Friday, April 15, 2011

Why, Pesky? Why?

Fenway Park is arguably the most storied baseball sanctuary in the history of the game, and without question, the nuance of that diamond is an indispensable part of the Red Sox's identity.


With Clay Buchholz in dire need of a good outing after fashioning a 7.20 ERA through his first two starts of the season, the Jays had him on the ropes in the first inning on Friday night after a four-pitch walk to Yunel Escobar to start the game and another free pass to Bautista two batters later.

But then, with cleanup hitter Adam Lind at the dish, the Red Sox were benefactors of some serious home-field advantage -- completely inadvertently, mind you -- when an Adam Lind "homer" to right field that bounced between the foul line and Pesky's Pole and ultimately landed in the bleachers was deemed a foul ball upon review.

If the Jays go on to lose this one, I'm putting it squarely on Pesky's shoulders.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Jays Fall to Mariners, Extend Losing Streak to Four

I realize its difficult for me to be objective here, but I can't shake the feeling that Jays fans are simply the ants beneath the proverbial magnifying glass of the baseball gods.

Coming off a devastating loss which saw the bullpen miraculously squander a seven-run lead that the offense had built off 2010 AL Cy Young award winner Felix Hernandez, no less, the Jays came within ninety feet of an eighth-inning comeback on Tuesday night, only to come up empty once again, falling 3-2 to the Mariners to extend their losing streak to four games.

I wouldn't have minded if Seattle rookie Michael Pineda -- making just his second career big league start -- had just done in the eighth exactly what he had for the previous seven innings: dominated. The 21-year-old Dominican kept the Blue Jays' offense in check for the majority of the game, hurling seven sparkling innings of shutout ball while yielding just three hits. But no, the baseball deities, in characteristically cruel fashion, had to plant a seed of hope in the eighth only to pull the rug out from underneath me.

Edwin Encarnacion, who smacked two of the Jays' five hits on the day, led off the eighth with a single to left. After a Jayson Nix strikeout, followed by a Yunel Escobar and subsequent wild pitch from Pineda, Corey Patterson ripped a two-run single to the right field corner to reduce the deficit the one.

With Chris Ray on in relief of Pineda, Patterson -- who continues to impress in the absence of centre-fielder Rajai Davis -- promptly stole second and took third as a bonus on catcher Miguel Olivo's errant throw with Jose Bautista at the dish. But with the tying run standing ninety feet away, the baseball gods administered their decisive blow, as Patterson was gunned down at the plate trying to score on Bautista's pop-up into foul territory down the right field line, thanks to a brilliant catch and throw by first-baseman Justin Smoak.

And just to salt the wound, Toronto was retired in order by Brandon League, a former Jay, to end the game.

But, the fruitless comeback attempt notwithstanding, the most devastating aspect of tonight's bout was the fact that the Jays squandered a brilliant start from Ricky Romero (1-1, 1.66), who made only one mistake the whole game in the form of a two-run bomb to the No. 9 hitter Ryan Langerhans. Otherwise, the Jays ace was typically impressive, striking out eight while surrendering three runs -- two earned -- off five hits and two walks in his first complete game of the season.

After starting the season 4-2, the Jays have trailed off of late, and with tonight's loss, see their record (5-6) dip below .500 for the first time this year.

But I tell you, with tonight's loss, last night's defeat, and Bob Davidson's phantom obstruction call that cost the Jays the game on Saturday night, it's enough to make any fan an atheist.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Jays Win, Escobar Leaves Early

It's never a good thing losing your starting shortstop to injury -- especially not a head injury. But it's particularly devastating to lose your shortstop to injury when he's started the season hitting at a .474 clip, and has already delivered a walkoff homerun for good measure.

The joy of tonight's 4-3 win over the Oakland Athletics -- which secured consecutive series victories for the Jays to open the 2011 season -- was somewhat diminished by the early exit of shortstop Yunel Escobar, who was removed from the game in the seventh inning due to dizziness sustained after sliding head-first into Oakland's Andy Laroche while trying to leg out a triple the inning before.

Who said the stigma of head injuries is confined exclusively to hockey?

After the game, Shi Davidi of the Canadian Press tweeted that Jays' manager John Farrell is "hopeful and at least cautiously optimistic at this point that we’re not entertaining something like (a concussion)."

Escobar, who was 3/3 with a run before being replaced by John McDonald, had been compensating offensively for the absence of Jose Bautista for the past two games, and the Jays can only hope that the Cuban is able to avoid any comparisons to Sidney Crosby.

However, should the injury prove to be serious, Escobar would be in a position to receive designation to the newly-instituted seven-day disabled list, designed specifically for players with head injuries in the wake of the recent uproar regarding concussions in the sports community.

But aside from the blight of the Escobar casualty, the Jays' victory tonight had a lot of positives, notably, the performance of Jesse Litsch. In his inaugural 2011 start, Litsch hurled 6.1 solid innings, surrendering three runs, all earned, over six hits and two walks while striking out seven. With his performance tonight, the 26-year-old certainly improved his chances to retain his spot in the rotation upon the return of Brandon Morrow from the disabled list.

