Yikes. The notion that the road to the American League East title would go through Toronto was abandoned by all but the thirstiest of Kool-Aid drinkers – what – back in June? Early July?
No, the road doesn’t go through Toronto. It goes over Toronto. Specifically the Blue Jays, who have become AL East roadkill. The Blue Jays are 23-34 within the AL East, the worst record inside the division and one that has them poised for their first sub-.500 intra-divisional record since 2013.
Don’t look now, but the Blue Jays still have six games left against the Boston Red Sox – all at Fenway Park. They have seven against the Baltimore Orioles – four of them in a series beginning Thursday night at Camden Yards – and six against the New York Yankees, including the final series of the season. The Orioles have won seven consecutive games and are suddenly one game out of the last wild-card spot. The Yankees hold down the first wild-card position, and they’ll play host to the Red Sox in a four-game series starting tonight.
With the playoffs and even a .500 record out the window before Labour Day, the most fanciful notion is that this team can somehow play spoiler. Certainly, there’d be no crying in these parts if the Blue Jays were to throw a wrench into Buck Showalter’s march to the post-season – you can see this happening: the Blue Jays clinched the AL East title in 2015 at Camden Yards, a season that started with the Orioles playing Beck’s “Loser” when the Blue Jays were introduced on Opening Day and it was the Orioles that the Blue Jays beat in 2016’s wild-card game. The Orioles won the AL East title in 2014, securing it with a win against the Blue Jays. Showalter hates Marcus Stroman, Darren O’Day hates Jose Bautista, Adam Jones hates Bautista (hell, everybody on the team hates Bautista) … you get the picture.
The Blue Jays were nothing short of pathetic in their three-game sweep by the Red Sox – compounding limp-wristed plate appearances with four-A relief pitching and inattentive defence. This was an embarrassment; the Red Sox are a running team but, Lord Almighty, they’ve now stolen 24 bases against the Blue Jays – basically a quarter of their season total – and that’s the most the Red Sox have stolen against a team in a season since they pilfered 30 in 20 games against the 1943 St. Louis Browns.
According to Steve Fellin of Sportsnet Stats, the Red Sox are eight steals way from the record for most steals in a season against the Blue Jays (the 1992 Milwaukee Brewers stole 32 bases against the Blue Jays.) The 2006 Yankees and Rays both stole 23 bases against them. If you’re interested, the record for most steals in a season by one team against another is the 64 steals by the 1913 Philadelphia A’s against the Yankees. That was one of 11 times since 1913 in which a team stole more than 50 bases against another team in a single season – six of those were in 1913.
In recent seasons, AL East teams have left Rogers Centre feeling a little confounded. Not these Red Sox, who after being swept in four games by the Orioles, appear to have righted their ship. Time will tell whether manager John Farrell’s decision to drop Hanley Ramirez to seventh in the lineup before the first game of the series in Toronto and Ramirez’s response represents a turning point.
Ramirez was in a 1-for-15 funk coming into this series; he went 5-for-12 in these three games with home runs in back-to-back contests for the first time since April 30, playing in a park in which he’s a .322 lifetime hitter. He’s been awful against lefty pitching this season; but he homered off J.A. Happ last night.
“Sometimes I think the hitter’s spot is overplayed,” Farrell said when he was asked if the move might kickstart Ramirez.
Will he consider moving Ramirez back up in the order?
“The hitter will tell you where he’s going to hit in the order,” Farrell said. “Any time a hitter is on a good run, you want to get him to the plate as often as possible.”
Ramirez’s homer ended a 39.2-inning homerless streak for Happ, which was just shy of Lance McCullers for the longest active streak in the majors.
TU-LEGIT TO QUIT?
Troy Tulowitzki was measured, a little aggrieved, and blunt on Wednesday when I asked him whether he thought his ankle injury and age was directing him toward a positional shift out of shortstop – either voluntary or involuntary. The latter would never happen because he’s Troy Freakin’ Tulowitzki. The former won’t happen because, well, he’s Troy Freakin’ Tulowitzki.
This was an issue that was put in front of the Blue Jays the second Tulowitzki was acquired in 2015 with a guaranteed $94 million due through the end of 2021 (including a $4-million buyout). Management at the time realized Tulowitzki was a deteriorating defensive commodity who had given every indication of being intransigent during his days with the Colorado Rockies. Derek Jeter was the player he idolized and Jeter was carried out on his shield as a shortstop. Cal Ripken Jr. was another player he idolized.
Ripken’s advice: “Don’t ever let them move you to another position.” Point taken. The hope was that Tulowitzki would hit enough to overcome the defensive deterioration. Best-case scenario was you’d have to swallow hard on that final year of his contract. Worst-case? The offence deteriorates to the point where he doesn’t hit enough to warrant a move to any position.
I asked a Jays executive two months ago whether he’d call a potential positional shift for Tulowitzki a long shot. “Long shot. How about non-starter?” was the response. Good times.
