The last-place Toronto Blue Jays (17-24) entered a three-game series with the first-place New York Yankees (25-16) on Friday night, trailing by eight games in the standings. Two months ago, many prognosticators believed that the Blue Jays would have been in first and the Yankees at the bottom of the American League East rounding the quarter-pole of the season.
Amid great expectations in the first five weeks, negatives snowballed until the Jays bottomed out with a 3-10 swing against Baltimore, New York, Boston and Seattle. Injuries produced inferior infield defence that aggravated the problems of a rotation slow off the mark. Meantime, the batting order was in a mass slump, hitting in the .220s and flailing wildly as several hitters tried to pull the team out of its morass with each swing.
“Pull, pull, pull, looking for the long ball,” manager John Gibbons described the period. “Now we’re using the whole field. That makes a huge difference.”
Complicating the offensive and defensive problems, a pair of major off-season trades and signings of three free agents left many strangers in a strange land come April, their bonding adversely affected during spring training as four regular players and pitcher R.A. Dickey went to the World Baseball Classic. Team chemistry nearly fizzled out altogether as an awkward, eerie silence pervaded the clubhouse, with a few players barely restraining themselves from criticizing the fundamentally awful play occurring on the field, instead speaking to media in subtle code.
“We are starting slow and now we’ve got everybody together,” said second baseman Maicer Izturis, one of the free-agent acquisitions along with left fielder Melky Cabrera and reserve infielder Mark DeRosa. “Everybody is talking a little bit more now and the feeling is, it’s going to come together. We just have to go day to day, play together, continue to win series.”
Slagged across baseball as laughable underachievers, the Jays seem to have generated an ironic underdog mentality. With a two-game sweep of World Series defending champion San Francisco this week – their first series victory at home, in seven tries – and bats exploding during a four-game win streak, they are projecting confidence now, as if to say their miserly start will be dismissed as an aberration come the dog days of summer.
“I’m not putting too much into anything right now,” GM Alex Anthopoulos said this week. “It’s not a six-week season. Take the Red Sox – 20-8 the first month, and they’re a great team, but now they’re in a stretch of [4-9]. If we were in first place, and you were asking, why did it go so right, I’d say the same thing: no idea. In 2009, we had the best record in baseball around this time, at 27-13, then had a nine-game road trip starting in Boston and went 0-9. … Things even out.”
The Yankees, with a dozen players on the disabled list this season, have overcome injuries on the strength of acquisitions Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay and Travis Hafner. But they had lost three of five entering Friday, and 40-year-old pitcher Andy Pettitte’s back locked up on Thursday. They are in first place primarily by having exploited the Jays, winning six of seven.
The Jays may have dug a hole so deep that with another skid even approaching April’s 10-win/17-loss wreckage, their season will be lost. To reach 90 victories, likely the minimum required to capture the AL East, the Blue Jays will need to win 73 of the remaining 121 games, a .657 clip. For perspective, the Texas Rangers had the AL’s top winning percentage, .659, through Thursday. The recovery formula goes like this:
Establish home advantage at Rogers Centre where the record is 9-12 and, when the roof is closed, opponents have outhomered the Jays 35-20.
Take care of business in the AL East because with AL West teams loading up on hapless Houston, the odds of landing a wild-card berth may be no better than winning the division. Starting Friday, the Blue Jays have 10 straight division games, with Tampa Bay and Baltimore in Toronto next week before a testing interleague road swing to Atlanta, San Diego and San Francisco.