J.A. Happ reminded all of us on Sunday why it won’t be a positive sign if he is in the Toronto Blue Jays rotation in 2014.
But even the soft-tossing left-hander’s batting practice pitching and a 5-0 loss to an old nemesis, James Shields, ought not to detract from a home-stand that delivered more good than bad for the last-place Blue Jays.
Winning two of three games from a pair of teams with playoff aspirations, the New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals, is almost beside the point. What matters as general manager Alex Anthopoulos contemplates next season is that the team show improvement in specific areas: how it plays the game in the field, and how its starters pitch.
Neither Mark Buehrle or R.A. Dickey can be at the front of the rotation if the Blue Jays want to win next season but from what they’ve shown recently it is now clear that Anthopoulos ought to retain both of them next season, unless one of his peers loses his mind and is willing to trade younger, more cost-efficient starters to him. If somebody needs to go to make this team better, make it Jose Bautista.
Dickey’s home-field performance has almost caught off to his larger-than-life personae: he gave up two hits and needed just 100 pitches to get through eight innings in Saturday’s 4-2 Blue Jays win, striking out six and walking two and has an earned run average of 2.53 in his last three home starts after being beaten up at the Rogers Centre.
It took a while, but Dickey seems to have an understanding of how to use his knuckle-ball in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the Majors. With a new two-year deal kicking in, this is all very good news.
Buehrle, meanwhile, is starting to profit from better infield defence.
Brett Lawrie, who lit up Twitter on Friday night with a jaw-dropping throw from mid-air after bare-handing a ball – “I just kind of adjusted on the fly,” he said - looks like a professional third baseman and is acting like a professional ballplayer. The game has slowed for him.
And what to say about second baseman Ryan Goins, whose club-tying, eight-game hitting streak at the start of his career ended with Sunday’s 0-for-4? He is the best defensive second baseman the Blue Jays have employed this season and while his calling is most likely going to be as a utility players – well, if he can keep Munenori Kawasaki away from the 25-man roster next season, things will be just splendid. You don’t win the American League East with novelty acts.
Sunday’s loss was representative of the Blue Jays season. Happ can’t miss bats and can’t finish off hitters and needs to find another off-speed pitch before anybody tries to pass him off as an AL East pitcher. He has an almost unmanageably small margin for error and that was brought home again Sunday, when an interference call on Jose Reyes on a run-down and an ill-conceived overthrow of the cut-off man by Rajai Davis set in motion a four-run third inning that carried Shields to victory.
Throwing change-ups to hitters who knew when they were coming, Shields’ approach was simple: I’m better than you, and until you show me you can hit what’s coming, I’m not going to change anything. “A lead like that, and you’re not going to get to him very often,” said manager John Gibbons. “Not this club.”
Shields’ career record against the Blue Jays is 12-6 with 17 quality starts in 23 outings. He’d had complete games in his last two starts at the Rogers Centre and there’s no other way to put it: he schooled some of the Blue Jays young hitters, including Goins.
But Goins turned in another strong game defensively, and in a series full of close calls against the team which had the best pitching statistically in the league coming into the weekend – and stole more bases than any other team in the Majors – the Blue Jays were until Sunday more than up to the task.
This was a home-stand where Dwayne Murphy, the Blue Jays first base and outfield coach, greeted Anthony Gose on the top step of the dugout after he came off the field because Gose alertly held on to the ball instead of trying a desperation throw to third base, keeping a double-play in order.
There was a spring in the Blue Jays step this homestand; they were smart.
Gibbons noticed Goins in spring training, when the Blue Jays had ample opportunity to look at minor leaguers due to the absence of regulars with injury and because of the World Baseball Classic. He makes plays that, in Gibbons’ words, “need to be made in the Majors. He carries himself like he belongs here.”
And so Labour Day finds the Blue Jays out of it and on the road, awaiting some September call-ups. Steve Delabar and Dustin McGowan rejoined the team before Sunday’s game after finishing injury rehabilitation and Delabar announced that he’d used some of his downtime to get a mail-order ordainment as a minister and officiate at his brother’s wedding. The next significant baseball game in Toronto will be played in late March or early April, but in the meantime it’s nice seeing a team that hints every now and then that it believes in itself.