TORONTO – Back in the day, before the cheating Houston Astros ruined things for everyone, Rowdy Tellez used to regularly duck into the clubhouse between turns at the plate and examine video of his previous at-bat.
The Toronto Blue Jays slugger would do it more often as the designated hitter, when he’d have more time during the game, but would still dart in while he was playing at first base, taking a closer look at what the opposing pitcher was doing to him. Thanks to the Astros’ use of illegal video to steal signs and relay them via trash-can thumping, those in-game sessions Tellez and countless other players around the majors made habit are no longer allowed.
“In that aspect, it’s a little frustrating not being able to see my at-bats and pick up those little things the pitcher could be doing, along with the catcher set-ups,” said Tellez. “It’s part of the year, and this year hasn’t gone to plan for anybody, let alone the Blue Jays.
“So just roll with the punches here.”
Tellez and his Blue Jays teammates have certainly done that at the plate over the past couple of games, following up Wednesday’s seven-homer barrage with six more longballs Friday night in a 12-4 thumping of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Tellez’s two-run homer in the second inning ate into a 3-0 deficit and Cavan Biggio tied it with a solo shot in the fourth. After the Rays reclaimed a 4-3 lead in the top of the sixth, the Blue Jays went deep three times in the bottom half, with Randal Grichuk tying things again, the insanely locked-in Bo Bichette delivering the decisive three-run blow and Teoscar Hernandez adding on both that inning, and with a three-run shot in the eighth.
For all the chatter about how tough it can be to hit at Sahlen Field, and how the park generally plays fair, the Blue Jays have certainly made it seem like a bandbox during the first three games at their temporary home.
“For me, this is not a surprise because I know my teammates and I know the talent they have, and I know we can do even more than that,” said Hernandez. “We have the talent, we have the hunger and we’re definitely going out there to try and compete. Everybody expects us to not be as good as we are, but we are really good and we’re going to fight.”
As a left-handed bat with legit thump and the potential to deliver consistent production, Tellez is an important piece for the Blue Jays to figure out, even if he’s in the bottom third of the lineup as he’s been the past two outings.
With Grichuk in front of him at seven and Danny Jansen behind him at nine, some production out of the trio gives the Blue Jays lineup the type of length it needs to overcome some of the growing pains still occurring around the roster.
“That’s really good because then the lineup stretches out,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “You don’t feel like it’s only the guys at the top and too many outs. Now that everybody is swinging the bat, Rowdy is hitting down there, Jano is having good at-bats, that makes a difference in any lineup but even more for ours.”
Despite the seven homers Wednesday, the Blue Jays still lost 14-11 in 10 innings thanks to the mental and physical mistakes that led to six unearned runs for the Miami Marlins.
Addressing the issues was a part of the pre-game, but work remains. In the top of the second inning, Austin Meadows was running on the pitch when Brandon Lowe singled to right, and scored as Hernandez lazily threw to the cut-off man rather than aggressively to the plate.
Outfield coach Mark Budzinski spoke to him in the dugout after the inning, but it was symbolic of the loose play that’s weighed the Blue Jays down to a 7-9 mark thus far, rather than the more robust record it could be.
“The mental errors come from being young, you just got to keep playing and get better at that,” said Montoyo. “The physical errors are the ones that we as coaches, we can control that. We can hit live ground balls and stuff and that’s exactly what we’re doing today to get that better. But when it comes to the mental errors, the more you play, the better you should become at that and not make that many.”
Hernandez’s mistake didn’t cost Tanner Roark too much, and the right-hander, who surrendered a two-run homer to Lowe in the first, contained the damage over four uneven innings.
Roark felt like he started to lock in during the third inning and retired six of his last eight batters. His velocity was up 1-2 m.p.h. across the board, perhaps making a changeup that generated eight whiffs all the more effective.
“Routine and rhythm – that’s what makes me go,” said Roark. “That’s what I feel like has made me so durable, keeping that routine down, keeping the five-day rotation … just keeping on the same page and knowing what is ahead of you is a huge deal for me personally.”
The pivotal moment on the mound for the Blue Jays, however, came in the sixth, when the Rays loaded the bases with none out against Anthony Kay in the sixth, and he surrendered only a sacrifice fly to Hunter Renfroe before Wilmer Font induced an inning-ending double play from Jose Martinez.
Last year, the run expectancy for that situation was 2.3617 according to Baseball Prospectus, and the Rays’ inability to deliver a bigger blow cost them when the Blue Jays proceeded to drop the hammer.
Bichette, 5-for-5 with a walk Wednesday, added two more hits Friday and over his last eight games is now 15-for-34 with five homers, 11 RBIs, three walks and four stolen bases. He victimized Aaron Loup, forced to face three batters under new rules, in the sixth, hammering a sinker up in the zone 411 feet to the opposite field, his fourth-straight game going deep.
“I think we’re watching a star in the making,” said Montoyo.
Added Hernandez: “Everybody expects him to hit a line drive or homer because he’s really on fire right now and that’s the feeling that we have from seeing him in front of us hitting line drives everywhere. That makes us go out there and try to do the same thing to help the team.”
Bichette’s homer came on the first pitch while his base hit off Jose Alvarado came on a 1-2 cutter, underlining how dangerous he is regardless of count. Asked how he’d pitch to Bichette right now, Roark exhaled and replied, “tough question.”
“He’s already got my number from when I was throwing live BP against him in Toronto. I feel like I’ve thrown him the kitchen sink,” Roark continued. “He’s on fire right now. He’s hot. He’s seeing the ball well and he’s putting the barrel on the ball. Good luck.”
Around Bichette in the lineup, others are starting to pick it up, and perhaps the Blue Jays are collectively beginning to get there, too.
“This (season) is just you’re ready or you’re not,” said Tellez. “We got two weeks (to prepare), we knew we got two weeks, that’s really all I can say – you’re ready or you’re not.
NOTES: The Blue Jays brought in closer Anthony Bass to pitch the eighth rather than set-up man Jordan Romano, but that’s not indicative of a switch up in roles at the back end of the bullpen.
“The reason was if (Ryan) Borucki struggled (in the seventh), I needed a right-hander to get four outs and Bass was more rested than Romano,” explained Charlie Montoyo. “Romano has pitched more games than anyone here, so I didn’t want Romano to get four outs. That’s why we had Bass going. Because it was going to be high-leverage if he had to come in.” Bass blew his last save opportunity Tuesday while Romano has allowed only one hit in nine dominant outings. … Ken Giles played catch Friday afternoon after follow-up MRI results came back with positive news about his forearm strain. The Blue Jays still don’t have a timetable for his return. … Trent Thornton (elbow inflammation) threw his first bullpen Friday but it’s unclear when he might be ready for action. … Derek Fisher (quad) ran the bases but Montoyo suggested the outfielder would need some at-bats, perhaps at the alternate training site in nearby Rochester, N.Y., before returning from the injured list.