Look: We’re not at that point, yet. Tulowitzki is a proud guy, and this season will not sit well with him. He’s a good citizen, been a loyal soldier, and deserves nothing but our best wishes for a renaissance in 2018. But you wonder whether or not president and chief executive officer Mark Shapiro won’t at some point have to make the same walk of shame that Paul Beeston made in 2009 when he went down to Rogers corporate headquarters to tell his bosses that the team was cutting loose B.J. Ryan, sending him packing with $15 million remaining on his multi-year deal. That could look like chump change compared to extricating themselves out of this deal; at least Shapiro can say it wasn’t his doing.
QUIBBLES AND BITS
• A caller to my show wondered why Air Canada Centre wouldn’t have been renamed Scotiabank Gardens instead of Scotiabank Arena following that bank’s $800-million purchase of naming rights – which at first glance would seem to be a way of throwing a bone to fans who remember Maple Leaf Gardens, while being a little more pleasing on the ear. So I asked a marketing friend about it, and in addition to the obvious issue with making it easy for fans and media to drop the corporate tie-in and call it “The Gardens” – that’s why “Rogers SkyDome” was only briefly considered when the corporation put its name on the facility – it was suggested that Maple Leaf Gardens’ association with Harold Ballard, losing hockey, and the seemingly endless sexual abuse allegations focusing on former Gardens employee Gordon Stuckless also made the connection less savoury than might meet the eye.
The most remarkable aspect of the news – other than the rights fee – might have been how comfortable people had become referring to the building as the “ACC”. Of course, it’s the name the building has had since it was opened, which helps immensely.
• Floyd Youmans – “Cool Heat” as he called himself – was my neighbour for a couple of months when I moved to Montreal and every now and then I’d bum a, um, ride to Olympic Stadium to cover the Expos. So any chance to namedrop Floyd is not to be missed. When Stephen Strasburg homered and pitched his six-hit shutout on Wednesday against the Miami Marlins, he became the second pitcher in Washington Nationals franchise history to throw a shutout and homer in the same game since, you guessed it, Youmans tossed a one-hitter and touched up Mike Maddux for a two-run HR in a game against the Philadelphia Phillies on June 8, 1996. Youmans also gets a little love from the Elias Sports Bureau for being one of three pitchers since 1955 to strike out 10 or more hitters against an opponent who was 50 games or more above .500. Youmans turned that trick against a 104-54 New York Mets team on Oct. 2, 1986. “Sudden” Sam McDowell of the Cleveland Indians also did it against the 101-45 Orioles on Sept. 14, 1969 … and the Arizona Diamondbacks‘ Robbie Ray equalled the feat Wednesday against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
• In addition to acquiring prized young prospects, the Yankees have quietly gone about adding international bonus pool money in trades. The New York Daily News reported Thursday that one of the reasons for that is the possibility that 23-year-old Japanese pitcher/outfielder Shohei Otani might be made available this off-season and that general manager Brian Cashman and assistant GM Jean Afterman were scheduled to watch him pitch and play in the field for a couple of games starting Thursday.
Afterman has strong contacts in Japanese baseball, and the Yankees have had notable successes with Japanese players Hideki Matsui and Masahiro Tanaka. The Yankees have long had a presence in Japan and remain one of the strongest MLB brands in that country. The new CBA means Otani would be paid less now than if he waited until he was 25, but there is a strategic angle to his decision on timing presented by the strength of next season’s free-agent class, which will include the likes of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, and the possibility that the Marlins might entertain trading Giancarlo Stanton.
It’s not over yet. Not by a long shot, not with the traditional Labour Day meeting between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts on tap. The Hamilton Spectator’s Scott Radley has called for the firing of Tiger-Cats CEO Scott Mitchell as a result of the team’s U-turn surrounding the hiring of disgraced former Baylor head coach Art Briles as an offensive assistant.
There’s no doubt that somebody will ultimately lose their job over a decision that ought to shame everybody involved – including CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie, whose time wearing the white hat as the man who helped clean up the mess was shortened after an enterprising article by Jeff Hamilton of the Winnipeg Free Press had several sources maintaining the commissioner knew of the decision at each step along the way. I’ve had my say on this – boy, have I had my say – and I remain convinced that this should be about more than sacrificing a job.
I want to know who first thought that a guy like Briles, who lost his job because he was either too incompetent to realize his program had fostered a climate of sexual assault or – worse – thought it was one of those “boys being boys things”, deserved to be put in a leadership position. That person has no business being in this league, let alone my community.
The issue with Briles at Baylor was at its root about a lack of accountability that seems to permeate this particular sport south of the border; the idea that playing a violent game somehow gives a person the option of being irresponsible off the field. The issue, here, isn’t about where the buck stops; it’s about who thought it was a good idea to reach into the wallet in the first place.