Sunday, April 29, 2012

Stringing Something Together

The last time we had occasion to chat in this space, I arbitrarily pulled a ten-game segment of the Blue Jays schedule out of thin air, and decreed that an 8 win, 2 loss record through that stretch would put the team in good stead as they prepared to host the consensus powerhouse Texas Rangers. I realize it's not really a piece of bold sports insight to say that winning 80% of your games is a good thing, but I thought it would be instructive, as a team with some potential to contend for a playoff spot this year, to see whether the Jays could begin to establish some dominance over the lesser lights of the American League – in this case, the Royals, Orioles and Mariners.

Alas, we didn’t see an .800 winning percentage materialize over this stretch – despite getting off to a good start when they beat the tar out of a beleaguered Kansas City team, taking four straight at their ballpark. But then they gave most of it back in Baltimore, and the rest of it back when they dropped the first of three to Seattle. A couple wins on Saturday and Sunday to get back on track, and you end up with six wins and four losses against some of the weaker opposition out there.

It doesn’t seem like much. Plucked out of the context of the entire season, these ten games often left the impression of a streaky and inconsistent team. Something very identifiable went wrong in the losses, like the offence going into witness protection or the defence getting a little panicky and throwing the ball everywhere but the first baseman’s glove in a ninth inning. As always, it’s easy to overreact to missteps like these, because they looked a lot like things a not-very-good baseball team would do. But a not-very-good team might do all of those wince-worthy things and turn it into three wins over the same span; the Jays won six. (And let’s remember that winning six out of every ten games in a season gets you to about 96 wins and, if there’s an ounce of justice in the world, a playoff berth.) At the very least, between these two arbitrary endpoints, the Blue Jays toughed out a winning record despite some significant shortcomings.

At the same time, there are some very good things happening with this team right now. Edwin Encarnacion is stepping into the spotlight with a grin. Jeff Mathis is showing signs of adequacy that were heretofore deemed not to exist. Three pitchers under the age of 25, two of whom were widely thought to be headed to the minor leagues as late as mid-March, are putting together strong major-league starts and going deep into games. Eric Thames is doing his level best to shut up the #TeamSnider apologists like me. While we wait (more nervously by the day) for Jose Bautista to heat up, the rest of the team is, for the most part, picking up the slack. That’s a novel concept for this team.

There’s another tough stretch coming up. Not only do the aforementioned Rangers come to town for three games, but the team then heads to the West Coast for four games against in Anaheim and two in Oakland. Those A’s and Angels teams aren’t exactly setting the world on fire in the early going, but I’m always irrationally nervous about those west coast trips, and usually end up happy if the team gets out of them in marginally better shape than the Donner Party did on its journey to California. But the Jays have at least shown that they can find ways to win even when not everything is clicking. They’ve begun to demonstrate that different parts of the lineup can hurt you – even when the usually fearsome parts aren’t living up to their reputations or hype.

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