DETROIT – Watching the Toronto Blue Jays flail away at the plate through the first week of the season, Chad Mottola had little trouble identifying the reasons behind the collective struggles of his hitters illustrated so starkly in the numbers.
The first-year hitting coach didn’t like the approach he saw, one filled with too many long swings, too much expansion of the strike zone. In short, he watched an offence he felt wasn’t acting like itself.
“Guys are pressing right now throughout the lineup,” Mottola was saying Wednesday morning. “Everybody wants to succeed, everybody wants to win, and as time progresses our goal is to not get all-or-nothing swings, we have a lineup where if a guy doesn’t give you the pitch, go and get on base and let the next guy do it. It’s a product of guys pressing, wanting results immediately, so it’s turned into all-or-nothing.
“It’s not the approach you want to take, it’s not something that’s going to last all season, but it’s just we want to get the lead and they’re going with the big swings rather than grinding out at-bats.
“All we need,” he added, “is that one inning where you just see guys breathe.”
Hours later, after a two-hour 29-minute rain delay, the Blue Jays exhaled in a big way, posting a three-run sixth and a four-run seventh to erase a five-run deficit in a stirring 8-6 victory over the Detroit Tigers, their third win in eight outings this young season.
In many ways it was a performance they could rally around after some problematic defence and pitching left them in a hole midway through a cold, wet affair, a result to take the edge off.
“We needed that one,” said Mark DeRosa, who delivered a pinch-hit double in the sixth that gave the rally legs. “We haven’t played up to expectations, we understand that. No reason to panic, but when you see it slipping away in the fifth or sixth inning, it was nice for the bats to come alive.
“Everyone just needs to relax. There’s obviously no panic in this clubhouse. Guys know what they’re capable of. But you’d like to see things start changing.”
An area in need of some change is in the field, where the Blue Jays continue not be particularly crisp.
Adam Lind’s failure to track down an Austin Jackson foul popper led to a run in the first, Matt Tuiasosopo scored in the second after reaching on Emilio Bonifacio’s fourth error of the season, and Omar Infante’s possibly playable grounder past Maicer Izturis opened the pivotal four-run fifth as the Tigers repeatedly made the most of the extra outs given to them.
Bonifacio at second and Izturis at third have been shaky to this point in Brett Lawrie’s continuing absence.
“It’s been a tough go but they’re our guys,” said manager John Gibbons. “They’re both a big part of this team, no one feels worse than they do, they feel it, they’re human and the game’s not easy to play when you start thinking about things. But they’re a big part of it.”
The plays not made and not finished only made life tougher on Mark Buehrle, who mucked through 4.1 messy innings, allowing six runs, five earned on seven hits and two walks.
Steve Delabar came on with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth, promptly walked his first two batters before Jhonny Peralta blooped a single into no-man’s land in short right field. By the time he settled and escaped the frame, the Tigers led 6-1.
“My second time in two starts, thanking the guys for picking me up, it’s getting kind of old,” said Buehrle. “I’ve got to do a better job of trying to throw up some zeroes.”
Yet the difference-making offence the Blue Jays are banking on awoke to save the day, and rather than being the one-dimensional beast it’s mostly been through the first seven games – when 18 of their 25 runs came around via 12 home runs with 63 strikeouts – they created and sustained innings with tenacious, disciplined at-bats.
They opened the sixth with four straight hits – including Edwin Encarnacion’s second double of the game to bring in one run, and DeRosa’s two-run two-bagger – to pull them back into it, and then built an even better inning in the seventh, when Melky Cabrera started things with a one-out single, the next three batters worked 3-2 walks and J.P. Arencibia cleared the bases with a double.
“We haven’t been able to put together innings, one guy gets a hit, then that’s the hit for that inning, one guy gets a walk and then maybe a double play, that’s been just the beginning of the year so far,” said Arencibia. “It was nice to get a few hits and walks and guys grinding out at-bats and stringing it all in the same inning, because it’s been one or the other, but to score you need to be able to do that collectively in an inning, and we were able to do that.”
The two frames were exactly the type of stretches from his hitters Mottola had been waiting for.
“We haven’t had that one inning where we get six or seven at-bats in a row and we’re in the dugout a little while,” Mottola said, almost presciently. “The talent is here, the ability is here, it’s a matter of letting the mental side of it come out.
“I’m more of a mental guy, like ‘Hey, you got this 2-2 pitch, you had him right where you wanted, and you threw your approach out the door.’ That’s where it’s going. We’re building at-bats, and it just takes one pitch and that’s where it snowballs.”
The sense from Mottola is that amid the early-season hype, expectations and excitement, an urgency to deliver got in the way of the natural ability of some of his players, and as the troubles mounted, things started to snowball the wrong way.
A hit or two early on and things would have changed.
“I go right back to Adam Lind’s (hard-hit) double play ball in the second inning of the first game, the guy turns a double play and we get one run,” said Mottola. “If that goes through, he all of a sudden starts breathing a little easier, we get a lead. It seems like every game we can’t get out to a lead, then you see guys all of a sudden get into a hitter’s count, or get the pitcher in a 3-2 count and their whole approach goes out the door. So it’s a matter of slowing the game down, realizing we can only take one game at a time, one at-bat at a time.
“It’s all a by-product of a good thing – that they want to win.”
On Wednesday, in the kind of gritty game that give a team life, they got the key hits they’ve been lacking, and perhaps things may snowball in a different direction.
Notes: The Blue Jays claimed outfielder Casper Wells off waivers from the Seattle Mariners and he’s expected to join the club Friday in Kansas City. At that point the Blue Jays will have to make a move to clear space on the 25-man roster, expected to be right-hander Edgar Gonzalez. Right-hander Alex Burnett was designated for assignment to clear space on the 40-man roster. … Third baseman Brett Lawrie (left oblique) will play in extended spring game Thursday in Dunedin. It’s an important step in his recovery, and the Blue Jays are hoping he could return as soon as April 19 when they host the Yankees. … Darren Oliver took a line drive from Austin Jackson off the left forearm by the elbow in the eighth inning but remained in the game. The ball deflected right to DeRosa at first for the out. “I thought the ball hit off his glove,” said Gibbons. “I made the comment, ‘Hey, things are turning our way.’ I didn’t realize someone had to suffer a little pain for me to make that statement.” … Gibbons opted against using Sergio Santos, who experienced some soreness behind his right elbow, the same spot as during spring training. Santos first felt the issue Tuesday, but said he was ready to pitch Wednesday. … Encarnacion’s double in the fourth ended an 0-for-19 slide. He finished 2-for-4 with a walk. “I knew I had to just keep my head up, I knew things were going to change, it’s not going to be like the beginning all year long,” he said. “I felt a lot better, more confident, especially when you get a hit … then your mind changes.”