Right now, the Toronto Blue Jays aren't running a baseball team so much as a cross-border shuttle service for the disabled.
On Tuesday, the most recent amongst the infirm, outfielder Steve Pearce, headed to Florida. He'll join Troy Tulowitzki and Josh Donaldson in rehab there.
Tulowitzki should be headed to Atlanta to join the Jays in a couple of days. "Should be" being the operative words when it comes to anything to do with the intersection of this team and good health. Donaldson may return by the next homestand, though the team has been saying that sort of thing for what is starting to feel like the entire season.
J.A. Happ remains amongst baseball's disappeared since team president Mark Shapiro said he expected a "positive outcome" with the starter's sore arm … a month ago. Francisco Liriano is soft tossing and should be on a mound "soon." Russell Martin is taking swings, but apparently does not feel the need to rush back when his time on the disabled list ends Thursday.
"I hope I can get back in there soon, but at the same time I want to be back and stay back," Martin said Tuesday.
Player-ese translation – "Don't hold your breath."
Martin's catching stand-in, Luke Maile, has one hit in 11 games (a fluke job that bounced out of a glove). Maile's doing so poorly that the guy he replaced – veteran Jarrod Saltalamacchia, jettisoned two weeks ago – was just re-signed by Toronto on a minor-league deal.
The Jays are so thin that they're eating their own garbage.
It's curious then that their $20-million (U.S.) de facto captain doesn't feel a greater sense of urgency to re-enter the fray. Maybe Martin is afraid of jinxing things.
The Jays should not be competing, but somehow they are. The wretchedness of the first month has given way to a sort of heedless, stumbling aggression. The best player on the team right now is Kevin Pillar – a series of words whose first association would not be "competing team." But nonetheless …
Take Tuesday, which was often fun to watch and only occasionally awful.
Starter Marco Estrada summed up his outing this way: "It was obviously bad. … The only decent pitch I was throwing was a curveball. But I didn't throw too many of those."
Which was unfortunate. Because Estrada is the only current member of the rotation who is both deeply experienced and doesn't Velcro his throwing arm on in the morning.
He still managed six innings, which has become a prerequisite, regardless of form.
When 29-year-old rookie Mike Bolsinger winced in pain in the second inning of Monday's game, the assistant trainer was sent out to see him without the accompaniment of a coach.
At other times on other teams, Bolsinger would have been removed. At this time on this team, Bolsinger was given what might charitably called a pep talk by inference: We don't care if it hurts or if you're terrible. Keep pitching.
Estrada's tough Tuesday was bookended by a ninth-inning meltdown by closer Roberto Osuna. So we're back to that.
Nobody hit much, aside from Devon Travis. Travis was in a spot to push two men into scoring position with an eighth-inning sacrifice bunt (cue New Baseball Testament outrage), but couldn't manage it. He struck out and it was essentially over then.
Almost without exception, everyone in white was mediocre to terrible. And the Jays could still easily have won it. Atlanta pulled away at the end, 9-5.
The loss left manager John Gibbons in one of his wistful frames of mind.
"They're all doing a great job and they'll keep grinding," Gibbons said of his scrub army and its 6-3 homestand. "I know some guys are beat up, a little bit tired."
Wait – the replacements for the beat-up players are also beat up? It's mid-May. Are the Blue Jays backups in some sort of after-hours Fight Club or something? Because that's not going to work.
When this homestand started nine days ago, you figured this team was in real trouble. They still are.
(That's the problem with win streaks after you've put yourself in a terrible hole – someone ahead of you is almost always matching your pace. When they started this mini-streak, they were nine games out of first place in the AL East. As they end it, they'd only pulled back a game and a half.)
But if the Jays remain behind the pace, they have at least lost the clubhouse-wide look of stunned incomprehension that typified April.
It's been pointed out that the 2015 Blue Jays – the playoff Jays – were also 17-21 in mid-May. That team didn't explode until after the trade deadline, but it made its first move in June (18-10). That got them back on the right side of .500.
The Jays have a string of weaklings coming up in the next little while – Rangers, Reds, A's, Mariners, the bad part of Chicago, Rangers again, Royals.
There are a few quality clubs wedged in there, but Toronto has a remarkably easy ride (on paper) until the end of June. If it's to be done – and it is an incredibly difficult task despite however much searching one does in the chicken bones of seasons past – that's when the bulk of the work will happen.
"It'll be good to get out on the road again," Gibbons said Tuesday, which is an odd thing for any manager to say, especially since the bleeding was staunched in Toronto. Perhaps he thinks his team has to keep running ahead of its bad luck.
If so, they'll have to do more than that now. The Jays began treading water during this homestand. It's not that effortless synchro-swimming-type water treading. It's still more of a panicked flailing. But the results are the same.
However, if Toronto hopes to make the other shore – with or without its first-choice team – it's now time to start swimming.