North of the 400

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Archive for the ‘Toronto sports’ Category

2016 Blue Jays Preview

Thursday night, I walk out of my work at 10pm and it takes two people over half an hour to scrape enough ice off my car that I can even get into the driver’s side door. The ice is so bad the roads are a mess, trees lie across streets and just about everywhere in Barrie is blacked out. It’ll take two days of sun and mid-teens weather to melt all the ice off my car.

 

Saturday. One week until the Toronto Blue Jays season opener, an away game against Tampa Bay. The ice is still on my car, but summer feels like it’s almost here.

 

It’s been an eventful 12 months for the Blue Jays, crazier than anything in recent memory and alternately frustrating and liberating. There was Bautista’s dinger in game five – followed by the all-timer of bat flips, and what deserves to be a statue in front of the Rogers Centre – and drama over his contract demands, There was lights-out pitching performances by Marcus Stroman and David Price last summer and Price signing a contract with Boston worth more money than some stadiums cost to build. There have been commemorative magazines and books and hours (days, even!) worth of content on this team and for once, it’s not all doom and gloom.

 

Goddamnit, how I miss baseball.

 

The news today is Aaron Sanchez will be pitching in the rotation. This weekend, it was how Edwin Encarnacion will likely be playing on opening day. Not too long ago, more than a few players defended Jose Bautista after Goose Gossage squawked about something he probably he still hasn’t seen. Meanwhile, Josh Donaldson is on the cover of a video game and spoke eloquently about domestic abuse. Right now, there are only a couple of gloomy clouds on the horizon – mostly relating to Bautista and Encarnacion’s contract status – How can you not love this team?

 

I assume there are haters out there in the media. As I wrote a while back, I’m a little more selective in who I read these days: I’ll read everyone at Blue Jays Nation, occasionally listen to Definitely Not JaysTalk and avoid the sports pages and Fan 590 with a vengeance. It’s certainly helped a bunch of things for me, like how I’m not angry about whatever the media’s fanning up today. Of course, getting blocked by Jeff Blair was nice, also.

 

In the back of my mind, I sort of have an idea how I hope this season will go. I’d love to see them stay healthy and competitive for the whole year, obviously, but I also think Stroman is primed for a great season. I’d like to think Donaldson will be as good as last year, but I hope Troy Tulowitzki hits a little better. I’ll miss Kawasaki’s outsized personality, Buehrle’s quiet dependability and the sheer electricity of watching Price pitch. At the same time, I’m looking forward to watching Drew Storen and JA Happ pitch. Really though, I’m just glad the Jays are back in my life for another summer.

Thoughts on a Raptors sweep

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The headlines today are as witty as they are predictable: “Sweep the North,” wrote the Toronto Sun, for example. The Raptors season is over with a dud of a game four, a blowout I didn’t even bother watching. Because let’s be real: this series ended after game three and the whole team spent last night going through the motions.

It sucked, but this Raptors season has more or less been a downer since the New Year and I can’t say it’s overly shocking now I look back at it.

Going into this, I picked the Raptors in six. It seemed like a good idea at the time and frankly, I wasn’t alone: only five of ESPN’s experts picked Washington and none had them winning in five games, let alone four straight. It made sense: Toronto swept them this year and the Wizards were not looking great, certainly not as good as they looked in all four games.

But Toronto certainly looked as bad as they ever did this season. And in game four, which I admittedly skipped watching live, they probably played their worst game all year. But maybe the signs were there all series long, like when Lowry went 5-of-22 shooting in game three. Or when he went 2-of-10 in game one. Hell, through the series, Lowry had a .316 shooting percentage, down from his .412 this regular season.

Lowry’s getting a lot of blame, but he’s hardly alone. Lou Williams – who won this season’s Sixth Man Award – shot a dismal .314 and jacked up about 13 shots per game. And DeMar DeRozan averaged 20 shots a game and hit about 40 per cent of them.

Given how this Raptors team lived by it’s offense all year, it’s fitting they died with it in this series. The Raptors couldn’t match the offensive production of John Wall or Bradley Beal, let alone slow it down. And in the close games, the Raptors couldn’t get stops.

For example, late in game three, the Raptors took a lead on a hell of a possession: Lowry made a steal, moved the ball quickly up court and dished to Amir Johnson, who slammed it home. It was 85-84 with about six minutes left. After that, it was downhill: Toronto’s shooting went ice-cold and they took some long threes. As the fourth wound down, Washington scored six points in under a minute and the Raptors lost 106-99.

In sum, it’s worth noting that Toronto averaged over 104 points a game this season, but broke 100 points in only one game.

But whatever, the season is over and frankly, I’ve moved on. I’m sure there’s going to be handwringing and gnashing of teeth, but really what is there to do with this team? Even on their best nights, they’re not really that good defensively and they’re not well constructed; remember, it wasn’t long ago that this team was getting blown up. Lowry was nearly traded to New York!

So what comes next? Is firing Dwane Casey the answer? Can you salvage this roster’s core and make another run? Or should they sell high-ish on DeRozan, Lowry and Valanciunas and start a rebuild? I don’t know if any of those are the answer; if anything, the Atlantic division is so weak, this team could probably make the playoffs again next year, even without a major overhaul. But they’d still probably lose in the first round.

