Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Wins Keep Coming!

What is better than nine wins in a row?  Well, I'd say nine wins in a row which include series sweeps of both the Boston Red Sox and that pesky team from Tampa Bay that always seems to have Toronto's number would be better.

The Jays swept Tampa for the first time since August 6 - 9 2010. 

When I sat down to write this, I started to recap the series in Tampa game by game.  But you all know where to find the box scores and have all either watched the games, seen the highlights, or read the box scores.  So let me just touch on some real positive signs from this series.

First and foremost:  This team is never out of it.  When I had the chance to talk Blue Jays with Eric Rosenhek of Definitely Not Jays Talk a few weeks ago, he asked me what were some positive things I liked about this team.  I told him that I really liked that this team never seems to be out of ball games.  Their offense this year is that good. In fact, it is reminiscent of the 1993 team that was also never out of the game, some days despite their pitching.  The first two games against Tampa was another testament to that.  On Monday the Jays put up ten runs on sixteen hits and on Tuesday another nine runs on thirteen hits, with six home runs over those two games.  The Jays are a very exciting offensive team to watch. Even in times when they are trailing late in the game, we all stay glued to our screens because we know that on any given night in any inning, this team can come back and still win the game.  Even if its a bunt and an over throw that get the job done.

Second:  Edwin Encarnacion is an absolute monster right now.  He now has 14 home runs in the month of May and in his last twelve games, he's batting .340 with two doubles, 10 homers and 15 RBIs.  After a slow start that had people worried (which it shouldn't have, traditionally he starts slowly.  In fact, a few seasons ago it was this day, May 29, that he hit his first homer of the year) he has really come into his own this month.  Like him or not, Edwin is a lot of fun to watch right now.  If you do like him, then hurry up and get voting to get this guy into the MLB All-Star game.  He is not even close to a start at either first base or DH. He needs your votes.

One last thing:  Liam Hendricks.  Two starts and two solid outings from this young man thus far.  I know last night the twitter feed was abuzz with folks saying that he wasn't fooling anybody.  Well that may have been the case, but even if it was he once again got the job done.  Through his two starts he is 1 and 0 with a 2.31 ERA and a 0.771 WHIP with 8 K's and 3 walks over 11 and 2/3 innings.  I will still stand here and tell you that this team NEEDS more starting pitching to continue to threaten down the stretch.  But any time you can get performances like this from guys like Hendricks it is a huge boost for this club.  They are going to need outings like this from him and probably other guys down on the farm to make it to October baseball this fall.

The Jays will try to match last seasons ten game winning streak when KC comes into Toronto for a four game series over the weekend.   R.A. Dickey and James Shields tonight.  Should be a fun one!

I will be watching, or at least paying attention once again from Arizona.

- Rob

James Shields is 6 and 1 against Toronto over the last three seasons and has been very tough for some of the Blue Jays better hitters.  Melky Cabrera is just 5 for 27 lifetime against Shields.  Jose Reyes is 2 for 10 and Edwin Encarnacion just 6 for 29.  Jose Bautista may be the man to watch tonight.  He is 9 for 29 with 4 HR vs Shields over his career.  Hopefully his success continues and contributes to another Toronto win.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Six In A Row!

Last month I wrote “Why This Year Was the Best Shot For the Blue Jays…. & How They Blew It”.  I implied in that article that if the Blue Jays had pitching, they would win.  Well, turns out when the Blue Jays get good pitching, they win.  Period.  Six solid starting pitching performances in a row and they’ve won six straight.  Not only have they won six straight, they did it against the Boston Red Sox and the team that held the best record in the Majors coming into Toronto in the Oakland Athletics.  The starting pitching over the past week has been pretty good. 

