Wilner on Jays: Still a long season ahead

Toronto Blue Jays third base coach Luis Rivera high-fives Edwin Encarnacion, right, as he rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run.

BALTIMORE – The Blue Jays rode a roller coaster to a happy conclusion in their series finale with the Orioles. They fell behind early, jumped out to a big lead on the strength of four home runs, gave that lead back late and then Rajai Davis gave them a chance to win by throwing out what would have been the winning run at the plate in the bottom of the 10th. They won it in the 11th, with a rally that started with two outs and nobody on and ended with a four-pitch bases-loaded walk to Maicer Izturis.

Normally, here’s where I would wax poetic (or something) on three things that stood out to me about the game, but I want to do something different this time.

As the Blue Jays have struggled through the opening 13.6 per cent of the season, it appears to me as though a lot of Blue Jays fans are putting themselves through hell on a daily basis. At least, the ones who are the most vocal on The BlueJaysTalk and on my Twitter feed are doing so.

To give you an example, I got complaints from fans Wednesday afternoon when the Blue Jays held a three-run lead in the sixth inning because the lead had been built on four home runs, and not by getting a bunch of runners on base and scoring a few of them.

When Aaron Loup gave up a couple of runs in the bottom of the seventh to turn a 5-3 lead into a 5-5 tie, I was asked how many times Blue Jays manager John Gibbons is going to continue to allow Loup to blow games before he finally does something. This on the heels of the very first blown save by a Blue Jays pitcher all season.

At the same point in time, I heard from someone who considers himself a Blue Jays fan who was actually celebrating the fact that he refused to get excited when the Blue Jays took the lead because he knew they would wind up blowing it. He was happy about this.

I understand (or at least, I hope) that there is a silent majority of reasonable, rational fans who understand that a baseball season is 162 games long and know that a team doesn’t suck because it loses a game or two and isn’t great because it wins a game or two. I guess I just don’t hear from them very often, because, you know, they’re silent.

But as far as that very vocal (hopefully) minority goes, it’s almost as though they’ve forgotten how to watch baseball.

Now, I’m not presuming to tell anyone how to be a fan, but I can’t imagine how anyone has any fun watching or listening to a game when they fall into a deep depression any time the Blue Jays fall behind or tear their hair out when a player who already has a couple of hits or a home run in a game strikes out later on.

It’s as though my role on The BlueJaysTalk has shifted from discussing the game and the team and talking baseball to being one of those radio psychoanalysts. I think maybe instead of welcoming callers to the show, I should just say “Thank you for calling. I’m listening.”

I understand that expectations were raised by the way the team was rebuilt in the off-season. Heck, I have gone on the radio many times and said that I don’t think there’s a better team in the A.L. East and that the Blue Jays should be a playoff team this year, and I still believe both those things to be true.

I honestly believe, though, that a lot of people expected that the Blue Jays would win almost every game they played, and do it easily, by six or seven runs each time. But that’s just not the way baseball works.

Things are very different in other sports. A truly great football team, for example, should be expected to win every game it plays at home and will probably only lose once or twice in a season. A great NBA team should win the overwhelming majority of its home games, and could very easily win three-quarters of its games or more. In the NHL it doesn’t happen often, but the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens lost only eight times. That means they won or tied 90 per cent of the games they played.

Such things are an impossibility in baseball. In fact, there have only been six teams in the modern era that have won more than 70 per cent of their games, and only two since 1954. Those ’54 Indians, by the way, went 111-43 and then didn’t win a single post-season game.

The Blue Jays are 9-13 to start the season, and while a win in April means just as much as a win in September, there’s so much more time to overcome a first-month loss than there is to do it over the final few weeks. I know several people want me to stop saying that it’s early, but that won’t change the fact that it’s early. We’re one day into the last week of April.

It doesn’t matter when you win your games over the course of a season, as long as you win them. The 1985 Blue Jays, the winningest team in club history (99-62), had a 2-9 run. The 96-win ’87 Blue Jays famously (and gut-wrenchingly) lost their last seven games of the season, but they also had an eight-game losing streak midway through the year.

The ’89 team started out the same 9-13 that this season’s club has (also having to win its 22nd game), and wound up 12-24 before rebounding to win the A.L. East. Even during their furious comeback to reach the post-season, that team had a 2-9 run in late June and early July.

The Blue Jays have had three other playoff teams, and all of them had rough patches. The 1991 division champs had an 8-13 run, a 4-10 slump AND a seven-game losing streak. The ’92 World Series champions had a losing record for the entire month of August, which included a game they lost by 20 runs (that’s not a typo), and outside of that month went 3-8 over a couple of weeks in May.

The ’93 team also had a losing month, July, and during that month (plus June 30th) had an ugly 2-12 run. They also went 3-8 in late April and early May, and were under .500 on May 12th! As well, they had a six-game losing streak in September in which they were swept, back-to-back, by the Angels and A’s, both of which finished at least 20 games under .500 that season. Swept at home by a last-place team in early September? You bet. And then won the World Series.

The difference between all those teams (save for the ’89 squad) and this current group is that all of them had built up some equity earlier in the season by playing well, and that Toronto fans hadn’t been beaten down by two decades of suffering watching every major pro sports team the city has fall short year-in and year-out (with apologies to the Argonauts and Rock).

The truth remains, whether you want to read it or not, that these Blue Jays likely have at least 55 losses left in them, and that would still pretty easily make them a playoff team. It doesn’t matter when the losses happen, so long as there aren’t too many of them. And 13 is certainly not too many to overcome.

So please — and not for my sanity, for yours (well, maybe a bit for mine) — remember the struggles of successful Blue Jays teams of the past. Remember the fact that this current team has had NOTHING working on any kind of consistent basis. Not the pitching, not the hitting and not the defence, and they’re still only four games under .500 and have yet to lose even three games in a row. Remember that there are NO must-win games in April. And please, please, please, even if you’re not one who can enjoy all the ups and downs of the 162-game journey, remember to at least allow yourself to enjoy the wins.

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