NEW YORK – A year ago at the all-star game’s media day, Jose Bautista voiced the prevailing feeling in the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse when he expressed hope that general manager Alex Anthopoulos would add a starting pitcher or three ahead of the trade deadline.
On Monday in Citi Field’s steamy rotunda, where the all-star teams gathered for 45-minute media inquisitions, it was a different story, the slugging right-fielder and three teammates at the Midsummer Classic pointing to inward gains rather than external help as the key to rescuing a season badly askew.
The change in tone is a noteworthy one for the Blue Jays, who arrived at the all-star break 45-49, last in the American League East, 11½ games behind the Boston Red Sox, and 8½ games out of a wild-card spot.
As the authors of the mess they now find themselves in, there’s a recognition that it’s on the group they have in place to clean things up.
“Alex is not out on the field playing for us, we’re totally capable of playing a lot better baseball than we’ve shown, we just need to play better as a team,” Bautista said. “I’m No. 1 on that list, I’ve been very inconsistent this year, and I need to pick it up some and bring that consistency I know I can bring to the table, and bring more steady production and help the team win more games.”
First baseman/DH Edwin Encarnacion, lefty Brett Cecil and righty Steve Delabar made similar statements, and it’s important that the Blue Jays aren’t looking to some yet-to-be-acquired messiah to push them over the top.
Last summer, when Anthopoulos let the deadline pass with the acquisitions of J.A. Happ, Delabar and Brad Lincoln but no impact move, the clubhouse disappointment was so palpable former manager John Farrell gathered the team’s leaders in Seattle to explain that management hadn’t given up on them.
Given the investment made by the Blue Jays this past off-season, the players would be hard-pressed to say the front office isn’t committed to them this summer, and with the way they’ve played, they can’t argue that they’ve performed well enough to deserve reinforcements.
“It means nothing,” Bautista replied when asked how he’d interpret Anthopoulos standing pat in the weeks to come. “He made plenty of moves in the off-season to make our team the best team that he could put on the field, and we’re certainly capable of making it to the playoffs and hopefully win the World Series with the 25 guys we have on our team, and the rest of the guys we have on the roster that might be able to help us in September. I wouldn’t look too much into it.
“A lot of moves are dictated by health issues, so we’ll see where we stand at the moment when the deadline is coming up. If there’s something to be done, he’ll probably pull the trigger on it. We’ll see.”
Added Encarnacion: “For me, I think we have the talent in the clubhouse, and I know the pitchers can do better than what they’ve been doing, we just need to get (renewed) in the second half, get the mind clean, and focus on the games. I know the team is going to change.”
By no means does that mean the Blue Jays will stand pat before the July 31 trade deadline, but where they’re at in the standings in all likelihood precludes them from acquiring a rental player unless the value is skewed drastically in their favour.
To that end, all the Matt Garza speculation is just that unless the Chicago Cubs suddenly discount him – fat chance of that – or the extension talks they had offer Anthopoulos enough reason to think an extension to prevent the right-hander from becoming a free agent in the fall is within reach.
A more realistic scenario is that the Blue Jays target players under club control beyond this season, and those deals more typically take place during the winter.
Either way, the obvious need for the Blue Jays is in the rotation, even with Ricky Romero making rapid progress at triple-A Buffalo, and Brandon Morrow and J.A. Happ potentially ready to return from injury early next month.
The trio has the potential to provide deadline-addition-like boosts, but there’s no certainty any of them can provide the consistent innings the team so desperately needs.
“I think the starting pitching,” Encarnacion said when asked where the Blue Jays most needed to be better. “If we want to win, we know and they know we need to pitch better. Everybody has the experience, so they know what they have to do.”
Still, the Blue Jays will need to be better collectively, as the starters alone aren’t why they’ve to this point been far less than the sum of their parts.
Adding to the incongruous nature of the season, the four Blue Jays all-stars are more than every team save for the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals, with six each, and the Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates, at five apiece. The San Francisco Giants also have four.
Typically that much individual success translates into better team success.
“We’d like to say our record would be a lot better right now, and it might be,” Delabar said. “We’ve had a couple of injuries that knocked us back a little bit early, and … coming out of the starting block we stumbled a little bit.
“We’ve got to get out there and play well all around. It’s not going to be one thing or another, it just has to be a whole team effort and we just have to get it done.”
There is some historical precedent for the Blue Jays to dig themselves out of such a deep hole, as through 94 games in 1989 they were 46-48 and 8½ games out of the division lead before rallying to win the AL East. While the division was weaker then, the two wild card spots didn’t yet exist.
That may be grasping at straws, but that’s where things at.
“Honestly, everybody thought we’d be in a lot better position coming out of spring training, but things happen,” Cecil said. “Everybody goes into slumps. And you hope that guys don’t go into slumps at the same time. Unfortunately it does happen. Hopefully everybody gets into a good run at the same time.
“The team chemistry’s there. What we can do is just take the good points from the first half and then go with that, and try our best. Forget about the bad moments. If everybody continues to focus on their part of the game, bullpen, starters, the hitting, the defence, focus on their own individuality, then we have a pretty good chance.”
There’s no easy entry into the 2013 season’s remaining 68 games.
The Blue Jays host the Tampa Bay Rays for three games once play resumes, and then the Los Angeles Dodgers pop in for another three games. A four-game set with the Houston Astros offers a brief breather before a 10-game road swing through Oakland, Anaheim and Seattle carries them through the July 31 trade deadline.
Things did click at one point this season, an 11-game win streak last month carrying them to a season-best two games over .500 at 38-36 on June 23. They’re 7-13 since.
“Somehow we managed to lose that momentum,” Bautista said of the team’s recent run. “We just have to focus on one-game at a time, and hopefully get the solid starting pitching that allowed us to get that winning streak going, play better defence behind our pitchers, be more consistent at the plate, and keep the production up as a team. Play a better team game.
“At times, you’re only one key base hit away from winning a game and we haven’t been able to get those key hits at the right time in the last two weeks.”
Those are the kind of things that happen when a team has its own house in order. The Blue Jays aren’t there yet, and pining for outside help isn’t going to help bring better times about.