TORONTO — If it wasn’t an official white flag on the 2008 season, Cito Gaston’s blunt assessment of where the Toronto Blue Jays are at was at minimum a grudging acceptance of the grim reality facing his team.
Gaston spoke more of getting his offence right for next year rather than working to salvage this one Tuesday afternoon, marking the first time this year talk of the future has superseded the present. Asked what that meant for the rest of this summer of disappointment, the manager pretty much acknowledged that hope was lost.
"There’s a lot of teams to get over the top here, we’re certainly not going to quit, but if you look at our schedule the rest of the way, it’s a pretty tough schedule," said Gaston. "We play everyone in our division so we do have a chance to leap over some of these teams, but we certainly have to play well to do that."
Gaston’s lowering of expectations comes after another disappointing road trip, this one a 2-4 stretch through Seattle and Anaheim. Back home for series against Baltimore and the Yankees before the all-star break, the Blue Jays began Tuesday 13 1-2 games back of Tampa Bay for first in the AL East and 9 1-2 behind Boston for the wild card.
There are also six teams between them and the Red Sox, an obstacle course this team has shown few signs of being able to navigate. Even general manager J.P. Ricciardi admitted as much, although he insisted his expectations remained high for the rest of the summer.
"Our expectations are this team is not as bad as it has played and hopefully will play a little better," he said. "Now does that mean we’re going to be a playoff team? No, the chances are probably not good that way, but that doesn’t mean we can’t hold out hope we’ll play better."
The issue holding back the Blue Jays remains offence, particularly hitting with runners in scoring position. They were hitting an atrocious .238 with RISP heading into Tuesday’s action — 13th in the AL, 27th in the majors — a collective plague they haven’t been able to shake and the root cause of their meagre 42-47 record.
Gaston was 7-8 in his first 15 games since replacing John Gibbons as manager June 20 and while the offence has shown some improvement under his and new hitting coach Gene Tenace’s guidance, the Blue Jays are still not where they need to be.
"I think it will (get better) because of the mindset we’re trying to get them into is to have an idea when they come up to the plate," said Gaston. "Gene Tenace is talking to them a lot about it, I’m talking a lot about it. …
"You’ve got to have a plan when you go up there, you just can’t go looking for the ball, not on this level. If we have time enough to convince these guys that’s the right way to go about it, I think the hitting is going to turn around."
Gaston, who hopes to be back next year, believes correcting the offence needs to be the team’s main priority for the rest of the season. He remains confident that Vernon Wells, Alex Rios, Scott Rolen and Lyle Overbay will return to their career norms at the plate.
It’s for that reason he’s bullish on the team’s prospects — in 2009.
"I think you have a good ballclub here, I really do," he said. "Maybe come up with a couple more players and this is going to be a good contending ballclub next year."
.A strong finish at the plate, Gaston believes, would provide the hitters with "a confidence-builder for next year, to know they can do it. That’s important."
Ricciardi, for his part, continues to believe in his players and has been frustrated by his team’s inability to correct their problems driving in runs. He’s seen some change for the better under the new coaching staff, but the old issues remain.
"I think we haven’t been real aggressive with runners in scoring position, we’ve let the pitcher dictate more to us than us to them, I think our situational (hitting), when we need a ground ball we hit a fly ball, when we need a fly ball, we hit a ground ball," he said. "Identifying our situations and reacting to those situations is something that we haven’t really done a good job of."
But Ricciardi added that while the Blue Jays are being urged to take a different approach at the plate, at some point responsibility has to fall on the feet of the players.
"They’re just not doing what they’ve done offensively," he said. "I find it hard that you can blame anything on coaches all the time if it doesn’t go well. You’ve played a lot of baseball, at some point you as a player figure out, `This is what I got to do.’
"We’re just in a collective slump as a group and it’s not fun to watch for anybody."