We're about to see what the Blue Jays are made of
Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays celebrates his two-run home run with Ryan Goins in the fifth inning against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on June 25, 2017. (Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Forget — if you can — the Blue Jays' frustrating inability to reach .500 through 75 games of the 2017 schedule.
Forget as well, the injuries, the inconsistency, the sloppy defence and the rather remarkable struggles to get runners in scoring position across home plate.
Wipe the memory bank before you take another look at the American League standings and it's surprisingly apparent that all is not as gloomy as it probably should be for a Jays team that has often teetered between frustration and futility.
In theory, things couldn’t have gone much worse through the first three months of the season. The fact the Jays are still within sniffing distance of playoff position (and just five games behind the AL East-leading Yankees entering Monday's play) is stunning, really. But it's also reflective of the flaws gnawing at several other AL contenders.
So are the Jays going to keep middling along or are they going to take advantage of the rather fortunate opportunity?
Well, fasten your seat belts, because we’re about to see what this team is all about and where it may be headed.
Between now and July 9 when they break for the all-star game, the Jays will face their toughest and arguably most significant portion of the schedule yet. Through 13 games in 13 days (following Monday’s off day) the Jays will face the Orioles and Red Sox at home, head to the Bronx for a series vs. the Yankees and then return to the Rogers Centre to face the best team in baseball, the Houston Astros.
By the time Justin Smoak heads to Florida to join the rest of the all-stars — assuming voters do the right thing and get the big first baseman there — this team's destiny may be far more apparent.
“It’s not going to be do-or-die type of baseball, but it will definitely be a good stretch of games heading into the break where we could make up some ground,” Jays right fielder Jose Bautista said. “After a tough first month, I think overall our record has been pretty good. We’ve had to battle a lot of things … guys going down (to injury) and stuff like that.
“We just have to get in a groove where everybody’s doing what we’re capable of doing and the machine is running on all cylinders. Hopefully we get to do that here in this stretch.”
The Jays will need more than “hope” to settle into that groove, unfortunately.
The gift given by the struggling Red Sox and the suddenly cooling Yankees isn’t likely to last forever. Nor is the erratic play they’ve shown of late prone to keep them in the mix.
After that miserable 8-17 April, the Jays had a brilliant 18-10 May, but they've dipped back to 10-12 so far this month. A 3-4 road trip to Texas and Kansas City was pretty much an accurate snapshot of the season so far.
There was good (from the starting pitching), bad (from the Roberto Osuna-less bullpen in an epic collapse on Friday) and ultimately zero positive momentum.
As a result, the Jays essentially floated through what on paper should have been an easy portion of their schedule with an 8-10 record. The next opportunity to make a significant run forward won’t be nearly as easy.
First to test that revamped batting order manager John Gibbons unveiled last week in Texas are the Baltimore Orioles, a team that seems incapable of holding an opponent to fewer than five runs a game. A series win over the Orioles (37-38) — a team that always seems to find a way to play them tough — and the Jays would leapfrog their division rival in the standings.
That's step one.
Then comes the big challenge, a stretch that includes the Red Sox, Yankees and the Astros, with the best record in the major leagues.
Can the Jays do it? As under-achieving as they've been, there remains plenty of unfulfilled potential.
Even though they were just 1-2 in a weekend series vs. the Royals, the Jays had three quality starting pitching efforts from, in order, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada and Sunday’s winner, Francisco Liriano.
On Tuesday in Dunedin, Aaron Sanchez gets his first rehab start in his latest bid to return from a blister on his finger. If all goes well, he could be back with the Jays for that series against the Astros.
Next, Gibbons is hoping that a shuffled order, with Bautista hitting leadoff, will yield some better offensive results.
Ultimately, the Jays are getting to the point where treading water could soon become futile. Put up over the next 13 days and much of the damage from the struggles of April and June can be undone.
“We need to get rolling, that’s for sure,” Gibbons said of the big games that await. “It’s time for us to get hot. We haven’t seen much of Boston and we haven’t seen Houston at all. It will be a good test. We’ll have a pretty good read, I would think.”
JAYS NEED OSUNA
The health of ace reliever Roberto Osuna is of prime concern to Jays management, given his recent struggles with anxiety issues.
Unfortunately, Osuna's status is in all likelihood directly linked to the team's potential for success over the next 13 days.
The Jays were pleased with Osuna's ability to strikeout the side in the ninth inning of a 8-2 win over the Royals on Sunday. There is also justifiable concern going forward given Osuna's struggles.
If Osuna isn't available, the bullpen may well be void of candidates for the shutdown role.
The hope, then, is that Osuna builds off that performance and is available when the Jays kick off a three-game series against the Orioles Tuesday at the Rogers Centre. The 22-year-old has been on a stellar run, converting his last 18 save opportunities, a career-best streak.
Osuna has vowed that he feels fine physically and he showed as much rather emphatically on Sunday. But, as the young pitcher acknowledged, the rest is a work in progress.