Jo-Jo Reyes, who was mercifully relieved after just 3.1 innings last night, now emerges as the favourite to be the odd-man-out in the rotation, and tonight's performance from "the best fifth starter in baseball," according to Mike Wilner of the Fan590, certainly didn't help his chances.

Litsch eventually turned the ball over to lefty Mark Rzepczynski who threw a masterful two innings in relief before making way for interim closer Jon Rauch who finished the job. In an unconventional yet remarkably acute move, John Farrell elected to keep Rzepczynski in to face the left-handed hitting Hideki Matsui leading off the ninth, rather than go automatically to his closer. Farrell's ingenuity paid off, as Rzepczynski got Matsui swinging. Rauch then came in and quickly disposed of righties Kurt Suzuki and Mark Ellis.

The offense in tonight's game was provided largely by one swing from Travis Snider, who blasted a hanging breaking ball from Oakland starter Dallas Braden over the wall in right for a three-run shot in the fourth to give the Jays a two-run lead. After the A's managed to reduce the deficit to one in the fifth, the Jays tagged on an insurance run via an RBI single from Aaron Hill in the eighth.

With tonight's victory, the Jays improve to 4-1 on the season and will look for the series sweep tomorrow afternoon. The Blue Jays will send lefty Ricky Romero (1-0, 1.42) to the hill against Trevor Cahill (0-0, 1.93).

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Reyes Falters, Escobar Saves the Day

Despite all the excitement of tonight's 7-6 extra-inning, walkoff victory over the Oakland Athletics, the one nagging thought that continued to linger long after the jubilation of Yunel Escobar's decisive two-run bomb faded was: poor Jo-Jo Reyes.

In his first meaningful audition to secure a job in the Blue Jays' rotation, Reyes imploded, surrendering five runs, all of them earned, on nine hits and a walk before getting pulled with one away in the fourth.

Not exactly the kind of performance that instills faith in your manager.

Despite the sizable hole that Reyes dug, the Blue Jays' offense -- despite missing its centrepiece in Jose Bautista, who's on leave for an undisclosed personal matter -- refused to pack it in, and managed to claw their way back to tie the game in the sixth, despite trailing by as much as five at one point.

The four-run frame was sparked by centre-fielder Rajai Davis, who, facing his former team for the first time, led the inning off with a double down the left-field line. Davis, renowned for his baserunning prowess, then managed to disrupt third-basemen Kevin Kouzmanoff on the subsequent Escobar grounder in the hole, putting runners at the corners. Davis then proceeded to score, thanks to the acuity of third-base coach Brian Butterfield, on the following Adam Lind sacrifice fly in foul territory that sent Kouzmanoff sprawling to the turf.

An RBI single from Aaron Hill, another Kouzmanoff error and an RBI double from Edwin Encarnacion put Juan Rivera -- representing the tying run -- on third. A well-placed groundout from Travis Snider brought Rivera home and knotted the game at 5-5.

Both teams' bats then went dormant for the rest of regulation, and so the fans were treated to, as Mike Wilner would say, some "free baseball."

Jason Frasor came on in the top of tenth, replacing Jon Rauch who hurled a scoreless ninth. Frasor promptly surrendered a leadoff homerun to pinch-hitter Josh Willingham to give the A's the lead before ultimately striking out the side.

Davis then started the reprise comeback effort in the home half, leading off the frame with a single up the middle off Grant Balfour. Escobar then strode to the plate a walloped Balfour's first offering into the Athletics' bullpen in right field to lift the Jays to a 7-6 victory.

But while the Jays celebrate their hard-fought, dramatic victory, Reyes' employment status teeters that much more precariously than it did yesterday.

The 26-year-old is out of options -- he would have to clear waivers if designated to AAA, meaning the Jays would risk losing him -- which could spell consignment to the bullpen upon Brandon Morrow's return, but another outing like this could yield an even less favourable outcome for Reyes, especially if the bullpen's resident southpaws David Purcey and Mark Rzepczynski prove to be effective. And with a body of work that's as uninspiring as it is brief, Reyes doesn't have many references to vouch for him, either.

Another outing like tonight's might augur the fate that the prophetic Lennon and McCartney sang about: Jo-Jo might have to get back to where he once belonged.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Blue Jays Kick Off 2011 Season

Alas, the dust has settled, the pageantry and hoopla of Opening Weekend but a fond memory for both the 100,000-and-change that crammed themselves into an electric Rogers Centre, as well as those of us watching from the comfort of our living rooms.

With a day off tomorrow before hosting Oakland for a three-game series, let's look back and recap the weekend's events: the auspicious ups, the discouraging downs, and Juan Rivera/Adam Lind's mutual failure to execute on Sunday. But we'll get to that latter issue in due time.

Hosting the Minnesota Twins, the Blue Jays started their season in ceremonious fashion, with newly-appointed ace Ricky Romero leading the troops to an emphatic 13-3 victory in front of a sellout crowd on Friday night.

