Blue Jays blank Orioles 4-0
It hasn't been the kind of September that anyone in the Blue Jay organization wanted to endure, but this is the hand they were dealt.
While they're reduced to smashing other people's championship dreams, they're also in the business of perhaps making some of their own farmhands' dreams come true.
As an organization, they're trying to make the most of a bad situation. In that vein there are a lot of eyes focused on the team, evaluating this outfit from top to bottom in games against teams that have a lot riding on the outcome.
Tuesday night's 4-0 Toronto victory dealt a mortal blow to Baltimore's hopes of winning the American League East. They are running out of games, with just seven remaining, to catch the division title. Next on the Orioles' to-do list is to hold off the cavalry charge down the stretch for one of the AL wild card berths.
"There are settings in other ballparks that have a greater buzz naturally but the intensity that goes along with (September) is the best the game has to offer that we can be involved in," remarked manager John Farrell.
In the process the Jays front office is getting an extended look at the team's future.
That's what they're seeing in Anthony Gose and Adeiny Hechavarria. Whether that future begins now or at a point down the road is probably beyond the control of either player, even though each is making a strong case for sooner rather than later.
"They're impacting the decision," said Farrell, non-committally. "That's the best way I can put it. I don't think anyone is here today saying 'there's our starting leftfielder and there's our starting middle infielder next year.'
"So much is going to depend on what Alex (Anthopoulos) does with the roster in the offseason but the fact is we have two young, very athletic, very promising players at what would be premium positions up the middle. That's not to say that something is happening with Colby (Rasmus) or anyone else but, let's face it, Anthony Gose is a centrefielder who can play anywhere else in the outfield."
Monday night it was Gose who unleashed a laser-beam of a throw from medium left field to cut off a run at the plate. Tuesday night it was Hechavarria, who went down and hit a quality full-count breaking ball for an RBI double to lift his September batting average to .308 after hitting 100 points lower in August.
Hechavarria's hit came in support of a well-pitched 5.2-inning start by Aaron Laffey, who was yanked after just 64 pitches, having limited the O's to five hits. Laffey recorded 12 of his first 13 outs on groundballs but by his own admission he was "running on fumes.".
In his three previous starts, Laffey had not made it out of the fifth inning but he handled the Orioles this time with poise and precision. Tuesday's stint brings his innings total for the season to 95.2, coupled with 64 more in the minors. A year ago, his innings total at both levels was only 57, so the Jays are clearly managing his innings.
"Everything I had was out there tonight," said Laffey. "It just shows that if you stay in the zone and throw quality strikes, it doesn't matter what the velocity of the pitch is. You can get big league hitters out by keeping the ball down and staying on the edges."
Farrell was duly impressed.
"His stuff is not as sharp and crisp but you can't take anything away from what he did tonight. He's gone out there pretty much on guile," said Farrell. "He got early outs, put the ball on the ground. Going out there tonight, we wre hoeful he could get into the fifth with the physical condition he's in. The wear-and-tear and the workload is ramping up on him. He's pitched 100 more innings this year than a year ago but tonight we knew going in that we would have a sharp eye on him and a short leash."
Hechavarria's double made the score 2-0 in the fourth inning, after Yan Gomes drove in Toronto's first run in the first inning with a single off starter and loser Joe Saunders. The Jays added two more in the seventh on consecutive RBI singles by Rasmus and Edwin Encarnacion.
In August, when he first came up, Hechavarria was chasing pitches out of the strike zone. In September he has been far more disciplined and it has paid off.
"That's the thing that has become more refined," said Farrell. "Early on he chased some pitches up and away, off the plate. He's laying off those. Good players will naturally make adjustments based on what their feel inside the game is and that's exactly what he's doing."
While Gose is still feeling his way along with the bat, and making progress in that area, he is already a valuable defender at all three outfield positions. With left field an unsettled position for Toronto going into next year, Gose is clearly auditioning.
"That's exactly what it is," said Farrell. "It's an opportunity for us to get as accurate a read as we can and give him time and innings played at that position."
It is important that Gose and Hechavarria are performing in pennant-race tension, even if that tension is on the wrong side. These games, in theory, mean nothing to the Jays but they can't help but get caught up in the tension.
"It's a different atmosphere when you're playing a team that's competing for a place in the standings," said Farrell. "It gives us more of an accurate read. It's not a case of call-ups playing call-ups in a major-league setting."