TORONTO — Putting too much stock into a single game over the course of a baseball season is a risky piece of business, but perhaps Tuesday night’s gutsy 9-7 victory over the Boston Red Sox may end up marking a turning point for a talented but wayward team still trying to find its way.
Let’s face it, this is the type of game they lost time and again during a mostly dreadful 10-17 April, done in by a seeing-eye ground ball, a missed defensive play, a pitch that runs back out over the plate, a poor at-bat with runners in scoring position, or some cruel combo of the above.
And their lingering issues up the middle nearly blew this one, too.
In the seventh, they squandered a sure-fire inning-ending double play thanks to Munenori Kawasaki’s throwing error on a still catchable relay to Maicer Izturis at second, leading to a three-run double by David Ortiz that rallied the Red Sox to a 7-6 lead, but they didn’t buckle.
Jose Bautista fought back from a 1-2 count in the bottom of the frame to work a two-out walk off Junichi Tazawa and Edwin Encarnacion — who earlier became the 14th player to homer into the 500 level at Rogers Centre — crushed his second of the game to restore the lead.
Toss in an add-on run in the eighth, plus Casey Janssen being Casey Janssen in the ninth, and everyone exhaled a little bit. A work of art it wasn’t, but the Blue Jays at least got themselves back pointed the right way after a 1-6 road trip threatened to bury them.
“We got out to a lead, which was nice, but we’re still waiting to play those complete games all the way through,” said Janssen. “It’s there, we see glimpses of it, but we need to do it for nine innings, and then we need to do it for three, four, five games in a row.”
Their inability to recover from in-game gut shots in recent weeks is precisely why veteran Mark DeRosa called a team meeting Sunday morning in New York, concerned over a growing here-we-go-again fatalism settling into the clubhouse and dugout.
During the gathering, the veteran utility-man spoke of having better at-bats, cleaning up a defence that’s been dangerously dodgy, and of not making the same mental mistakes over and over.
“That was the whole reason I called the meeting, was you can’t help but see the vibe of the whole dugout and whole clubhouse kind of waiting for something bad to happen,” DeRosa explained. “We have too good a rotation, too good a lineup for that to be the norm.”
Yet things didn’t change much in a 3-2 loss to the Yankees soon after, wrapping up a miserable four-game sweep that had a rock-bottom feel to it.
The Blue Jays were on the verge of boring through bedrock to a new low Tuesday as the Red Sox fought out of a 6-3 hole to retake the lead until Bautista and Encarnacion teamed to stop it, and Colby Rasmus cashed in a J.P. Arencibia single and Izturis sacrifice in the eighth to insure the win.
All of that wouldn’t have happened last week. So perhaps things are indeed starting to turn.
“Everybody got excited, everybody was happy after the game. Winning a game like this, that’s what we need right now,” said Encarnacion. “The way we’ve been playing the last couple games, we haven’t been playing great. Having a win to open the homestand is very important for us. We’re going to keep our heads up, keep working, keep going.”
Added manager John Gibbons: “You know, we could have disappeared after Ortiz’s big hit, but we didn’t.”
Still, the Blue Jays must stop making things so hard on themselves, too.
A team with championship aspirations can’t keep giving away outs up the middle as freely and regularly as they do, and while Gibbons did the right thing by subbing in Kawasaki at shortstop and shifting Izturis to second in place of Emilio Bonifacio, his prime defensive alignment right now just isn’t good enough.
Even when Jose Reyes returns from injury, an Izturis-Bonifacio platoon at second may not cut it, and the Blue Jays might have to reconsider moving Bautista to third and Brett Lawrie to second. Or perhaps GM Alex Anthopoulos needs to revisit the trade market.
Whatever the case, the Blue Jays’ record is arguably three or four games better if they catch the ball up the middle. They can’t keep shooting themselves in the foot.
As starter Brandon Morrow put it, “We’d rather be playing real clean games, great defensively, but if we’ve got to come back, that’s definitely a morale booster.”
During DeRosa’s meeting, among the points he made was about the need to “pick each other up” and they did it multiple times against the Red Sox.
Lawrie started a remarkable 5-4-3 double play in the fourth when he made a diving stab on Will Middlebrooks’s scorching grounder, and Morrow bailed himself out of a teetering-on-the-brink fifth when he picked off Jacoby Ellsbury at second with Mike Napoli at the plate.
Factor in the pair of runs that Jarrod Saltalamacchia gifted them on an errant pick-off throw in third, and the Blue Jays finally had some things go their way, but also put themselves in position to get those breaks.
“We’ve got too good a club to just accept the position we’re in and just see what happens,” said DeRosa. “I don’t want to see what happens, like I told the guys, I didn’t come back to see what happens, I came back because this roster offered me a chance to get back to the post-season and everyone should feel that way. …
“You can’t leave it up to Gibby and the coaching staff every time.”
Bautista conveyed a similar message before the game of how every player needs to be accountable for their own play, and the backing up his words, delivered an RBI double to open the scoring and walked twice, scoring on both.
“The general idea of the meeting was we’re a team, we’ve got to go through thick and thin, through the good times and the bad times together and that’s it,” said Bautista. “I do know I have to play better baseball individually, and if everybody does that as well as individuals, our team effort is going to be better, and we should win more games.”
Contributions on that front came up and down the lineup. Besides Encarnacion’s two homers and four RBIs, Arencibia and Rasmus each had two hits while Rajai Davis walked, was hit by a pitch and singled, scoring each time.
Nary an at-bat was wasted, the Blue Jays made a handful of solid defensive plays, and the pitchers mostly did their jobs.
So perhaps Sunday’s meeting really changed things, or maybe the break Monday helped recharge the batteries, but the Blue Jays must now make like Busta Rhymes in “Pass The Courvoisier,” when he rapped, “Don’t talk about it, be about it.”
“Giving away too many ABs, defence — we’re giving too many outs to the other team, putting our pitchers in some pretty tough situations,” said DeRosa. “Just kind of bringing everyone together, getting everyone to relax, kind of get that swagger back that we had in spring training. That’s kind of where I was going with (the meeting).
“I felt like when I showed up in spring training there was such a buzz about this team. The guys kind of fed off of it. I felt like even though we never had our true team out on the field, we kind of had a little pep in our step playing throughout spring training and playing well. I just wanted to get that feel back again.”
Tuesday was a potential building block. They’ve had others this season, and they can’t waste this one.