As any parent with teenage children will tell you: maturation is never an exact science.
You can set the stage for a fluid transition to adulthood with sound advice, quality education and common sense, but ultimately, they’ll only grow up when they’re ready to.
For the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays – both long since departed from this year’s playoff race – nurturing their youth of today to be productive major-leaguers of tomorrow will go a long way to determining how long they spend in the baseball wilderness.
A few more homegrown aces like Seattle’s Felix Hernandez wouldn’t go amiss (paging Ricky Romero), but on Thursday, it was the other right-hander from Valencia, Venezuela, who reigned supreme.
Unlike his fellow countryman and long-time idol, 22-year-old Henderson Alvarez has no perfect game on his résumé, but did more than enough in seven innings to lead Toronto to an 8-3 win.
"I’m very happy that I pitched against one of the greatest pitchers and that we got a chance to win the game tonight," Alvarez said afterwards. "This is the guy that I always followed and I was looking forward to see what he’s doing so I can accomplish the same things that he’s accomplishing."
Much like in last Friday’s 7-5 win in Boston, Alvarez attributed his success to better use of his changeup.
"I was more aggressive with the changeup," he said. "I did it in Boston and it worked and it worked tonight."
The youngster was ably abetted by the other 22-year-olds in the Blue Jays starting lineup, Brett Lawrie and Anthony Gose, who both registered key hits in a five-run fourth inning that turned the game on its head.
But it was Edwin Encarnacion, a 29-year-old veteran enjoying a new lease of life this season, who drove a three-run shot to left-field just hard enough to make a dent on the Toronto record book. His 40th home run of the year made him just the eighth Blue Jays player to reach that plateau, and he reached 100 RBI for the season for the first time in his career.
While Encarnacion, who signed a five-year contract extension earlier this year, was happy about both achievements, one trumps the others.
"I think probably it’s the 100 RBI," he said after the game. "It’s harder to get 100 RBI. I have eight years playing big league and I never got to 80, so it’s not easy to get to 100 RBI, not many people get to 100 RBI."
While the result likely pleased the 13,756 in attendance, the Blue Jays fan with the best seat in the house was distinctly unimpressed.
Seattle left-fielder Michael Saunders went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts before he was removed from the game. But given the strides his own career has taken this season, the 25-year-old from Victoria can’t be too hard on himself.
Batting .249 with 45 runs batted in and leading the Mariners in stolen bases (19), Saunders has finally established himself as an everyday player. But according to those who know him best, there’s plenty more to come.
"I think Michael Saunders is just scratching the surface, I really do," Seattle manager Eric Wedge said. "He’s a legitimate five-tool guy, can help you win the ballgame in the outfield, on the base paths, at home plate, and he’s really just started to figure it out this year."
As a key part of a young ball club himself, as well as a long-time Blue Jays fan, Saunders has watched what has transpired in Toronto this season with interest. But he envisions the same path for both Seattle and Toronto: better days to come.
"If they can get guys to stay healthy all year – it’s just a matter of putting it all together and one of these young guys is going to start figuring it out, because there is a learning curve. There’s a huge difference between the minor leagues and the big leagues, even Triple-A to the big leagues," the Canadian said.
"I certainly struggled for a few years, and this is the first year I’m really kind of finding myself. It’s all about mentality, it’s all about staying confident. The biggest thing is finally realizing and knowing that you belong and truly believing that, I think that’s what helped me out."
What also helped him out was playing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the last time baseball featured as a medal sport (Saunders was teammates with Lawrie). While Saunders is disappointed baseball is no longer an Olympic sport, he looks back on the friendships he made there.
"You create bonds and long-lasting friendships with players and Canadians in the major leagues is like a tightly knit fraternity," he said. "We all know each other and root for each other and it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, there’s no doubt about that."
Saunders is looking forward to the opportunity to putting on the red of Canada once again, maybe at next spring’s World Baseball Classic.
"If I get the opportunity to play, and Seattle gives me the okay, I’d love to represent Team Canada again," he said. "I have always loved to do it, but I’ve got to put this organization first. I’m a Seattle Mariner and I’ve got to be ready for the season, too."
The Toronto Blue Jays begin a three-game set at home against the Boston Red Sox on Friday.
Friday: Toronto LHP Aaron Laffey (3-5, 4.43 earned-run average) vs. Boston RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka (1-5, 7.20)
Saturday: Toronto RHP Carlos Villanueva (7-5, 3.48) vs. Boston RHP Clay Buchholz (11-6, 4.46)
Sunday: Toronto RHP Brandon Morrow (8-6, 3.16) vs. Boston LHP Jon Lester (9-11, 4.99)
NEED TO KNOW
Rogers Centre will play host to the Basement Bowl, as the Red Sox and Blue Jays continue their battle to avoid finishing last in the American League East. However, neither side seems all that interested in, or capable of, avoiding the wooden spoon. While just one game separated the fourth-place Jays from the fifth-placed Sox before Thursday’s contests, the pair rank 12th and 13th, respectively, in winning percentage in the AL since the all-star break (Toronto at .382, Boston at .368).