After Romero breezed through the top half of the first, the offense wasted no time getting to work. Consecutive singles by Rajai Davis and Yunel Escobar precipitated a double steal -- punctuating the beginning of the John Farrell era -- followed by a walk to Jose Bautista loaded the bases for Adam Lind, who brought home the Jays' first run of the year when he was promptly plunked in the shoulder by a Carl Pavano fastball.

A pair of sac flies from Aaron Hill and Edwin Encarnacion, followed by an error by Twins' second-baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka on a Travis Snider grounder gave the Jays a comfortable 4-0 lead heading into the second.

Needless to say, the home-town boys never looked back.

Romero gave an inspiring performance, issuing only one earned run over 6.1 innings of work while striking out seven.

On the other side of the ball, Lind and reigning homerun king Bautista each contributed solo shots, but the star of the night was rookie catcher J.P. Arencibia who, emulating his MLB debut last August, belted two homeruns and a triple to finish the night 3/4 with 5 RBIs.

Relievers Casey Janssen, Jason Frasor, and Carlos Villanueva -- making his Blue Jays' debut -- combined for 2.2 scoreless innings to end the game.

The following day, with substantially fewer butts in the seats, the Blue Jays sent out rookie Kyle Drabek to toe the slab in search of his first major league victory.

From the first pitch, Drabek set the tone for entire afternoon, hurling a game that was reminiscent, dare I say it, of the man he was traded for.

Drabek emphatically struck out the side in the first, and carried a no-hitter into the sixth until Denard Span spoiled the youngster's bid with a solid single over the head of Yunel Escobar. His electric fastball, complimented by a bewildering bender kept the Twins off-balance all afternoon, and the only run they were able to muster was came by way of a walk, stolen base, and some effectively placed ground ball outs. The rookie finished the day with seven strikeouts over his seven innings of work while walking three and surrendering only the lone run and Span single.

His batterymate, Jose Molina, who got the nod over Arencibia, much to the chagrin of the Toronto faithful, vindicated his manager's choice with a third-inning solo shot that got the offense in motion.

After the Twins' tied the game at 1-1 in the fourth, Jayson Nix -- acquired last week from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for cash considerations -- wasted no time endearing himself to his new teammates (and fans) with a solo shot off Twins' starter Francisco Liriano in the home half of the inning to give the Jays the lead.

The Jays put the game away in the bottom of the fifth; after an Edwin Encarnacion infield single scored Bautista and advanced Lind to second, Travis Snider -- pinch-hitting for Juan Rivera in another savvy strategical move by Farrell -- doubled to the right-field corner to plate a pair and extend the lead to 5-1.

The Jays would tag on another run in the eighth on an Aaron Hill sac fly to effectively seal the Twins' fate.

In the weekend's finale, the Jays sent Brett Cecil -- who struggled with diminished velocity for much of Spring Training -- to the mound, facing the Twins' sinkerballer extraordinaire, Nick Blackburn.

After striking out the side in the first and breezing through the next inning, Cecil surrendered a bomb to Danny Valencia in the third to give the Twins their first lead of the weekend.

The Jays tied it up in the bottom of the fourth on an error by Nishioka on an Encarnacion chopper, but the Twins got to Cecil in the fifth. After a single and a walk, Cecil hesitated on his throw to Lind on a Drew Butera sacrifice bunt, loading the bases. Matt Tolbert promptly singled to left, scoring Jason Kubel, but a perfect throw from Snider nailed a trailing Valencia trying to extend the lead. Nishioka would end up singling home another run before Cecil got Delmon Young to pop out to shallow right and induced a fly-out from Justin Morneau.

The Jays would reduce the deficit to one thanks to a Bautista blast in the sixth.

But with a chance to tie the game and possibly take the lead the following inning, the Jays couldn't execute. With runners on second and third with only one out, Juan Rivera grounded out meekly to pitcher Matt Capps. Bautista then lined out hard to centre-field to end the threat.

Jon Rauch, the Blue Jays' interim closer with Frank Francisco on the disabled list, saw his first action of the season in the ninth. But the gargantuan righty yielded a towering solo shot to Denard Span in his one inning of work, extending the Jays' deficit to two heading into their last at-bat.

The bottom of the ninth made for some serious drama.

Snider led off the inning with an infield single, just beating the throw from Nishioka who made a great diving stab on a ball in the hole. After Arencibia flied out to the warning track -- a recurring theme for the catcher on the afternoon -- Mike McCoy blooped a clutch double to shallow right, barely avoiding the tag at second. Yunel Escobar then ripped a sacrifice fly to centre, scoring Snider on a ball that almost escaped the reach of Span. But after consecutive (and heart-stopping) walks to Rivera and Bautista, Lind uncharacteristically offered at a first-pitch breaking ball from Nathan, and grounded out to Cuddyer at first to end the game.

Overall, the weekend was a huge success. The games were exciting, entertaining, and there was no denying the unmistakable presence of collective hope in the Rogers Centre (and, of course, in Ottawa living rooms). While a sweep would've been nice, extrapolating this success rate to 162 games produces a record of 108-54, which ain't too shabby. Either way, it's going to be one hell of a ride.