Over those six wins, Toronto’s starting pitching has gone 37.2 innings giving up 10 earned runs and striking out 29 while walking 11.  However if you take out Happ’s start at the beginning of that streak and look at the last five starts, then you have 33.2 innings pitched, 6 earned runs, 23 strike outs and 9 walks.  That’s an era of 1.60 over those last 5 starts.  What has been even more of a positive sign than the rotation however has been the bullpen.  When this bullpen is not overworked, it is effective.  Over these last 6 games, Toronto’s bullpen has thrown 14.1 innings (approx 2.1 ip per game on average) and has allowed 5 earned runs, with 10 strike outs and just 3 walks.  Which looks even better when we take out Esmil Rogers, who is no longer with the club.  Without Rogers, the bullpen pitched 14 innings and allowed just 2 earned runs.  Over that six game span.  What is also encouraging:  1 hr allowed by the bullpen in 14 innings pitched at Rogers Centre.

When the pitching is present, this team will win.  The problem is, I still don’t think we have enough starting pitching to get us through the season.  We got a great performance from Hendriks and hopefully he can build on that.  But he is young and we should expect some regression from him.  Also don’t forget that Hutchison isn’t going to be able to pitch all year.  One year removed from Tommy John, they will need to shut him down at some point. 

I know it sounds like I’m playing a broken record or beating a dead horse here, but I really wish that Anthopoulos had delivered on his promise of more starting pitching in the offseason.  If we had one or two more arms in this rotation right now, I feel The Jays would be in a much better position to keep fighting to stay atop the AL East. 

What we need to do as Jays fans, is hope that this team is still in top spot come deadline day.  Then maybe they will get something done to bring in at least one more arm.  I just hope we still have enough trade chips still to get something accomplished at the deadline.  I think it’s safe to say that we are no longer going to get Jeff Smardzija from the Cubs for just Stroman and Sanchez. Not with the year Smardzija and Stroman have each had respectively. 

Toronto hopes to get to seven in a row when Tampa Bay comes to town tonight.  Hutch gets the ball for Toronto and Tampa will counter with Canadian native Erik Bedard.

Here’s hoping that the pitching can keep it up.  Because watching this team win sure is a lot of fun.

- Rob

Navan Ontario native Erik Bedard has been having a bit of a bounce back season this year with Tampa Bay and is having a great month of May.  In four starts he has 2 wins and one loss allowing only 2 earned runs over 23 innings with 18 K’s.  As someone who follows all Canadian born players in MLB, I am excited to see him pitching so well.  Having said that, I hope he isn’t too good tonight.  ;)

Friday, May 9, 2014

Definitely Not Jays Talk

I had the opportunity to be a guest on Definitely Not Jays Talk with Eric Rosenhek this week to talk about the Blue Jays.

If you've never been to his site, you should check it out. All of the episodes of the Definitely Not Jays Talk are worth a listen. It is a show by Jays fans made for Jays fans.

Here is the link if you want to check it out:

- Rob

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Re-Emergence of Justin Morneau?

Photo Courtesy of Rob Tringali, Getty Images
Wednesday July 7, 2010.  A hot, muggy summer day.  Toronto was under an extreme heat alert.  The Minnesota Twins were in Toronto for a three game series with the Blue Jays.  After losing the first game 7-6 on Tuesday night, the Jays were looking to Marc Rzepcynski to even the set at a game a piece.  Minnesota countered with Kevin Slowey.  But despite Toronto coming away with the win that day, nobody really remembers that game for the box score. 

Canadian Justin Morneau was in the midst of possibly the best season of his MLB career.  In 81 games he had 102 hits, 25 doubles, 18 home runs (going into that game, he was just three behind Jose Bautista) and was hitting to the tune of a .345 average.  He was on pace to meet or surpass his season that won him MVP honours in 2006 (The first Canadian to win the AL MVP)
and had already been voted in as the starting first baseman for the AL All Star squad.  However on that day his stellar season (and career to that point) came to a screeching halt.

It was the eighth inning.  Minnesota was down by a run.  Michael Cuddyer was at the plate for the Twins with nobody out and Morneau at first base.  Cuddyer hit a ground ball to a back peddling Alex Gonzalez who quickly got the ball to McDonald to force Morneau at second.  Justin slid in hard to second.  As he should have.  As anyone would do in an attempt to break up the double play.  He was successful.  John McDonald jumped over Morneau to throw the ball to first and Cuddyer beat the off line throw easily.  However when McDonald jumped, Morneau was coming in so fast he slid through the bag at second.  His head hit McDonald's knee as McDonald was attempting to clear him.

