TORONTO – During their worst offensive stretch of the season, the Toronto Blue Jays started experimenting with small ball.
Bunts became a regular occurrence in September, so much so that Devon Travis laid down a sacrifice in the second inning a few weeks ago. Anything to spark an offence that scored the fewest runs in the American League over the season’s final month.
In the course of such a frustrating September, it became easy to assume that the Blue Jays’ home run stroke had abandoned them, but the power prowess they’ve displayed in four consecutive playoff wins has offered convincing evidence to the contrary.
“Right now we’ve been able to hit the homer,” Josh Donaldson said after the Blue Jays swept the Texas Rangers in the ALDS. “That’s a big positive for our offence, because there’s times when we rely on that. We don’t have a lot of guys in our lineup that are speed-oriented and that are going to really take advantage of a lot of extra bases. That’s not how we’re built.”
“But we’re built to hit the long ball and we were able to do that,” Donaldson continued. “It’s going to be important for us throughout the entire way.”
So far so good. The Blue Jays already have 10 playoff home runs while the next-closest team has four.
“Our offence is great,” Jose Bautista said. “Just because you have one slow month doesn’t mean anything. We’re back to doing what we normally can do and I think we’re even better than what we’ve shown. If all of these guys in this lineup consistently have good at bats, it’s tough. It’s the same as Boston.”
The Blue Jays were still a power hitting team in September, they were just a power hitting team that wasn’t hitting for enough power. In baseball, one month’s worth of results can sometimes be deceiving.
“One hundred per cent,” Bautista said. “That’s why we play six months.”
Over the course of the full season, the Blue Jays ranked fourth in baseball with 221 home runs. They had six players reach the 20-homer plateau.
“That’s the way we always play,” said Edwin Encarnacion, who homered for the third time in four playoff games Sunday. “Everybody knows we hit a lot of homers and now it’s the perfect moment to do it: the post-season, the playoffs.”
As Encarnacion uttered those words he appeared to be focused on the bottle of champagne he was uncorking in the Blue Jays’ clubhouse, but in doing so he touched on a point worth considering: in some ways, this is the perfect time to hit homers. While teams generally see their offensive numbers drop off in the playoffs, clubs that rely on homers see their offensive numbers drop off less.
The way they’re going now, the Blue Jays are by no means an easy lineup to face.
“Typical Blue Jays ballclub. When you make a mistake in the middle of the plate, they can hurt you,” Rangers manager Jeff Banister said. “They were ready to play. They swung the bats very well. And look, the first two games they put runs on our top two starters and made it very challenging for us.”
“What we do — we get criticized a lot for it — is we rely upon that home run ball,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons acknowledged. “You know what, whether you like it or not, that’s the kind of players we have.”
Seven of those players hit home runs in the ALDS, which tied a division series record.
Make no mistake, the Blue Jays have won six consecutive games for a variety of reasons. As GM Ross Atkins notes, power is just one of many assets on display.
“We’ve been really dynamic,” Atkins said, “You look at the pitching, the defence, I’m so excited about the bullpen, the recovery they’ve had after a lot of negativity. It’s never been just about home runs this year.”
Without a doubt the Blue Jays owe much of their success to pitching and defence.
But at times like this, when the offence starts rolling again, we’re reminded that sometimes, the best way to manufacture runs is just to hit the ball over the wall.