It was only about a month ago that the Toronto Blue Jays were on top of the baseball world.
They were the hottest team in Major League Baseball, winners of six straight after beating the St. Louis Cardinals 3-1 on June 6 to improve their record to 38-24.
That was Toronto’s 20th victory in a 24-game span, the best streak in franchise history, vaulting the Blue Jays to the top of the American League East by a seemingly comfortable six-game margin.
With a torrid display of power hitting, Edwin Encarnacion was being mentioned in the same breath as Mickey Mantle; Jose Bautista was enhancing his reputation as one of the game’s best all-around performers; and no one could argue that John Gibbons was an early candidate for manager of the year.
How quickly things have changed.
The once-feared offence that carried the Blue Jays to the top of the standings has lost its potent pop, and Toronto has dropped 20 of its past 29 games. That includes a season-worst five in a row culminating with a 5-2 loss to the Los Angeles Angels on Monday night.
Heading into play on Tuesday, the Blue Jays’ record was 47-44, and they have tumbled into second place in the AL East, three games behind the Baltimore Orioles.
Here is what went wrong.
For the past month, it has basically been non-existent.
Since reaching their high-water mark June 6, the Blue Jays offensive production over the next 29 games has dipped to 3.3 runs per outing. That represents a drastic decrease from the 5.5 runs per game the team scored over a 35-game span beginning May 1.
Toronto’s team batting average also declined considerably, to .234 from .277.
Toronto’s offensive problems were highlighted over the past weekend in Oakland, where they were swept in the four-game series while being outscored 14-4 by the A’s.
That tied the Blue Jays all-time mark for fewest runs scored in a four-game series.
Through the first five games of their current road trip – all losses – the Blue Jays were outscored 19-6. They scored two runs or less in five consecutive games for the first time since a run that ended Sept. 3, 1996.
June 22 may well go down as the day the season was lost.
In Cincinnati for an interleague series against the Reds, that was the day the Blue Jays lost two key starters – Bautista and Brett Lawrie – to injury.
Lawrie, whose 12 home runs on the year already represented his single-season best, and who was being used at both third and second base, suffered a broken right index finger after being hit by a pitch. He is not expected back until August at the earliest.
Bautista, Toronto’s all-star right fielder, then left the game with a strained left hamstring. He was hitting .305 at the time, with 15 home runs and 49 RBI and had an on-base percentage of .433. Bautista missed six games before the club started to ease him back into the lineup, first as a pinch-hitter, then as the designated hitter as his injury healed.
On Monday, Bautista made his second consecutive start at first base, but his offence has been clearly compromised by his injury; he’s hitting just .179 since his return.
Then there is Encarnacion, who is among the major league leaders in both home runs (26) and runs batted in (70). He suffered a right quadriceps strain during last Saturday’s game in Oakland and has been placed on the disabled list.
In May, Encarnacion put the Blue Jays on his back, leading them to the top of the standings by hammering 16 home runs, which set a Toronto franchise record and tied him with Mantle for the all-time AL record for the month.
When the struggling Chicago White Sox came to play the Blue Jays in a four-game series in late-June, the Blue Jays pummelled them 7-0 in the opening game with right-hander Scott Carroll starting for the visitors.
The White Sox sorted things out after that, sending left-handed starters to the mound for the next three games. The result was three straight Chicago victories.
The White Sox figured out what the rest of MLB has come to realize – that the Blue Jays struggle against southpaws. In those final three games against the White Sox, the Blue Jays managed just 2.3 runs per game and had a team batting average of .200.
On the year, the Blue Jays are hitting just .229 against lefty pitching, the second worst batting average among major league teams. Against right-handers, the Blue Jays are hitting .266.
Toronto first baseman/designated hitter Adam Lind, who bats from the left side, is enjoying a solid season offensively, with a .320 batting average. But that is almost exclusively against righthanders.
Against lefties this year, Lind has managed just two hits in 29 plate appearances, for a .069 batting average.
The Blue Jays will have to handle lefties better in the second half if they hope to climb back into playoff contention.
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