North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Just another Sunday at the Rogers Centre

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Sunday afternoon at the Rog, sitting in the 200’s with my dad. We’re in the family section, the one section where you can’t drink beer and parents bring small children. It’s better than it sounds and the seats are nice: second row to a game that more or less sold out and we bought them only a few days before the game.

It’s been a rough few days for the Jays: they’ve dropped the first two games of this series to the New York Yankees, not to mention three straight to Tampa Bay immediately before. It’s been a rough month: just two wins so far in August, both against Oakland.

And it’s been a rough summer: the rotation’s in tatters, nearly all their starters are injured and Ricky Romero, their ace, hasn’t picked up a win since June. It wasn’t long ago that the Jays were looking like a team a few moves away in the AL East and with some of the league’s best hitting: Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Colby Rasmus. Now? They’re starting Adeiny Hechavarria at short. Coming into this game, he’s hitting .059.

The clever folks on twitter are joking that New York is playing the Toronto 51s.

The game starts off with just a handful of Jays one would expect to normally see: Encarnacion at DH and Rajah Davis in left. It’s mostly AAA callups playing: Hechavarria, Yan Gomes, David Cooper. Out in right is Moises Sierra, so new Yahoo Sports doesn’t have a player photo for him as of this writing.

The Jays are an unknown quantity this summer. They’ve been battered by injuries, with 15 players on the DL at various points this season. And with a staff of mostly minor-leaguers, they should be bad. But they’re not: whenever someone goes down, another player gets hot. It’s weird: Bautista, Encarnacion and Rasmus have all been hot at various points this season. And even now, the young call-ups are getting it together.

Coming into Sunday’s game, Sierra’s OPS is .625 through nine games. He’s been in the Jays system since 2005, he’s played in nearly every level: the Gulf Coast League, Midwest League, Florida State League and Eastern League. This year he’s spent most of his time in Las Vegas out in the PCL. There he hit for a .832 OPS with 17 home runs, best among players with more than 400 plate appearances – i.e., those who’ve spent most of the season in Vegas.

He’s batting fifth on Sunday. By the time he gets up in the first, the Jays lead one-zip – Encarnacion scored from second on a David Cooper single – and Sierra follows with a single of his own. The inning ends with him on first. Flash forward to the fourth, with Sierra leading off. He singles again and scores on a Mathis double. The floodgates open: Toronto pulls out to a 7-0 lead this inning, after Davis knocks in two, McCoy one and Encarnacion hits a two-run homer. Yankee starter Phil Hughes is done after the inning.

The double by Davis is another example of an underwhelming Jay making a contribution. Last year, he had trouble finding a spot in a crowded Toronto outfield: competing against fan-favorite Travis Snider, the slugging prowless of Bautista and the newly-acquired Rasmus, Davis played in 95 games, most of them in center field. At the plate, he didn’t exactly stand out: an OPS of .623, with 63 strikeouts. He wasn’t much of a power hitter: his slugging percentage had been steadily dropping, and he’d hit just one home run in 2011.

His 2012 is much better. With the glut of injuries and trades clearing a regular spot for him, Davis has become a fixture in left field. And his hitting is improving, too: his OPS is .727 and his Isolated Power is the highest it’s ever been. And both his WAR and UZR are in the positive for the first time as a Jay, too.

When Derek Jeter comes up in the sixth, they flash a stat on the jumbotron: the day before, his two hits pushed his season total to 150. He’s had 17 straight seasons with at least that many hits, something only Hank Aaron had done. He’s part of the reason why I chose this game to go to: I’ve never seen Jeter play before.

I’ve been going to Jays games since I was a kid –  since 1996, I think – but I think this is the first time I’ve seen them play the Yankees. I have this weird streak with Toronto: I’ve seen them play Oakland easily a dozen times, probably half the number of times I’ve been to the park. I’ve seen Minnesota, Kansas City and Tampa Bay but never that you’d call the good teams: Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles.

There’s a bunch of players I really enjoy watching that I’ve never gotten around to seeing in person. It’s something I’ve been working on: I caught them playing Detroit earlier this year and got to see Prince Fielder mash a dinger and lope around the bases, I went to this game and saw Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki. I also saw another Oakland game, too.

On Sunday, in the sixth, Jeter hits a solo shot to right and three batters later, Robinson Cano hits a two-run shot. Happ’s day on the mound is done: five and two-thirds pitched, four strikeouts and four runs allowed. He’s another story in a mixed-up Jays season.

He opened the season in Houston, where he started 18 games. But when he was traded to Toronto in late July, he came across as a bullpen guy, used in long relief. He came out in that role four times, never pitching more than two innings. But as the rotation continued to fall apart, he was put into the rotation. His first start came against Tampa on August 7, a loss to Tampa. This was his second start. Not exactly an easy way to ease into the rotation.

The other big trade acquisition this summer was Brad Lincoln, who comes in after Happ in relief. The RHP was picked up from Pittsburgh in the trade sending Travis Snider to the Pirates. As Snider was something of a fan favorite, Lincoln has an uphill battle against fans. The Yankees aren’t making it any better. When he comes in, Toronto leads 10-4. By the time he leaves, just three outs later, it’s 10-7 and the Yankees are making contact like it’s BP: four of the six Yankees he faces get a hit, two of those for extra bases. When he exits, it’s to a chorus of boos. Still, the Jays get out of the inning and make it to the ninth with a lead. It’s time for Casey Janssen to close it out.

From a marketing standpoint, the closer gets a interesting spot in the bullpen. When Oliver or Lincoln came in it was a chance for the TV crew to go to commercial, the jumbotron to show some ads and people to get up for pizza. When Janssen comes in, he gets his own entrance music and his run to the mound is on TV. For a big name closer, this is routine stuff. But Janssen isn’t the big name closer. He wasn’t even supposed to be the closer: Sergio Santos was.

Last season, Santos saved 30 games for the White Sox and when Toronto traded for him, they were looking for their first real closer since BJ Ryan. Over the past seasons, it’d been a role that players bounced into: Frank Francisco was in the role for most of 2011, but Jon Rauch spent time there, too. The year before it was Kevin Gregg, who promptly went to Baltimore and put up lesser numbers while pitching more innings. Janssen? He hadn’t put up more than two saves since 2007. Let’s say he wasn’t expected to be here.

He’s done all right, though. He’s picked up 14 saves in over 45 appearances and, as of this Sunday game against New York, hadn’t blown a save since April. He comes in, facing Suzuki, Jeter and Swisher. Three quick outs and its save 15, a 10-7 Toronto win. It’s good vibes all around: the Jays didn’t just snap a losing streak, they did it against the hated Yankees and with a team comprised of second-tier players, too.

As I wait for the sunway out by the Eaton Centre, every TV is replaying something from the seventh, the best catch I’ve ever seen in this stadium, when David chased down a fly ball. It was heading right in my direction and for a second it sank below where I could see, I assumed into 100s. The way the game was going – this was around the time Lincoln was getting batted around – it felt like Toronto had fallen apart, again. But Davis got up the wall, getting his glove over the wall, and robbed Casey McGehee of a home run. Again: the unexpected surprise.

We’ll probably look back on 2012 as something of a lost season for the Jays, but honestly, it was a pretty fun ride some nights.

Written by M.

August 18, 2012 at 9:00 am

One Response

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  1. […] I’d forgotten it’d been that long since the Jays had been, well, good. But then again, I was feeling positive about them even as the season was going to […]

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