NEW YORK – Of course the final five-plus weeks in this miserable Toronto Blue Jays season matter, even though they don’t matter in the way everybody so badly wanted them, too.
At some point, this franchise, en route to a 20th straight playoff-less fall, must establish a better environment rooted in the basic fundamentals of the game, a culture that translates into crisper play on the field. Don’t just play hard, play smart and selflessly, too.
Especially now with clubhouse trending younger due to injuries, the sooner it starts the better.
“We’re trying to play good baseball, a lot of these guys are under contract for next year, and we need to at least play the right way to get the foundation set for next year,” agreed closer Casey Janssen. “If it’s moving runners, pitching well, thriving in your situation in the bullpen, whatever it may be, you want the foundation in place to pick up on a positive from where we left off this year going into next year.
“Not to have it continue to spiral down where people in this clubhouse get comfortable with losing and, I don’t want to say content with losing, but it just becomes routine.”
Let’s for now push aside the dig former manager John Farrell dropped on his former team (we’ll get to it), it’s for the above reasons that Jose Reyes’ second-inning ejection in Wednesday’s 4-2 loss to the New York Yankees needs to be viewed as more than just a player losing his cool and blowing off steam.
With Jose Bautista on the disabled list, the star shortstop is perhaps the team’s most important on-field leader now, and the example he sets is a crucial one.
That’s why the way he handled a called third strike in the second inning was such poor form. Reyes let Ted Barrett have it and threw down his bat without getting tossed, but when he threw his helmet toward the dugout, the plate umpire understandably gave him the heave.
“For me, to be honest, I looked at it on video and the three strikes he called on me I think were balls,” said Reyes, who deserves credit for playing through soreness in his left ankle and right knee. “But he’s the umpire, he knows what he’s doing back there. Maybe I over-reacted, throwing my helmet down, stuff like that, I never do that, but sometimes it’s just the way stuff’s going.”
Speaking his piece isn’t the issue, it’s that he had his say, but wouldn’t let it go when his team needed him to stay in the game.
Regardless, Reyes’ inability to rein himself in removed one of the few true weapons in the Blue Jays lineup, with Maicer Izturis unavailable and Mark DeRosa pressed into action he left manager John Gibbons with only J.P. Arencibia and Moises Sierra on the bench, and weakened a team seeking to end a run of 11 straight losses at Yankee Stadium (the Blue Jays are now 1-11 versus the Yankees this season and at 57-70, dropped a season-worst 13 games under .500).
“I know, after he threw me out I said, ‘Man, we don’t have too many people,'” said Reyes. “But just in the moment, the stuff happens so quick that I didn’t even think about it. … “At that point, we’re not playing very good baseball, we’re in last place. There, man at second base, I’m trying to get a big hit with two outs, I just tried to do good and help my ball club. In that situation, I thought the call was wrong, but like I said, he’s the umpire, he’s the one calling the game.”
The reaction from Reyes caught Gibbons off-guard.
“I’ve never seen that before out of him,” he said. “I thought the umpire could have walked away, Jose’s not a guy that ever complains, very rarely. I thought he had a beef on the last pitch but who knows, I didn’t see the replay. That’s definitely unusual out of him.”
In the standings the final score on this night and the ones to come may not make much of a difference, but if you’re looking to create a team-first environment that’s all about winning, it sure does. Remember, too, that last August the Blue Jays suffered a similar run of injuries and an ugly 9-19 nosedive marked by runners flying through stop signs and terrible misplays in the field followed.
On this night there was also Rajai Davis getting picked off second base by Mariano Rivera with Edwin Encarnacion at the plate representing the tying run in the ninth inning. Whether he was on second or third didn’t matter, which is why, unprompted, Gibbons referred to the play as “boneheaded.”
Deja vu of the Blue Jays from last summer.
“You don’t want anyone to get overly frustrated with themselves or the game, (it’s) more just directing the right way to be professional,” said Janssen. “Not only carrying themselves on the field, but also their preparation and the responsibility of being a major-leaguer.”
To that end, Farrell’s comments at a charity seminar over the weekend in Boston and published by masslive.com Wednesday are particularly intriguing, given the train-wreck he oversaw with the Blue Jays a year ago.
Asked to discuss the differences between how pitchers are developed by his former and current clubs, he insinuated the Blue Jays don’t focus enough on the mental side of the game.
“We can have a seminar on this question – not just because it’s Toronto and Boston,” said Farrell. “There are very distinct differences and it starts, I think it starts, at the top. And the reason I say that: I found Toronto to be a scouting-based organization, which to me is on one plane, one-dimensional. You’re looking at tools. Here, it’s a player-development based system. It’s the paths of the individuals that are running the organization. And that’s not to be critical.
“We all know that there’s three different veins in this game that people advance (through): baseball operations, scouting, player development. Well, in the player-development vein, you’re going to look at things in three dimensions: mentally, physically, fundamentally to address and develop people, or develop an organization. I think as a scouting base, you go out and you evaluate the physical tools. And that’s kind of where it ends, or that’s the look at that time. That was my experience, that was my opinion.”
GM Alex Anthopoulos declined to discuss the matter when reached via email, but Farrell’s comments struck a nerve, in large part because of who they came from, but also because they spoke to some of the lapses that have kept the 2013 Blue Jays from leveraging their talent into more wins.
Whether a more sustained focus on the mental side of competing would have changed the results in some of the many, many games that got away on a play not made, a pitch not executed, a hit not delivered is open for debate.
Maybe it’s as simple as the Blue Jays just not being good enough. But what if they’re not breeding the mental tenacity needed to get to the next level? What if that’s partly why they don’t have that season where everything falls into place, like so many other teams do?
Either way, there’s opportunity for some good to be accomplished all around the roster, and not just for those who have something immediately at stake, like Pillar, who’s getting a chance and is determined to make it count.
“You’ve got to embrace the moment, whether it comes through injury or you just earn a promotion,” he said. “This is the position me, Gose, Sierra, a guy like (Munenori) Kawasaki, are in, we’re playing for our jobs next year. The Blue Jays have given us an opportunity to come up here for an extended period of time to prove ourselves for next year.
“I don’t think it’s any added pressure, the game comes with pressure, if you can’t handle it you shouldn’t play. I understand this is going to allow me to make a team out of spring training next year, and I’m more than willing to embrace that opportunity and prove I belong up here.”
It’s exactly the attitude he should have, and the same goes for the rest of his teammates, rookies or not.