DETROIT — On opening day, a mere three months and 22 days ago, when we were all younger, rosier, not yet 62 losses into what could be a 100-loss season, Detroit Tigers starter Jordan Zimmermann threw seven shutout innings against the Toronto Blue Jays.
More accurately, Zimmerman made the Blue Jays look like whatever the baseball equivalent of the Washington Generals is. He stunted on them. He retired the first 20 batters he faced, not allowing a base runner until Teoscar Hernandez singled with two out in the seventh inning. Naturally, Zimmermann responded by striking out Justin Smoak on four pitches. The Blue Jays ultimately lost, 2-0.
That the 33-year-old Tigers right-hander went on to be regularly boat-raced over the next several months, arriving at his outing against the Blue Jays Friday night with a 7.01 ERA over 11 starts, didn’t make Toronto’s opening day humiliation look much better. If the Blue Jays couldn’t touch Zimmermann, who has a 5.63 ERA over 65 starts since the beginning of 2017, who were they going to get to?
But that was then and this is now. As the season’s gone on, and the losses have piled up, Toronto’s introduced a couple talented, young players into its lineup, and found ways to get more out of the bats of some others that were struggling back in those early weeks of April. Steps forward have been taken. And you could see it on display Friday as the Blue Jays beat up on Zimmermann to the tune of six runs and seven hits over 3.2 innings, beginning what was eventually a 12-1 hammering of the Tigers.
To wit: Toronto’s lead-off hitter on opening day was Brandon Drury, who manned third. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. was still a second baseman, struggling to throw the ball to first on his way to beginning the season with a .525 OPS that would ultimately lead to his demotion. Kevin Pillar played centre field; Rowdy Tellez, designated hitter.
Flash forward to Friday, when Eric Sogard and his .299/.367/.488 slash line was leading off with Drury on the bench watching Vladimir Guerrero Jr. — baseball’s top prospect entering the season — club three hits and man third. Gurriel Jr. was in left, where he so clearly belongs, gunning out a baserunner for his seventh outfield assist (tied for third in MLB) and boasting a 1.025 OPS since returning from the minors.
With Pillar a San Francisco Giant, Hernandez was hitting his fourth homer in as many games and playing centre, an initially odd assignment that has gone much better than anyone could have expected. And while Tellez works on his swing in the minors, Cavan Biggio served as the club’s designated hitter, reaching base twice to improve his OBP to .354 as he’s walked 31 times in his first 45 MLB games.
It was a night that featured two bat-around innings for Toronto’s offence, with Guerrero, Sogard, Hernandez, and Freddy Galvis all putting up multi-hit efforts. The 24-year-old catcher, Danny Jansen, drove in three and now has 16 hits in 14 games this month. Hernandez didn’t only crush a 110-m.p.h. rocket into the left field seats, he also drew his third walk in his last three games and saw 13 pitches over his first two plate appearances. Guerrero put three balls in play at 99 m.p.h. or harder. The only starter without a hit, Justin Smoak, drew a pair of walks.
Remember that opening day flop against Zimmermann? Remember Richard Urena playing regularly over the season’s first two weeks? Remember the Socrates Brito and Alen Hanson eras? Things look much better now. And Bo Bichette, who’s hitting. 308/.365/.514 as a shortstop at triple-A this season, has yet to even arrive.
"I think these guys, all of them, I think they’re going to be big time, big time big-leaguers. I think it’s just a matter of taking the day-by-day, taking the ups-and-downs, and learning," said Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman, who threw seven shutout innings, matching the line he put up against these same Tigers on opening day. "It’s just being able to battle adversity. We’ve had a lot of adversity this year. I think they’ve done a really good job with it. It’s pretty incredible the talent level that we have going forward in the position players. It’s incredible. I can’t wait to see these guys swing it.
"I love our lineup, man. We’re just young. Once these guys figure out the day-to-day over 162, it’s going to be scary. Because we have guys that are anywhere from 20 to 25 all producing and all in the big leagues for the first time. Once they get going and start to learn this game, they’re going to be an extremely talented group."
Naturally, it will take more than a few promising performances and a beating laid on the lowly Tigers for this Blue Jays offence to prove its worth. But of the 14 times the club has scored eight runs or more this season, nine have come in its last 33 games. And of Toronto’s 32 games with double-digit hits, 16 have come in the last five weeks. It’s got to be worth something.
This Blue Jays rebuild is, of course, far from rounding its corner. There will be plenty of difficult days to come for this team and its young, still-developing core. Guerrero continues to adjust to major-league pitching. Hernandez has been streaky as ever. Biggio will surely slump someday. Veteran stalwarts like Sogard and Galvis may not still be in Blue Jays uniforms by this time next month.
Plus, there’s the whole run prevention side of the equation. The Blue Jays are far too light on high-upside pitching prospects in the minor-leagues, suffering a steep drop-off in talent after the fire-breathing Nate Pearson and the tantalizing-yet-young Eric Pardinho.
Probably not enough is said about the promising arms deeper in Toronto’s system, such as Adam Kloffenstein, Yennsy Diaz, Joey Murray, and Zach Logue. Not to mention Alek Manoah and Kendall Williams, who were added in the first two rounds of last month’s draft.
But the rate of pitching prospect attrition is so substantial that no organization can ever feel truly confident in its pitching pipeline. Toronto must do more to protect itself against the inevitable injuries and under-performance some of its young pitchers will endure, adding as many arms as possible, preferably those that throw with premium rates of velocity.
The trade deadline later this month presents a favourable opportunity to do so. And Stroman certainly helped his perhaps soon-to-be-former club in that pursuit, using a steady mix of cutters, sinkers, and sliders — which came to the plate at unpredictable tempos and from different arm slots thanks to Stroman’s dynamic delivery — to dominate the Tigers before a small horde of scouts from around MLB. Still, whether or not Toronto can acquire and develop enough pitching to someday contend in one of baseball’s deepest divisions remains to be seen.
Yet that shouldn’t take away from the steps forward Toronto’s young hitters have taken. And how much better the Blue Jays batting order looks — and performs — today than it did at the beginning of the season.