Blue Jays still in position to earn good grade with big test looming

Kendrys Morales and Russell Martin each went deep and J.A. Happ did the rest as he punched out nine over 6.2 innings of work as the Jays dump the Sox 7-3 and avoid the sweep.

TORONTO – You can look at the past couple of weeks for the Toronto Blue Jays like a period of procrastination for a student ahead of exams, and the club’s upcoming road trip through Texas and Kansas City like a final cram session before the testing begins.

Certainly their 7-8 record thus far in a June after Sunday afternoon’s 7-3 victory over the Chicago White Sox has failed to capitalize on a schedule mostly stocked with sub-.500-opponents. Ideally, the Blue Jays would have left .500 well behind by now, rather than sitting at 33-35 with things about to get much tougher following the seven games versus the Rangers and Royals.

Dates with Baltimore, Boston, the Yankees and Houston loom before the all-star break, with the Tigers, Red Sox and Indians on the slate afterwards, an extended stretch that offers a real measuring stick for the front office to get a read on the roster ahead of the July 31 non-roster trade deadline.

“No question, I think we’ll have a pretty good idea in two weeks of where things stand,” general manager Ross Atkins said in an interview before the game. “That might not be the case, but it feels as though some things are going to crystalize in the coming weeks, and certainly beyond that stretch, we’ll have a real good feel for how strong this team is.”

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Just as proper studying positions students for success on an exam, the Blue Jays can set themselves up well by back-pocketing some wins next week before returning home to host the Orioles, against whom they’re 2-7 so far, and the Red Sox (1-2).

Boding well in that regard is the way J.A. Happ built upon his six shutout innings versus the Mariners last weekend with 6.2 innings of three-run ball versus the White Sox, striking out nine with no walks in his second straight win. Steadily, the ability to effectively locate his four- and two-seam fastballs is returning.

“It’s more consistent,” he said. “I felt like early in the count we were able to differentiate and some of the times we want to use the four- seamer and some of the times we wanted to go to the other one. So it’s getting better, it’s never exactly where you want it but I feel more comfortable with it for sure.”

Happ threw 46 four-seamers and 23 sinkers among his 96 pitches and Russell Martin feels when he’s on with them the left-hander doesn’t need much else.

“They both have velocity and you have a split-second to decide which it’s going to be,” Martin explained. “There are times when he throws sinkers that are unhittable and you combine that with a four-seamer at the top of the zone and it’s a really tough at bat.”

An offence largely AWOL this weekend awakened in the sixth down 3-1, as Troy Tulowitzki reached on a two-out roller to third before Russell Martin sent his seventh of the season over the wall in right to knot things up. Steve Pearce followed with a single and Ryan Goins drove him home with a triple and the Blue Jays didn’t look back from there.

Kendrys Morales rocked a Dan Jennings two-seamer into the fourth deck in the seventh to open up some breathing room, and Pearce added an RBI double to pad the advantage, as the Blue Jays enjoyed co-ordinated strong performances on the mound and at the plate for the first time in a while.

“The way we’ve been thinking about it is because of how we played at the start of the season, we had to play exceptionally well in May to crawl out of it, but we really can’t be a .500 team moving forward, we have to be better than that, and we’ve been slightly below a .500 team in June,” said Atkins. “That’s not going to be good enough, so as we look to areas or opportunities to where we could improve, it’s really a collective.

“There are times when our offence is going to pick us up, and there are going to be times where the bullpen picks us up and times where the starting pitching is the reason we win,” he continued. “But for us to be a championship team, we’re going to need all three of those things to be clicking.”

With the draft over, trade talks are sure to pick up in the coming weeks and second base and left field are two areas where they could help themselves. Top of the market options could include Howie Kendrick and Jed Lowrie, although there’s always a steep premium to buying in June. On the bottom of the market, the recently released Jhonny Peralta offers pedigree but may be an unreclaimable reclamation project, which doesn’t make him a good fit for the Blue Jays.

Pearce, who had three hits Sunday, may turn out to be the best upgrade the Blue Jays can make in left field should he keep swinging it the way he did this weekend. He could have Ezequiel Carrera, out with a fracture of the second cuneiform in his right foot, back as soon as the next homestand to play behind him.

The quick start is promising to Pearce, who used his time on the disabled list to work through some issues without the pressure to produce, as well as heal.

“April was very dreadful – I feel like I have a chance at the plate now,” he said. “When I got hurt I was able to revamp everything. I had a chance to go down there and get back to basics, just try to find my swing again. Really beneficial. I was able to find my game and get healthy at the same time.”

More important than mechanics for Pearce is comfort at the plate, as he explains that “you have keys you go off of and feel.”

“And when you have that feel,” he continued, “it doesn’t matter where your hands are or anything like that, you’ll be able to put yourself in a better position to get hits.”

Meanwhile, Aaron Sanchez is due to ramp up his work toward a return in the coming days with a second bullpen and simulated game setting him up for a rehab start.

Provided the finger/blister issues are behind him, Sanchez’s return will strengthen the rotation and possibly the bullpen, should the Blue Jays drop Joe Biagini back into a set-up role.

“It could be as simple as he goes to the bullpen, but we have to think about the fact that he is starting depth, not only for this year, but for the years to come and what’s best for his career, which ultimately translates into what’s best for this organization,” said Atkins. “I hope we have that problem, that we have six healthy starters pitching well.”

Amid an unending run of injuries, surplus has rarely been an issue for the Blue Jays in 2017, who nonetheless enter their exam period with a chance to still earn a good grade.