TORONTO — The Toronto Blue Jays are in good shape.
No, really. As long as you believe that things can’t stay this bad forever, they should be just fine.
Even as the sky falls they remain in the middle of a heated pennant race with the division crown in their sights. If the season ended today, they’d be in the playoffs. Every time they’ve come to work for the past month, the game has been weighted with the kind of meaning that justifies the months-long slog of a season that began back in February.
Well over 3 million rabid fans, echoing generations before them, have made their way to the Rogers Centre to soak in the magic that has been bubbling for more than a year now; television ratings are astounding.
These are good things. The kinds of things that get overlooked when a team is turning September into one long, gooey, hocked loogie.
Because even in the face of all those objectively good things, it seems distressingly easy to get the idea that they’ve already tossed in the proverbial towel or attached a white flag to a fungo bat and waved it from the top of the dugout step signalling surrender.
It’s hard to imagine there’s anything planned about the way the Blue Jays are limping down the stretch, but finishes like these beg all kinds of uncomfortable questions.
Just as the regular season should be rounding into a rising climax like it did just a year ago when a very similar lineup was cruising through an 18-9 September on their way to winning their division by six games, this year’s model seems to be leaking oil, taking on water or losing altitude.
Whatever analogy you prefer, the end of the journey doesn’t look all that pretty, and it’s coming fast.
And it’s not just the Blue Jays’ manic fanbase that senses something seems amiss beyond the uncertain future of Josh Donaldson, who missed his third straight game with a hip problem with no prognosis for his return.
Even within the clubhouse, confidence seems to be waning, which may be understandable when you start September 3-9 and drop two of three to the Tampa Bay Rays, after putting the finishing touches on their three-game series with an 8-1 dud, boos ringing down after another game in which both their hitting and pitching conspired against them.
Just when senses should be on high and the juices flowing, the Blue Jays give the sense that they’re running on fumes; that even with the opportunity at hand they can’t quite seem to rouse themselves to grasp it.
“We’ve kind of been playing like we’re not really playing for anything, of late,” said Blue Jays centre-fielder Kevin Pillar. “[But] when you look at the scoreboard we’re [2.5] games behind in the AL East, we’re tied for the Wild Card. We’re in a great position, we just have to start acting like it.”
Instead of acting like a team in a pennant drive, they’re doing an excellent impression of a team playing out the string. Come back from being down 6-1 heading into the ninth inning? How about allowing AL East basement-dwelling Tampa to add two more runs, just to make sure getaway day unfolded without the inconvenience of extra innings.
Jays manager John Gibbons was putting the law of averages argument to effect after the game, reasoning that things have gone so poorly for so long they’re bound to get better.
“It’s a combination of things, really,” said Gibbons when asked if his team was pressing too much. “It’s the way the game works, it’s human nature. These guys are all trying to do good, they’re all trying to come through. They’re all trying to get on base, get the big hit, get the big out, things like that. [The pressure] starts snowballing. I have to believe we’re at rock bottom, you know? … I’m optimistic it’s going to turn and turn in a hurry.”
The numbers certainly tell a story of a team coughing up hairballs when they should be at full roar. Heading into play Wednesday the Blue Jays’ offensive juggernaut had effectively disappeared. Since Sept. 1 they rank 14th in the AL in runs and batting average and 15th in OPS. An offence built on the long ball has just nine home runs – tied for 13th – and nothing that happened Wednesday afternoon will improve those figures.
You could see some of the nervousness in the Blue Jays’ first inning when Devon Travis – the team’s official bright spot at this point – led off the bottom of the first with an opposite-field double and was immediately moved across thanks to a perfectly executed sacrifice bunt by Michael Saunders; scoring from third on Edwin Encarnacion’s sacrifice fly.
Gibbons has always favoured letting his power hitters swing away, but when you’re scuffling the way Toronto is, maybe having your 23-home run No. 2 hitter lay down a bunt with none out in the bottom of the first makes sense.
We’ll never know how big the first inning could have been but small ball delivered Jays starter Marco Estrada a one-run lead, which seemed pretty insignificant by the time Tampa blew the game open with a three-run sixth inning, the signature moment being Steven Souza Jr. scoring on a topped ground ball by Logan Forsythe that trickled down the third-base line as Ryan Goins tried to will it foul. By the time it bumped the third-base bag umpire Bill Welke’s redundant ‘fair ball’ signal – delivered in slow motion well after Souza had sprinted home – seemed to punctuate the tenor of the Jays’ afternoon.
A year ago September was easy. If the Jays didn’t score seven runs they’d score six. The starters delivered. Brett Cecil never faltered.
This time around, September feels like the Blue Jays are trying to scale Everest without oxygen – or even shoes – and about just as much fun.
“We need to win these games, obviously we know they’re important but you can’t force it,” said shortstop Troy Tulowitzki who always gives the impression he’s trying very hard not to force it. “You go out there, give everything you have and it’s simple: You either make the playoffs or you don’t; we’re either good enough or we’re not. We’ll see what happens.”
But surely this can’t continue, can it? One of the best hitting teams in baseball can’t remain one of the worst for much longer, can it? One of the best pitching teams in baseball can’t keep serving up beach balls for another month, can it?
Donaldson isn’t really going to miss a significant amount of time with his hip injury, is he?
“We’ll see,” said Tulowitzki. “Time will tell.”
If time isn’t running out it certainly feels like it’s slipping away. Unless the Jays want to head to Fenway Park for the last weekend of the series having to sweep the Red Sox they’re going to need to do some damage in the 14 games remaining before they finish up with three in Boston.
But the Blue Jays’ resolve hardly seems steely at this point.
“We’re just dealing with some things in here,” said Pillar. “We’re just trying to get everyone on the same page and everyone back in the lineup and everyone healthy.
“Those aren’t excuses but we just have to show up,” he said. “At this point people are tired, fatigued and people are playing hurt and people are playing legitimately injured.
“But if you told any team that they had this opportunity this time of the year would they sign themselves up for this and they would.”
That’s the space the Blue Jays are in. Objectively it’s a pretty good spot.
But inside the clubhouse and out it doesn’t necessarily seem that way.