Blue Jays spring takeaways: Mat Latos terrific in loss to Rays

Mat Latos talks about trying to make Toronto’s roster and how he has handled spring training.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – The Blue Jays out-hit the visiting Tampa Bay Rays and committed three fewer errors than their opponents did, but still took it on the chin, failing to score an earned run and managing only five singles against their A.L. East rivals, who were led by four innings of two-hit shutout ball from Rays starter Chase Whitley.

Here’s what stood out to me about the Jays’ 14th spring loss in 21 fake games:

THAT’S MORE LIKE IT

Mat Latos made his second start of the spring and was terrific in going 3 2/3 innings allowing just one hit, just as Marco Estrada did Friday against the Phillies. And just like Estrada, the only hit Latos allowed was a multi-run homer that put the Blue Jays down by two.

That big fly, off the bat of Tampa Bay’s Jake Bauers, came in the bottom of the fourth, by far the deepest into a game Latos has worked this spring. He’d previously gone no more than two innings.

Saturday, Latos breezed through three hitless frames, barely breaking a sweat. He faced the minimum – a leadoff walk in the third was immediately erased by a ground ball double play – striking out a pair, not allowing a ball to be hit out of the infield and hitting 94 miles per hour.

The big righty issued another leadoff walk in the fourth inning, and Nick Franklin then stole second and barely slid safely into third on a ball that popped out of the glove of Russell Martin. Working with a man on third and nobody out, Latos got Mallex Smith to pop up before Bauers took him deep, and bounced back from the homer by striking out the next hitter, Casey Gillaspie.

This was a big outing for Latos, who has had a very up-and-down spring. Heading into the final fortnight, Latos needs to be good far more often than not in order to break camp with the team. He’s on a minor-league contract and told Sportsnet’s Arash Madani that he would accept an assignment to triple-A if that’s what the Blue Jays decided.

Of course, the big-league club is a lot better with Latos on it, pitching the way he did Saturday.

LEG WORK

Both Blue Jays’ runs in Saturday’s loss were unearned, scored as an indirect result of throwing errors by Tampa Bay catcher Michael Marjama with Jays on the move.

Martin led off the bottom of the sixth with a single to centre and Roemon Fields came in to pinch-run. The speedy minor-leaguer didn’t wait around, taking off on the first pitch and easily nabbing second as Marjama’s throw sailed into centre. Fields kept on trucking and wound up at third. Mike Ohlman followed with a ground ball to short to score the run.

In the eighth, Fields was the one at the plate with Jake Elmore at first, having reached on a fielding error by Rays’ shortstop Jake Hager. With two strikes on Fields, Elmore took off and again Marjama’s throw went into centre field, sending Elmore to third. Fields then hit a fly ball to left, deep enough to score Elmore with the Jays’ second run.

THEY DID WHAT?

No, seriously. The Rays put the full “student body right” infield shift on Ryan Goins for each of his three at-bats on Saturday afternoon.

A move usually reserved for big power hitters, the Rays employed the shift on the light-hitting infielder who has a propensity to hit ground balls to the pull side, though not so much fly balls, at least according to the Rays’ research.

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Seeing the shift, Goins tried to bunt to the open left side in his first at-bat, but fouled it off and later hit a ground ball towards the middle that was fielded by the shortstop and turned into a fielder’s choice.

In his second at-bat, Goins tried again, this time successfully, and took the gimme bunt single.

Third time up, Goins struck out.

As teams figure out better ways to turn balls in play into outs, we have seen a huge increase in the number of defensive shifts in the past few years, but generally the big shifts only work for big power hitters, who are incredibly reluctant to drop down bunts for free singles. They’ll hit it over the shift, they think, into the seats, or hit the ball so hard that no fielder will be able to catch it, even if it’s hit into the shift. And they often wind up hitting the ball hard, but right to a fielder who ordinarily wouldn’t be there.

The defensive manager, when a David Ortiz or Chris Davis drops down a bunt against the shift, will generally say “thank you very much” and move on to the next hitter.

Ryan Goins is not that kind of player. Sure, he can hit the occasional home run, and he’s not an old-school “Punch and Judy” hitter who can only flip weak line drives over the shortstop’s head, but putting the shift on for Ryan Goins should be an automatic base hit.

It’s difficult to get one’s head around, but Goins should bunt for a hit every single time he sees the shift played against him. Not only because it’ll net him a bunch of singles, but because once that happens a few times, teams will stop doing it to him and it’ll open up the right side of the infield for him to get hits by swinging the bat.

The Blue Jays move into the final fortnight of spring training action by heading down the road to Bradenton for a Sunday date with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Mike Bolsinger, who is out of options and coming off a decent couple of innings against the Red Sox on March 14th, gets the start for the Jays against Gerrit Cole. Jerry Howarth, Joe Siddall and I have the call on the radio, beginning with the pre-game show at 12:30 p.m. ET. You can hear it all here.

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