Justin suffered a concussion that caused him to miss the rest of the 2010 regular season and the playoffs.  He returned in 2011 but was reduced to playing in only 69 games.  Over that span he batted just .227 with 4 home runs.  Well below his career numbers.  2012 and 2013 were marginally better.  In 2012 Justin was able to play 134 games, posting a .267 batting average and hitting double digit home runs (19) for the first time since that 2010 season.  2013 marked the last year of his contract with the Twins.  As a result Justin was dealt on August 31 to the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for Alex Presley and a player to be named later. (On October 5 that player was named as Duke Welker.)  The Pirates appeared to be playoff bound for the first time since 1992 and were looking to add a bat to help put them over the top.  After batting .259 in Minnesota with 17 home runs, Morneau unfortunately did not bring what the Pirates were hoping for.  He debuted in Pittsburgh on September 1, wearing number 66 and playing first base.  Through 77 at bats as a Pirate, Justin hit .260 with 4 doubles, 3 RBI's and no HR's.  I'm sure not what he or the Pirates were expecting.

Even though he was three and a half seasons removed.  Justin had never been able to get back to his pre concussion form.  Justin was granted free agency on Oct 31, 2013.

I've been a Justin Morneau fan since he broke into the league.  I have always followed him closely (as I tend to do with all of our Canadian born players) while he was a Twin and whenever he represented team Canada in the World Baseball Classic.  I have been rooting for him and hoping that he would at some point get back to where he used to be for one more season or two before his career is over.

I know it's early.  Heck, it's barely May.  But it appears that this year may finally be that year.

On December 1, 2013 Justin Morneau was signed by the Colorado Rockies to replace their long time first basemen Todd Helton, who retired at the end of the 2013 season after spending his entire career in Colarado.  The contract is a two year deal worth $11.75 million dollars and carries a mutual option worth $9 million for 2016.  Maybe it's the mountain air.  Maybe a change of scenery.  Maybe the National League.  Maybe batting between Troy Tulowitzky and Wilin Rosario. Who knows?  But whatever it is Justin seems to have found his stroke again.

As I said, it's early.  But through 30 games so far, Morneau is batting .339, with 6 HR's, 9 doubles, and 24 RBI's.  That would put him "on pace" for a 32 HR, 129RBI season if you believe in that sort of thing.  This appears to be the best stretch that he has put together since that day in July of 2010.

I am very hopeful that this is a sign of the year to come for Morneau.  That he is finally going to bounce back and put together a monster season that will put him back on top and have him back in the conversation amongst analysts when they discuss the year's top performers.  But more importantly, that he is finally healthy and feeling 100% again.  Enjoying both baseball and life to their fullest extents.

As of today Justin Morneau is the top performer among Canadian players in Major League Baseball this year.  Perhaps this might be the year Joey Votto (who I am also a big fan of) might have a threat to end his streak of Tip O'Neill awards.  The Tip O'Neill award is handed out annually by the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame to a Canadian Baseball player, or players who are "judged to have excelled in individual achievement and team contribution while adhering to the highest ideals of the game of baseball."  Morneau has won the award in before in 2006 and 2008.  Votto is the current Tip O'Neill award winner and has won the award for four straight years (although he and Jon Axford shared the award in 2011.  The third time the award has been awarded to co-winners).  How great would it be if both of these Canadian first basemen put together a good season and were neck and neck when it's time for the Canadian ball hall to choose its winner for 2014?

Oh, and by the way.  Watch out for those Rockies.  With a record of 19 and 13, they are currently one game out of first place in the NL West behind the Giants and half a game up on the World Series favorite Dodgers.  There are some good things happening out in Colorado this year.  They're definitely worth checking out if you're surfing around MLB.TV some day looking for a game to watch.

Keep an eye on Morneau.  I definitely will be.

 - Rob

Justin Morneau was born on May 15, 1981 in New Westminster, British Columbia.  He was drafted in the third round of the 1999 amateur draft by the Minnesota Twins.  He made his MLB debut with the Twins at age 22 on June 10, 2003 against coincidentally the Colorado Rockies.  Morneau went 2 for 4 from the clean up spot in his first game.