Situational pitching vital to Blue Jays’ 2016 success

Blue Jays starting pitcher Marco Estrada (Fred Thornhill/CP)

TORONTO — We need to talk about the Toronto Blue Jays and runners in scoring position. Not the hitters — god, we’ve done enough of that — but rather the pitchers.

The Blue Jays are seven days away from becoming the first team in major league history to lead baseball in starter’s innings pitched without registering a complete game and one of the reasons has been their effectiveness pitching with runners in scoring position. Four Blue Jays pitchers are among the top 15 in the American League in opponent’s average with runners in scoring position — including J.A. Happ, Monday’s starter whose figure is .198. Marco Estrada held the New York Yankees to 1-for-4 in those situations Sunday, dropping his average to .209. Aaron Sanchez (.221) and R.A. Dickey — yep, R.A. Dickey! — are also in the top 15 at .224. It’s how you win when your team often has a difficult time begging, borrowing and stealing a run — and nobody’s quite sure how it’s happened. No other team has more than one pitcher in the top 10; only the Tampa Bay Rays have two in the top 15.

"It’s impressive," said catcher Russell Martin.

John Gibbons needed a minute to come up with an answer for it. "I think our guys are pretty good at throwing strikes with their fastball in that situation," he said. "Sometimes, there’s a tendency to want to go ‘soft’ when the other team is threatening. We have a guy in Sanchez who can just overpower you; and Happ … you know he’s going to rely on his fastball location. But other than that … not sure I have much for you."

Pitching coach Pete Walker is well aware of the numbers. How could he not be? Everybody talks about situational hitting being the key in the post-season; what about situational pitching?

"You look at our guys, and I think you see a pretty composed group for the most part," Walker said. "Russ has to get credit, because he exudes a calmness in those situations. We seem to be able to expand the zone in those situations, and then not make mistakes with our fastballs at the same time. Honestly? It probably just comes down to execution in those situations."

Work with me on this a bit, OK? Let’s suppose — just for argument’s sake, because there’s no way in hell it will happen — that Team Europe were to somehow beat Team Canada and win the World Cup of Hockey. What would that do to plans to ditch the concept the next time around, and instead institute a play-in format for the countries whose players make up Team Europe?

I mean, you couldn’t not invite back the defending champions, could you? You couldn’t sacrifice that so Team Germany, Team Switzerland and Team Slovakia get a shot at qualifying, could you?

Allow me to be the first to say that I really like the Team Europe concept, because it is a compromise. Hockey isn’t as international as soccer. As it is now, the calibre of players from both Russian and the Czech Republic is lower than it’s been in some time. Splitting up Team Europe dilutes the product, and it would be a shame to rob hockey fans of seeing the likes of Anze Kopitar. Instead of being viewed as something that makes the best out of a difficult situation, Team Europe should be viewed as a marketing opportunity in countries with significant consumer bases. Team Europe should be as important, frankly, as the under-23 Team North America concept. You want to grow your product; there could be worse things than making Team Europe the host team for one of the pools next time around. Imagine the impact of having the best players in the world playing in Berlin or Geneva.


  • Jose Bautista picked a good time to go off: his agent, Jay Alou, was in town this weekend. So, too, was Paul Kinzer, the representative for the Blue Jays other marquee free agent, Edwin Encarnacion, who is going to have a larger market than some expect because there are at least a couple of National League teams who view him as an everyday first baseman.
  • Truth is, more teams think Encarnacion can play first base everyday than think Bautista can still be an effective right-fielder. The question for Encarnacion and Kinzer is how much first base he wants to play. Folks in Toronto live in fear of Encarnacion ending up in Boston, but I’m with my pal Jon Paul Morosi: I can see the Houston Astros making a big play for his bat. He’s be a great fit in the team’s clubhouse and the fact Texas has no state income tax will help them since Encarnacion will want to keep as much as possible from what is likely his first and last big payday.

  • The Philadelphia Eagles have been around since 1933 and in that time they have had 16 touchdown passes of 73 yards or more, including Sunday’s TD pass from rookie Carson Wentz to Darren Sproles in a stunning demolishment of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The pass was the longest for an Eagles’ running back since Herschel Walker hauled in a 93-yard TD pass in 1994 — the season in which Walker also scored a rushing TD of 91 yards and returned a kickoff 94 yards for a TD.
  • Year 2 of Lou Lamoriello’s tenure has gotten off to a solid start with his announcement that the Toronto Maple Leafs will not be in a rush to name a captain. Would that Brian Burke have followed the same path before conspiring with head coach Ron Wilson to name Dion Phaneuf captain, a move born more than anything out of Burke’s stubbornness and vanity — the former general manager essentially saying "I’ll show you how smart I am."
  • Phaneuf did nothing to deserve the ‘C’; he lacked the royal jelly and wasn’t taken all that seriously. This team is going to be all about Auston Matthews and Morgan Rielly at some point. When one of them is ready to wear the ‘C’, they’ll get it. Until then, best to stay out of the way.

    Whither Brett Cecil? Blue Jays manager John Gibbons had the left-hander up in the bullpen but elected to go to right-hander Joaquin Benoit in the eighth inning on Sunday against the top of the Yankees order: left-handed hitters Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, righty hitter Gary Sanchez and lefty-hitting Didi Gregorius. It worked out splendidly, Benoit striking out Sanchez and Gregorius after a lead-off double by Gardner.

    Gibbons has openly spoken about his grown confidence in Cecil after a so-so year – the Blue Jays manager believes he is "as close to what he was last season as any time this season." But Gibbons said he went with Benoit because he prefers to start the inning clean, and because Benoit was going to get Sanchez in that inning, anyhow. But there was another reason.

    "Brett falls off to the third base side a lot on his delivery and Gardner and Ellsbury are both guys who can drag the ball," he said. "Plus, they have some lefties after him in the lineup (including Brian McCann) and I thought Cec could help us down there if we needed it."

    Benoit’s best pitch was the slider he used to lock up Sanchez, the Yankees rookie who has struck out in four of his last eight at-bats against the Blue Jays, and he showed the virtue of experience, not showing the slider to Sanchez until he needed it to put him away.

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