud did it on June 11, 1969. And you had to love the bravado when asked about the feat: “That’s how it should be. That’s how I expect myself to play,” Harper said. “If it’s hitting homers, hitting doubles, that’s what I need to do. That’s what I expect out of myself.”
• Think that World Series appearance is helping the Royals at the gate? They’re averaging 30,827 through 16 dates in Kauffman Stadium. The average last year was just 24,154 and that was with a pennant-race boost. The current average is a 51 percent jump over last year at the same point and the team is on pace to break the franchise mark of 2.47 million set in 1989. No crowd has been under 20,000 this season; They had six under 14,000 at this point in 2014.
• Noah Syndergaard, the Mets’ top pitching prospect, will make his big-league debut Tuesday night in Wrigley Field. He went 3-0, 1.82 in five starts at Las Vegas. Syndergaard, 22, was acquired from Toronto when he was in Class A as part of the 2012 trade for R.A. Dickey.