Reasons Blue Jays are Heading in Right Direction
It was not the most successful road trip the Blue Jays have experienced but this past week in Oakland and Phoenix provided a lot more to like than not to like about this team’s immediate future.
It started and ended with the worst, then the best of Marcus Stroman but, in fairness to Stroman, he wasn’t the only Blue Jay who looked a little scattered when the team reunited in the Bay Area after the all-star break.
That opening 8-7 loss to the Athletics rankled manager John Gibbons because his team looked a little frayed around the edges. Stroman found too much of the plate with too many of his pitches and his teammates didn’t do a whole lot to pick him up.
The A’s made it two in a row on Saturday, roughing up R.A. Dickey for four second-inning runs, including a rare three-run homer, on the way to a 5-4 win that didn’t improve the manager’s disposition.
Things started to turn on Sunday, with Josh Donaldson taking charge, drilling a two-run, nine-inning double to provide the decisive runs in a 5-3 win, that featured solid relief pitching by Jason Grilli, Brett Cecil and Roberto Osuna.
In Phoenix the Blue Jays found their groove against the Diamondbacks. Chase Field is a ballpark built for slugging teams and the Jays got into the spirit of things behind another superlative performance by Aaron Sanchez. Edwin Encarnacion belted a three-run homer that was more than enough for Sanchez to earn his 10th win and ninth-straight consecutive winning decision.
It was more of the same in Wednesday’s finale as both Donaldson and Encarnacion went deep in a 10-4 romp. The most encouraging aspect of this game, though, was Stroman’s command and control in one of his best outings of the season, reinforcing Gibbons’ opinion that Stroman’s performance in Oakland was just a matter of some rust because of the all-star break.
Now, heading into this nine-game homestand that leads into the non-waiver trade deadline on August 1, the Blue Jays have a healthy foundation to build upon.
Stroman’s rebound is probably at the top of the list. He had struggled in May and early June, unable to pick the plate apart with the pinpoint control he had previously been known for. Then, after losing to the White Sox on June 26, Stroman made some subtle changes to his mechanics and reeled off two strong outings before the break. The Oakland loss was greeted with some ‘Oh, no, not again’ responses but his rebound in Phoenix will silence that criticism. He looked as good as he ever has, tossing eight innings, allowing just eight singles without a walk.
Given that the Blue Jay rotation, as good as it has been this year, remains thin beyond the starting five, Stroman needs to be the pitcher the Jays know he can be.
Another key aspect was Troy Tulowitzki’s continued renaissance. On the trip, he went 6-for-21 with a homer and four RBI and an OPS of .810. In his last 25 games, Tulowitzki is 31-for-101 with right homers and 24 RBI. He is hitting .307 in that span with an OPS of .939. The numbers are good but they don’t tell the whole story. The shortstop’s body language at the plate speaks almost as loudly. He is aggressive and selective at the same time. Hardly an at-bat goes by that he doesn’t hit at least one ball hard, whether it’s a hit, an out or a loud foul ball.
The care and feeding of Sanchez continues to be a mystifying sidebar. Soon enough, he is going to blow past his previous high for innings in a season. But instead of tiring and breaking down, he appears to be getting stronger. He handled a good hitting Diamondbacks’ team with ease on Tuesday, tossing seven strong innings using under 100 pitches to do it. At some point the Jays’ tall thinkers are going to either have to make good on their intent to put him back in the bullpen to protect his arm from overwork or declare that he’s in for the long haul. There is no clear consensus.
And it’s never a bad time to mention the value of the Blue Jays defence which has been a huge factor in the success of the pitching staff this year. Jays starters, partly because the defence behind them has a habit of stealing base hits away from opponents, has been able to rack up a MLB high total of 610 innings pitched. The inner defence makes the spectacular appear routine on a nightly basis, no matter who is out there. And Kevin Pillar in centre is a human highlight reel.
It was just about this time last year, that the Blue Jays started making a run to their first division title in 22 years. Most of the same players, plus a few upgrades, are in place to try to duplicate that run this year.