Attention will of course be paid to the slow-moving pitches that bedevilled the Tampa Bay Rays’ bats – it appears the ‘moving’ part is of more consequence than the ‘slow’ bit.
Naturally, people will focus on the two long homers from the Toronto Blue Jays’ most important – and explosive – hitter.
So let’s stipulate all that and look at a less-discussed aspect of what the Jays have achieved in back-to-back wins: defence.
“Obviously, the defence was amazing. If they don’t make some of those plays, I’m not out there probably past the sixth inning. It was a perfect storm.”
Those are the words of starting pitcher Mark Buehrle, who soft-tossed and junk-balled his way to 11 strikeouts – eight of them looking – over eight and two-thirds innings of a 3-0 shutout win over the Rays on Wednesday.
It’s not false modesty on Buehrle’s part, the defence – and in particular third baseman Brett Lawrie (lunging snag of a stinging line drive in the fifth), shortstop Jonathan Diaz (a pair of great backhand pickups in the hole in the third and sixth) – took away several hits.
You might also include Edwin Encarnacion, whose play on designated hitter Logan Forsythe’s sharply hit grounder in the seven inning led to a 3-6-3 double play that snuffed out a Rays threat.
If the Jays have a chance to win their first series in Tampa since 2007 on Thursday, it has a lot to do with the pitching, and that means it has a lot to do with catcher Dioner Navarro.
The 30-year-old Venezuelan has been behind the plate for a pair of commanding performances from starting pitchers – Drew Hutchison on Tuesday, Buehrle on Wednesday – and his teammates like what they see of his game management.
“Quick games in the last two days, a lot of strikes being thrown, and certainly it seemed like Navarro has been getting in a groove with both starters, it seemed like they were in sync and there wasn’t a lot of shaking going on,” said Jose Bautista, he of the aforementioned two homers.
Both were dispatched with alacrity to left-centre field, he had previously cranked towering foul balls to the left side in each of the first two games of the series.
“I started seeing the ball well since the first day, since the first at-bat, I was able to kind of hold on to that for pretty much all of spring, and I feel the same way now. The best evidence for me is if I’m taking my walks and I’ve been able to do that in the first three games,” he said. “I’ve got to start recognizing better when teams aren’t giving me anything good to hit, sometimes when you get strikes they’re borderline pitches or, you know, a pitcher’s pitch. Usually when that’s happening, and I feel that’s been the case in the first three games, teams are not really trying to challenge you so I’ve got to remain patient in those situations.”
The other star of this game was Buerhle, who hasn’t struck out double-digits since April of 2005, when he set his career-high of 12.
“He might have found the fountain of youth,” said manager John Gibbons. “He said all spring training long, he’s felt the best that he’s felt in a long, long time. Who knows what that means, but it was tremendous game for him tonight.”
In the eighth inning, Buerhle struck out the side looking – using 82 mile-an-hour fastballs to confound each hitter for strike three (all three were visibly upset at the called strike).
“You get 33 starts a year and 11 of them you’re going to feel like this, where the catcher puts up the glove and you’re going to hit it there,” said Buerhle. “Eleven of them you’re going to feel okay, and eleven of them you’re not going to know where the ball is going. Today was one of those 11 . . . everything was there.”
He joked about how his fastball “is getting slower and slower and it’s getting out of the hitting speed more. I have no idea (why).”
So after losing closer Casey Janssen to the disabled list prior to Opening Day, and losing starting shortstop Jose Reyes after one at-bat in game one of the series, the Jays have righted the ship.
It’s too early in the year to assign much importance to the victors of series, but as Gibbons said Monday, a good start is essential in the American League East.
“In our division you bury yourself early, it’s over. That’s just kind of the way it works, it’s always been that way, it’ll probably always be that way. You’ve definitely got to hold your own early,” he said.
So there are some stakes to the rubber match on Thursday, which will pit Toronto right-hander Brandon Morrow against young Rays righty Chris Archer.
Bautista, for one, is impatient to snap the Jays’ seven-year string of series losses at Tropicana Field.
“(Thursday)’s game to me is going to be extremely important, just like any other game but maybe a tiny bit more just because of what’s on the line,” he said. “We need to break that streak, it’s not a good streak when you haven’t won a series in a particular ballpark in a long time.”