Blue Jays back even after first Yankees series

Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki each homered while Marcus Stroman tossed eight innings in the Blue Jays' 4-2 victory over the Yankees.

This was a good series for the Toronto Blue Jays. First of all, they won it. That’s good. They also held their opponent to three runs or less in each game. That’s good, as well. And they saw some signs of life from their bats, which have thus far been slumping up and down the lineup. That’s really good. All in all, fine, quick work and a series win over a divisional opponent. Here’s three takeaways.

Getting back even

It’s April 15. The standings don’t matter. None of it matters. But the fact the Blue Jays are no longer a losing team on the season is still a nice, uplifting note to carry into their seven-game road trip through Boston and Baltimore.

If all goes according to plan, this team should win far more games than it loses in 2016. But in the first handful of those games, strange, demoralizing things were happening. The bullpen was blowing leads, outfielders were lettings balls jump over their heads, normally reliable hitters were looking lost at the plate.

So to leave last week’s four-game losing streak in the dust, and to finally see some results in the win column to match how well the team’s starters have been pitching, is undoubtedly a nice thing.

“I feel good leaving tonight. We salvaged a pretty good home stand, considering the way it started, against two pretty good teams,” Blue Jays manager, John Gibbons, said. “So, we feel pretty good right now. Saw some signs of life in a couple more bats today.”

The offence shows signs of life

Josh Donaldson has been an animal all season long, and will continue to play like one until pitchers flat out stop throwing him strikes. Jose Bautista has been similarly locked in at the plate, reaching base in half his plate appearances through 10 games, which is really a remarkable thing to do.

But past that, the Blue Jays bats have been rather stagnant through the season’s early stages, with Troy Tulowitzki struggling to make contact, Edwin Encarnacion lacking power, Chris Colabello unable to get anything to drop in, and Kevin Pillar swinging at far too many pitches outside the strike zone.

“We’re not hitting—period,” Gibbons said at one point during this series. “But, truthfully, I’m not worried about hat. Because we’ve got guys with track records. We don’t have guys who are over the hill or at the tail end of their careers.

“And a lot of times the tendency when you’re trying to get going is you try to stay aggressive and sometimes it causes you to chase a little more than you normally would. But I have zero worry about that because we’re a good offensive team.”

By the end of the series, Blue Jays hitters were beginning to prove Gibbons right. Tulowitzki hit his second home run of the season off Nathan Eovaldi in the finale; Pillar had a pair of hits in that game; Michael Saunders had a strong series with four hits, three of them doubles; and Encarnacion roped his first extra-base hit of the season down the left field line.

It appears the bats are beginning to wake up, which is music to the ears of Blue Jays starters, who have kept their team in every game they’ve played.

“Really, that’s the way we’re built—to hit,” Gibbons said. “Three months from now, if we’re not hitting, maybe it’s a concern. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

The trials and tribulations of Brett Cecil

Blue Jays left-hander Brett Cecil was one of the best relievers in baseball last season. Full stop. He pitched to a 2.48 ERA in 63 appearances and didn’t allow an earned run from late June through to the end of the season.

But so far in 2016, Cecil’s results have been discouraging. Through his first four outings of the year he had two blown saves and two losses on his record, allowing runs late in games after being called upon to protect leads. His velocity was down slightly, and his curveball command seemed to be eluding him, as he struggled to throw the absolutely crucial pitch for strikes.

“Mechanics, if you let them get into your head it can be a funny thing,” Cecil said. “The curveball feels good. It’s better to be spiking them than hanging them over the plate. It’s not where I want it to be, but it’s getting there.”

After allowing a run on two hits and a walk in the series opener against the Yankees, Cecil spent an extended period of time in the video room with his pitching coach, Pete Walker, and his catcher, Russell Martin, trying to figure out exactly what was going wrong.

Walker had some ideas for adjusts he could make on the mound. Martin had some thoughts about game calling, and how Cecil could vary his pitch sequences in order to be less predictable on the mound.

“I’ve never been a huge ‘go and look at video’ guy. But when stuff doesn’t feel that right and you don’t feel that good, it’s almost a must,” Cecil sayid. “And obviously it really helped.”

Cecil took the mound again in the second game of the series and retired his three batters with ease, flashing a much better curveball and pitching in unusual sequences.

“You gotta do that. He’s a big part of this team,” Gibbons said of giving Cecil a chance at redemption the very next night. “It’s like a hitter. When hitters are struggling, and you give up on them, then where does that get you? Nowhere.”

Cecil says it’s still a work in progress. He’s still bouncing that curveball, and relying on some excellent blocking by Martin to get by. But his outing Wednesday night was an encouraging step in the right direction for a reliever who’s not that far removed from being one of the best in baseball.

“I think there’s still room for improvement. I told Russ I was sorry for giving him such a hard time back there,” Cecil said. “But it was a good, clean inning. A good step.”

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