NEW YORK – With the all-star festivities now behind Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons and his four players at the Midsummer Classic, it’s back to reality and the daunting task of rescuing a season perilously close to failure.
There is no more time to waste.
“We need to do something quick to be realistic, we don’t want to kid anybody, we need another nice long streak and to definitely start playing some better ball,” Gibbons says in an interview. “We’ve got those 10 games at home, where we’ve been playing better, to start the second half, we’ve got to kick it in gear, that’s for sure.”
No debate on that front, as the Blue Jays prepare to open a homestand against the Tampa Bay Rays, Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros Friday against their AL East rival sitting at 45-49, last in the division, 11.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox and 8.5 games out of a wild-card spot.
That’s a pretty bleak outlook, but the 11-game win streak they ran off last month demonstrated how quickly ground can be made up.
Gibbons sees that as a reason to believe.
“I still like this team, I really do, and I’ve seen us get on a roll,” he explains. “If we hadn’t had that streak, that’s a totally different story, but I’ve seen what we’re capable of. You still have to go out and do it.”
Underlining their inconsistencies this season, the Blue Jays hurt their cause by following that white hot stretch with a 7-13 run into the break. They haven’t won consecutive games since, plagued alternately by issues in the rotation, batting order and in the field.
Waiting for a second double-digit run of wins is probably too much to expect.
“That would be a lot,” Gibbons concedes. “How about a five-gamer or something, get over .500? We’ll take that, we’ll start with that.
“Naturally when you have a nice streak like that you’re going to cool off, but what we hoped to avoid — and it didn’t happen — is to play unsteady baseball. We had climbed back in it, and then it was almost just the opposite, we started going in the other direction fast.”
The Blue Jays haven’t had much good fortune, and it’s started with a schedule that’s been the toughest in the big-leagues in terms of opposition win percentage, according to Stats Inc.
The teams they’ve played over the first 94 games are a collective .531, followed by the Astros at .521, Milwaukee Brewers at .518, New York Yankees .512 and Baltimore Orioles .512.
In terms of remaining schedule, Blue Jays opponents are a collective .514, sixth in the majors. The Orioles have the toughest sked at .516, a hair more difficult than the Yankees at .516 and the Rays at .515.
Regardless, that’s no excuse, as the Blue Jays were built to be able to beat the best clubs in baseball, and if they’re going to rescue their pre-season hopes, they have to start doing just that.
“You really have to have everything working at this point, where we’re at right now,” says Gibbons. “Everybody’s got to contribute, we’ve got to be steady in defence, hitting, pitching, all that.”
A potentially important sign was the way Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar pointed inwards this week when asked how the Blue Jays improve in the second half, rather than looking outwards to help via trade.
Ricky Romero, making strides at triple-A but likely a few more solid outings away from returning, Brandon Morrow (forearm) and J.A. Happ (knee) are potential reinforcements, while Bisons outfielder Kevin Pillar is being kicked around as a way to inject a fresh dose of spirit and grit into the clubhouse.
The return of Brett Lawrie last weekend certainly helped in that regard, and the Blue Jays plan to keep experimenting with him at second base, as much for now as for the future, to gain a sense of what the middle of the infield looks like with him and shortstop Jose Reyes paired together.
Melky Cabrera is also in the midst of a rehab assignment that could have him ready by Friday, although his future is somewhat clouded by baseball’s continuing Biogenesis probe.
So while internal reinforcements are around, Bautista put it best Monday when he said, “we just need to play better as a team. 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, bring more steady production and help the team win more games.”
Gibbons appreciated the way his right-fielder stood up and took responsibility, but added that it wasn’t up to Bautista by himself.
“He’s that type of guy, he’s definitely one of our team leaders, but one guy alone can’t do it,” says Gibbons. “He can play a big part in it, but you need everybody. Even in the couple of games we won this past road trip, it was the bottom of the order that helped win it for us, so really everybody needs to be pitching in one way or another.”
That the above hasn’t happened consistently underlines the uneven nature of a season in which the Blue Jays had four all-stars despite sitting last in their division. Then there was Gibbons, selected to the Midsummer Classic for a second time as a coach, after Ozzie Guillen named him to the 2006 AL staff.
Given that he was managing double-A San Antonio and was planning to be there again in 2013 before the Blue Jays came calling, the invitation was another pleasant surprise.
“It’s a big celebration of baseball and it’s nice to be a part of that,” says Gibbons. “Jimmy Leyland has been awful good to me to reward me, to give me a chance to be in this game. Not only to come to the game but to be invited by him says a lot. There’s no one better in the game doing his job. That means a lot to me.
“And I think it was good for our team, the Blue Jays, to get away for a few days. Everybody needs a little break, but especially we do to get away from it a little bit, hopefully regroup, and start fresh Friday night.”
The time for feeling good has nearly passed, and 68 games remain to clean up a very big mess.