TORONTO — When the calendar hit May 11 last year, the all-in Blue Jays were 14-24 and shellshocked by injuries. Worse yet, the Yankees were 22-13, and both the Orioles and Red Sox were 22-15. A 9½-game deficit was far too much to ever crawl out of.
It’s a different story this year. Sure, the Jays have dealt with injuries to Jose Reyes (again), Adam Lind and Brett Lawrie. There’s big questions at the back of the rotation and the bullpen was in a major crisis just last weekend in Pittsburgh.
But no one has run away in the East. As recently as Tuesday, in fact, no one was more than two games over .500. The Blue Jays are in position to do some things this year because the rest of the division has provided them what they needed most and didn’t get last year.
“I think last year was a little bit of a shock to everybody,” manager John Gibbons said. “I think they always had a good attitude, but everybody felt kind of like they just got hit by a two-by-four. I definitely feel something different this year.”
When I asked Gibbons here Friday about staying in range, he said he was thrilled to see the way his club had bounced back with a five-game winning streak.
“Even when we were in that rut, nobody was pulling away,” Gibbons said. “It was surprising to me and probably to a lot of people. That definitely benefited us and it could be one of those years where it will be there for the taking. I’ve got to figure it’s going to stay jammed up there for a while.
“There’s teams in the division with key injuries, some teams are scuffling. It definitely helps us.”
The offense has been going for quite a while. The Jays averaged seven runs over an eight-game stretch and rang up a 22-run, 24-hit attack in wins over the Phillies here on Wednesday and Thursday.
It remains to be seen, however, how things will go with the Jays back in American League. Lots of people have piled up wins this year on the Pirates and Phillies.
The Blue Jays have committed the fewest errors in baseball and the offense has been pretty consistent. The Jays entered Saturday with 50 home runs, one off Colorado’s MLB-best. Jose Bautista had reached base in all 36 games, two shy of the club record. Edwin Encarnacion was 7 for 16 with four home runs. Colby Rasmus was on a nine-game hitting streak and batting .343.
And there’s more flexibility with minor-league free agent Juan Francisco, batting .292 with five home runs after his callup from the Bisons. He hit .341 in 12 games with Buffalo after being signed just at the start of the season. Francisco has been so good that the Jays need to use him at third base against right-handed pitching and move Lawrie to second.
Having a healthy Reyes is a real key. He looks good on the bases, stealing two in a game on Thursday for the first time since Sept. 2, 2012. He cranked a home run Friday. He’s running free and easy.
“He looks back,” Gibbons said.”He’s feeling good bouncing around. He got off to a slow start with the bat but it’s coming. He can do so many things, can give you the longball, beat you on the bases, so it’s really good for us.”
The pitching, of course, is the issue. Mark Buehrle is off to a Cy Young-level start (6-1, 1.91) but R.A. Dickey’s ERA is 4.72, Brandon Morrow is out until July and the Angels hit both Dustin McGowan and J.A. Happ hard this weekend.
Bisons ace Marcus Stroman has looked good in relief so far (1-0, 2.70 in three appearances). The Blue Jays have to be tempted to get him into the rotation. They have the defense and the bats. They can’t let their pitching ruin their season. Especially when there’s been plenty of trouble spots for their opponents elsewhere in the division.
Hands-off pitch count
Cubs ace Jeff Samardzija threw a career-high 126 pitches Monday against the White Sox, going nine innings and giving up only an unearned run and earning a no-decision as the game went extra innings. Rookie manager Rick Renteria might want to rethink that, especially with the likelihood that Samardzija might be a prime target come the trade deadline (The Blue Jays, for one, could sure use him).
GM Jed Hoyer even said “I don’t love it” when asked about the pitch count, and Samardzija wasn’t happy with that.
“This is an on-field issue for uniformed personnel,” Samardzija said. “That’s all there is to it. I’m a grown man. I’m 29. I’m not a prospect or 22. I feel good, and I’m grown up enough and responsible enough to understand when I can go out and when I can’t go. I’ve earned my right in athletics to be able to understand my body and where I’m at.”
“If Rick didn’t like how many pitches I threw, then he’ll come up to me and tell me, ‘Hey, Jeff, that might not happen again, so enjoy it while you can,’ which I’m fine with. But that’s something we need to talk about, and I’m a grown-up; I can handle news like that, saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to keep you at 85, 90 next time, or anything like that, whatever it may be.”
Hoyer tried to downplay the controversy, pointing out he had talked to VP Theo Epstein about the issue.
“No one, Theo and me included, had any problem with him throwing 126,” Hoyer said. “But individually that’s not something that’s going to happen every time out. I think that goes without saying. ... It’s just a story that should probably die.”
Samardzija entered Saturday’s start in Atlanta with a 1.62 ERA but an 0-3 record because the Cubs had scored two runs or less in five of his first seven starts.
Around the horn
• When Rangers ace Yu Darvish had his no-hitter short-circuited by David Ortiz with two outs in the ninth Friday night, he became the first pitcher to have two no-nos broken up an out away since former Blue Jays ace Dave Stieb, who lost them in back-to-back starts in 1988 and lost another after 8∏ in 1989. Stieb finally pitched Toronto’s only no-hitter in 1990 at Cleveland.
As for the scoring decision on the dropped fly ball to right field in the seventh that kept Darvish’s gem alive? It was the correct decision under current application of scoring rules, which are terrible. Ball drops in between two outfielders as they look at it and it’s a hit. The rules should be changed. This is the big leagues. It should be an error.
• What are the Blue Jays going to do with Ricky Romero as he continues to slog along with the Bisons? The former All-Star is making $7.5 million this year and the Jays are on the hook for $7.5 million for him again next year.
After Friday night’s three-inning blowup for the Bisons in Charlotte, Romero is just 0-1 in his six starts. But he has a 6.00 ERA and some gruesome stats: Over 27 innings, he has given up 30 hits and walked 23 while striking out 20.
•Don’t normally talk about Class A ball in this space unless it’s something truly spectacular and I got one with this Midwest League score from Wednesday involving two Iowa teams: Clinton 20, Burlington 17, and in 12 innings to boot.
But there’s more. Much more. Burlington had a 17-1 lead after five innings – and then gave up 19 unanswered runs. Clinton, a Seattle affiliate, got a grand slam from 2010 second-round pick Marcus Littlewood in a five-run ninth, then scored three times in the 12th.
Clinton also overcame an eight-run deficit four days earlier, scoring five times with two outs in the ninth inning to beat Wisconsin, 16-13.