Tao of Stieb: Searching for the upside of a down season

On May 14 following the Blue Jays game vs. the Seattle Mariners, watch Marco Estrada, The Road. The documentary includes an emotional look into Estrada's formative years growing up without his father.

For 20-odd years, a familiar whinge could be heard emanating from Blue Jays fans and media: We want meaningful games in September.

After spending parts of the week leaned forward with anxiety watching the Yankees series, a trade-off comes to mind: Would you accept five full months of playing meaningful games instead of waiting until the final weeks of the season?

Given the exceedingly disappointing slow start, and the general parity around the American League, the Blue Jays will be hard-pressed to pull out of the ten-games-under-.500 hole they currently find themselves in. Add to that the injury bug that has hit with a vengeance after leaving the Jays mostly unscathed over the past two seasons, and the line between urgency and panic seems especially blurry as of late.

On some level, this is almost fun. If you still hold out hope that the team could conceivably have a good week or good month and find themselves back in the mix again but you recognize that the week or month has to come soon then every series begins to take on the feeling of a pennant chase. One of the elements that makes baseball such a compelling sport is the cycle of tension and release.

Especially after the last two years, many of us became reacquainted with that feeling of mounting tension within the game that is felt deeply and displayed physically through bodily contortions and clasping of sweaty palms together. Every pitch takes on accumulating meaning, so a pitch on the outer black of the plate – and the umpire’s judgment of it – can be utterly agonizing. But when those pitches conclude in a hit, walk, strikeout or some other definitive event the tension is blown out by exhilaration. It’s no mistake that the immediate instinct when something positive happens is to jump up and spread out your limbs and let loose with the breath you’d been holding as the constricting pressure mounted. It’s a moment of liberation.

But as fun as that heightened level of engagement is, could we sustain it for the next 20 weeks? And maybe more to the point, can the team?

Indeed, even the Blue Jays’ generally unflappable skipper John Gibbons has of late seemed to have more of an interventionist approach than that to which we have been accustomed. He seems less likely to let a bad stretch or bad start play out. Lineups have been juggled on a daily basis to get the most out of what passes for the optimal lineup. Starting pitchers who are going well – essentially, Marco Estrada – are left in until the tank is empty.

Even with unexpectedly short outings from the starters that seem to sidetrack the bullpen and the roster on a weekly basis, Gibbons’ management of the relief corps has seemed somewhat out of sorts given his reputation. Mostly, this has fallen on Joe Biagini, who has found himself worthy of the mantle of “Gibby’s Most Trusted Reliever,” and seemingly is called upon on an almost nightly basis to hold the fort. As the leverage index begins to climb, Biagini is often the first pitcher up in the pen to respond.

Biagini is currently second in the majors for innings pitched by a reliever, and has appeared in 50 per cent of the Blue Jays’ first 28 games. And for as much as one can advocate for 100-inning relievers, one has to wonder whether if Biagini or Joe Smith can hold up to the wear and tear that would come with pitching high leverage innings as though their playoff fates depend on it for the next five months.

Already Biagini’s numbers in high leverage have been less than great, with a 9.53 ERA in 5.2 innings pitched. Though in such a small sample size, the unfortunate outcome of giving up two hits on shattered bats in his worst inning of the season versus the Yankees certainly skews those numbers. But the question remains as to how hard the Jays can ride Biagini, supposing that he remains in the rotation and isn’t called into duty as a spot starter while three-fifths of their rotation convalesces to varying degrees.

For as effective and crisp as Biagini has looked through most of the schedule so far, an odd note appears on his ledger upon closer review that may give pause if serious consideration is given to stretching him out or paring down his workload: Biagini’s worst outings of the season thus far have come when he has had the most rest.

In his 12 outings with two or fewer days of rest, Biagini has a 0.91 ERA with two runs in 16 innings. In his two appearances on three days rest he has allowed five runs in 2.2 innings (a 20.45 ERA). Again, these are tiny sample sizes, and more trivia than data, but monitoring Biagini will be especially important as the season tilts on this precipice.

If the Jays are able to stitch together some sort of positive stretch in the coming weeks, so that they are merely chasing the pack as opposed to digging themselves a deeper hole, the rest of the season could be that much more of an exciting ride. If it starts to go the other way, the team can’t be expected to play desperate baseball for all of the time remaining in the season.

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