TORONTO – Ninety-one games of experience, growing pains, adjustments, highs and, certainly, lows are in the books for the 2019 Toronto Blue Jays. Four full days off are here. Use them wisely.
"Really, just get away from the game these next few days and let your mind relax, let your body relax and regain that fight and drive you had earlier in the season," Eric Sogard says of his advice for his many younger teammates on how to best spend the all-star break. "The season is so long and it can be a grind at times. Spend the time away clearing the mind so you can come back ready to fight, because that’s what this team needs to do. We need to go out and fight every day, whatever the score is, just continue to fight, and fight together."
Sensible stuff, especially after a 34-57 pre-break run that’s challenged, frustrated, taught and excited, sometimes all in the same game, sometimes even all in the same inning. Sunday’s 6-1 victory over the Baltimore Orioles, averting a three-game sweep at the hands of baseball’s worst team, was a rarity, a one-sided, in-control-from-the-outset type of game.
It was the kind of day a rebuilding team aspires to one day deliver on a regular basis.
For that to happen, the Blue Jays understand they’ll need a sharp increase in outings like the one Trent Thornton had, bouncing back after a pitch-tipping beatdown from the Boston Red Sox last time out, delivered against the Orioles.
Underlining the learning process rookies like the right-hander are undergoing right now, Thornton appeared to clear up the issue that gave away what was coming to the Red Sox in shoving for six shutout innings, allowing three hits while striking out five.
"I was tipping a little bit with guys at second base with what I was doing, but it was a pretty easy adjustment to make there," says Thornton, who worked between starts to scale back an over-rotation in his body during his delivery. "In my mind, it was more important to focus on my mechanics and not being so rotational, being in line with the plate more."
The difference in quality of opponent between outings is duly noted. But given that Thornton entered the day with an OPS against of .697 his first time through the order, .891 the second time and .811 the third time, it’s significant that he successfully turned over the Orioles twice and got through the top of the order unblemished a third time.
Play, adjust, perform isn’t a marketing slogan that will make turnstiles spin – as an average attendance of 20,718 through 48 home dates, down about 8,000 from last year, attests to.
But for young players on the make, it’s a fitting mantra.
"You have a much smaller room for error here," says Thornton. "Guys hit mistakes. Guys hit good pitches here, too."
Thornton, as a 25-year-old breaking through, is somewhat of an anomaly on the 2019 Blue Jays as a young pitcher finding success, and the disparity between the array of talented young position players and dearth of impact arms is a worrisome problem the team faces.
While Ryan Borucki should be rejoining the rotation in the next couple of weeks and should help, the pathway to a contention-calibre pitching staff remains the primary worry for a team that will be selling off Marcus Stroman and Ken Giles before the July 31 trade deadline.
"Our pitching needs to get better, out starting rotation," says manager Charlie Montoyo.
The position-player side has advanced far more capably, with Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s ongoing emergence as a difference-maker – he picked up two more hits including his 16th homer Sunday – front-and-centre.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., pulled Saturday due to what manager Charlie Montoyo said was a stomach ache but circumstantially, at least, appeared to be related to not running out a pop fly, broke out of a 6-for-33 slide with a double and a single, scoring twice in his first multi-hit game since June 24.
At times during his cold stretch he’s showed his frustration, but a good day at the plate Sunday offered some relief ahead of Monday’s home run derby. He faces Matt Chapman in the first round after the Oakland slugger replaced Christian Yelich.
"Obviously, I’ve been struggling for a little bit, just things that happen, you go through ups and downs," Guerrero says through interpreter Hector Lebron. "But I’ve been feeling good, just keep swinging and today, I came here, worked hard, tried to stay through the middle (of the field), made good contact and it went well."
Guerrero shrugged off the notion that enduring a slump at the big-league level – something that rarely happened to him during a rapid rise to the majors – was more challenging, saying, "It’s not difficult, I don’t want to say (feel) pressure, because I’m still seeing good pitches that I shouldn’t miss. I’m missing those pitches and that’s what’s really getting to me, right now."
For a while that happened to Danny Jansen, too, although he continued a recent resurgence with an RBI double, single and a couple of long outs, while Cavan Biggio kept doing his thing with a walk in four professional plate appearances. Rowdy Tellez delivered an RBI double and Teoscar Hernandez a two-run single, as well.
Factor in that Bo Bichette should be arriving in the next few weeks, perhaps shortly after the all-star break if the Blue Jays sort through a potential roster logjam and the makings of a competitive core is beginning to take shape.
Getting it to the finish line is another conversation for another time, but under Montoyo, the coaching staff and the guidance of smart veterans like Justin Smoak, Freddy Galvis, Clayton Richard, Daniel Hudson, David Phelps and Sogard, the Blue Jays have created a clubhouse where young players can feel like themselves.
"It’s tough trying to figure things out on a young team," says Smoak. "I was in that in Seattle when I was there. A lot of the guys in the lineup were young players and I feel like that’s definitely not easy. Some of these guys, after the first half, after the last month, have made those adjustments and it’s definitely showed in the past two weeks."
The game is only a couple generations removed from older-school environments in which rookies not only were told to keep their heads down and mouths shut, but also dictated they stay off comforts like clubhouse couches.
"It wasn’t that extreme," Sogard says of his experience breaking through with the Oakland Athletics in 2010/11. "As a rookie you definitely didn’t speak until you were spoken to, but our veterans there were awesome, they treated the young guys great. There were times they gave us some flak for being rookies but it was a rite for everyone to go through."
His most extreme experience?
"I remember being in the hot-tub before a game and someone coming over like, ‘Hey dude, you’re 24, why are you in the hot tub?" says Sogard. "So I had to get out of the hot tub, or pick a time very early when no one was really around yet. The massage table is another good example. If you were going to try to get a massage as a young dude, you either come really early or stay really late. If the veterans wanted to use it, you’d better get out of the way."
The current environment in the young Blue Jays clubhouse is "a little different."
"There are still some remnants of the past (old-school) ways but not enough where the younger players have to (walk on eggshells) as much," says Sogard. "These guys coming in are very mature. A lot of them have been around clubhouses before growing up, they know what it’s about, they know how things run in a way. It’s a great group of young guys, they continue to work, everyday wanting to get better, so it’s fun in that sense."
And now, a break from a grind that’s been tougher than expected. The on-the-job training resumes Friday in the Bronx against the New York Yankees.