TORONTO – John Gibbons spent much of the eighth inning looking up to the area near the centre-field video board at the Rogers Centre Sunday – long after daughter Jordan’s band ‘Southtown’ had wrapped up their tenancy in the nearby Westjet Flight Deck on ‘Country Day.’
He had to look twice on a few occasions, he admitted, when he saw the numbers ‘9’ and ‘4’ register on the radar gun with Jason Grilli on the mound.
“Yeah, I noticed those 94s, too,” Gibbons said with a chuckle. “Just a couple of them … but it was good to see. We need him there. I think his slider’s getting a little tighter, too, and that’s huge for him. That’s a pitch that can help him out when he falls behind.”
The Blue Jays bullpen has righted the ship in large measure because of the work of Ryan Tepera, Joe Smith, Aaron Loup, Dominic Leone and Danny Barnes in middle relief. Without them, Joe Biagini’s move to the rotation couldn’t have happened.
Left in the dust have been the bullpen’s two veteran arms, Grilli and situational lefty J.P. Howell. Grilli, who has given up five home runs this season, used 94 mph fastballs to strikeout the Texas Rangers’ Mike Napoli and Ryan Rua and induced slugging lefty hitter Joey Gallo to ground out in retiring the side. Howell retired two lefty hitters and walked another (Shin-soo Choo) and has retired six of nine lefty hitters and has walked three more.
Given the steady performance of Loup and the ability of righties Leone, Barnes and Tepera to dominate left-handed hitters in addition to righties, you wonder whether Howell isn’t a candidate at this point to develop a mystery injury if not being sent packing, what with a move needed to make room for J.A. Happ if he starts Tuesday against the Cincinnati Reds.
The immediate question would be: Is Howell more valuable than Mike Bolsinger? But it gets even more interesting with Francisco Liriano ready to return and gets more intriguing than that when Aaron Sanchez comes back, since one of the options being discussed internally is leaving Biagini in the rotation and putting Liriano in the bullpen to be a power arm at the back end of the relief corps.
It’s something that was discussed last season, too, although Liriano’s status as a free agent at the end of the year might make him less inclined to accept that move – and it’s interesting that Liriano made his rehabilitation start on the same day (Sunday) as Biagini took his turn, which would seem to open up the possibility of a Friday start.
The number of arms opens some possibilities on the trade market, too. If Grilli becomes the latest Blue Jays player to enjoy a late-spring renaissance – there have been a number of rebounds from slow starts in 2017 – a whole raft of options can present themselves.
KING JAMES’ ROYAL FLUSH
I like what Stu Jackson of the NBA Network had to say on my show last week about why this might be the most important Finals of LeBron James’ career. While not doubting the fact that James is likely the most talented overall player in NBA history in terms of physical attributes and skill, Jackson believes that one area he falls short is the number of championships and the fact his first two championships were “somewhat tainted” because they came on Miami Heat teams that “he cobbled together with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
“He jerry-rigged free agency to create a super-team,” Jackson said, continuing. “No one else has done that.”
In my time of watching the NBA, I’ve always put Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird ahead of everyone else until his performance in last season’s NBA Finals, when I put LeBron ahead of all but Jordan. James will be after his fourth championship ring when the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors open the NBA Finals on Thursday, and if he wins in what is his seventh consecutive trip to the Finals (eighth overall) he would still be two titles behind Jordan.
James passed Jordan as the all-time leading post-season scorer in the Cavaliers Eastern Conference Final win over the Boston Celtics, but it took him 212 games to surpass the 179 games it took Jordan to score 5,987 points. James is 32, the same age at which Jordan won his fourth title.
These are different players for different eras and different political times. Jordan, like Wayne Gretzky in the NHL, was uncomfortable putting himself in the middle of the game’s politics, let alone the politics of society in general. James is an activist in both of those fields and – frankly – a more interesting and complex person. It’s a fun debate and there’s room on both sides but, really, until or if James gets a seventh ring, it feels kind of moot.
Oh, and if you’re wondering how many other players have made it to at least seven consecutive NBA Finals, the answer is eight – members of the Bill Russell Celtics dynasty, led by Russell’s 10 in a row from 1957-1966, and James’ long time teammate James Jones.
The Warriors have won 27 of their last 28 games overall and are the first team since the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers to go into a Finals with four-game sweeps in their three previous series. This won’t be a sweep … but it won’t go the distance, either. Make it Warriors in five or six, with Kevin Durant the difference-maker.
QUIBBLES AND BITS:
• It’s taken 17 pinch-hit appearances for former Blue Jay Adam Lind to become the Washington Nationals’ career co-leader in pinch-hit home runs (three) and to move within one of a long-standing franchise single-season record for pinch-hit HRs set in 1973 by Hal Breeden of the then-Montreal Expos. Lind has eight pinch-hits, almost a third of the way to the single-season record of 25 set by Jose Morales in 1976.
• Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey told my show last week that he is bullish on the idea that players can become better three-point shooters with age, which is good because that’s exactly the charge given to him by his president, Masai Ujiri.
Casey harkened back to his days as an assistant coach with the Seattle Supersonics when Sam Perkins went from averaging 1.4 three point attempts during the 1992-93 season to 3.3, 4.2 and 4.4 in the next three seasons.
“That actually allowed him top stay in the league a little longer,” said Casey.
Jonas Valanciunas and DeMar DeRozan are the players whose three-point affinities will be tested most often in training camp. Casey said DeRozan worked on his three-point shot from the corner last summer and now needs to work on it from the top of the key. Casey also vowed that his team wouldn’t slow down its approach to shooting threes as it did as 2016-2017 rolled on. He wants 30-32 three-point attempts per game from jump street.
• Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin’s defensive game will come into focus these next three days when the Reds and Major League stolen base leader Billy Hamilton come into town. Hamilton, who has 26 steals, will be a test for Martin, who has thrown out just three of 16 base-stealers this season.
With Wednesday’s contest a day game after a night game, both Martin and third baseman Josh Donaldson might be due for a rest. How the skipper uses the more proficient Luke Maile behind the plate in this series will be interesting, especially if the Reds running game takes off.
Earlier this month, Hamilton became the fourth fastest to 200 steals, doing so in 424 games. It took Vince Coleman just 280 games to accomplish the mark with the go-go St. Louis Cardinals – the fastest to 200 since 1900.
Even before John Scott’s intercession – and, really, is there any world other than the hockey world where this guy’s 15 minutes of fame wouldn’t have ended an hour before it began? – the 2017 Stanley Cup Final was destined to be a referendum on P.K. Subban; a referendum that Montreal, in particular, wanted no part of but, well, here we are.
Goaltending will be a much talked about aspect of this series but for me the matchup is the Predators’ defence against the Penguins’ forwards. Pittsburgh morphed into a team that liked to establish itself below the hash marks in their Eastern Conference Final against the Senators. It will be interesting to see how the Preds handle them after eliminating the physically stronger Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Final.
Let’s cheer for the story: Call it Predators in six.
Jeff Blair hosts The Jeff Blair Show from 9-11 a.m. ET and Baseball Central from 11-Noon ET on Sportsnet 590 The FAN.