My mind keeps going back to Bosh’s heyday here, when two good Raptor teams made the playoffs and amounted to basically nothing. And even though Bosh is arguably one of the best players they’ve ever had, his tenure here was vaguely depressing and kind of frustrating. They won a few games, picked up a division title and never made it out of the first round.

Maybe the Lowry era is the same way: they have a very good player, a couple of good supporting players but not enough. Lowry took a ton of shots this series, but maybe he had to since nobody else’s shots were dropping, too. That’s also how I remember the Bosh era ending, too.

The Doom and Gloomy Leafs on a Sunny Jays Sunday

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It was warm and sunny on Sunday as I drove into Blue Mountain, but it was also a day where the slopes were still open, too: people carrying snowboards, skis and helmets commingled with people in shorts, tank tops and sandals at the bottom of the hill.

Seemed like fitting weather, given the day’s sports news coming out of Toronto. It too was a mix of summer and winter, the Jays and Leafs each with moves that would normally lead the sports section.

On Saturday night the Leafs season finally came to an end against Montreal. Not an exciting game, not even one I bothered watching to completion. It’d been a rough year by anyone’s standards, not even getting into the weird little soap operas that kept bubbling up throughout the year: Kessel snapping at the media, a plague of jerseys thrown on the ice, a media-driven flap over players not saluting fans who were booing them off the ice. Like I said: it was a weird year.

Anyway, less than 24 hours after the Leafs final game, Brendan Shanahan started purging the team. He fired the general manager, the coach and a bunch of assistants. Depending on who you read, their scouting department was gutted as well. He had promised quick changes, but man, this was quick. As a twitter wag noted, there wasn’t even time for the traditional contract extensions first.

There aren’t really any compelling arguments for keeping Dave Nonis on as GM. For one, his position under Shanahan seems ill defined and is maybe powerless. Even last summer, when the Leafs started hiring management, the moves were seen as Shanahan moves, like when the Leafs hired Kyle Dubas away from the OHL’s Sault St Marie Greyhounds.

If that left the player moves to Nonis, it’s worth noting what happened there is problem number two. Over the past few seasons, the Leafs have let much of their talent walk, kept underperforming players around and never really addressed positional needs.

One example: In the spring of 2013, James Reimer backstopped the Leafs deep into the first round of the playoffs, often while facing upwards of 40 shots a night. That summer, the Leafs added another goalie, who also regularly faces upwards of 40 shots a night. They still haven’t really addressed their defensive and puck possession problems.

In a way, it’s frustrating. The Leafs are always in the news and it’s rarely for something interesting. It’s always negative, either because they lost, because the media is throwing someone under the bus or because there’s some kind of controversy being drummed up. First it was people throwing jerseys, then it was salute-gate, finally it was Kessel getting fed up by accusatory questions.

This season, more than any other I can remember, seemed like the media trying to crank out a new scandal every few days to sell papers or push a columnists name ahead. When I get around to the sports section, it feels like the same old doom and gloom from a crop of writers I used to enjoy reading. Maybe that’s why I read it less and less these days.

And indeed, all the moves are leading the sports pages today. The scribes are already writing stuff that throws Kessel under the bus (no, I’m not linking to it) and slamming Nonis on the way out. I’m sure that in days to come, they’ll find hands to wring, people to blame and easy solutions that won’t really solve anything. I’m also sure I won’t bother reading any of it.

It’s too bad: the Jays played their most exciting game of the year on Sunday and frankly, it might be one of their best games of 2015.

 

I caught snatches of the game on the radio and on Twitter: lots of hitting, a big Jays lead and a near-comeback by the Baltimore Orioles. I think my favourite part was the late home run by Bautista: buzzed by an inside pitch, he took the next into the seats and ran around the bases yelling at Darren O’Day. If I remember right, he was even yelling from the dugout afterwards! It was great: his first home run of the year, one that gave the Jays an extended lead in the late innings and a nice display of emotion from a guy who generally seems pretty reserved.

 

But remember: late last year, Bautista went on a tear and more or less kept the Jays in playoff contention almost single-handedly (I even wrote about it here). He hit .299/.430/.540 in September, including a 12-game stretch where he hit eight homers and slugged a 1.205 OPS. He started this season a little slowly, but man, he seemed jacked up after that dinger and I’m hoping it’s a sign he’ll go on a tear.

 

There were other cool moments. There was a great grab by Donaldson late in the game, where he dove and grabbed a sharply-hit ball. There was two good grabs by Kevin Pillar, including one in the ninth where he lost his glove but the ball stayed inside (he hit a dinger, too). And there was Castro, who found himself in a jam in the ninth, with the tying run at the plate and one out, but pitched his way out of it. Not bad for a rookie!

 

For me, the game hit all the right notes: memorable defense, good pitching (by Castro, anyway) and a Bautista dinger. And what’s more, it’s a positive story: there isn’t anyone to throw under the bus, nobody you to assign blame to, not even a stupid controversy to milk. After all, after a week into the new season, the Jays have gone 4-2 and are tied for the AL East lead. It should be an exciting time!

 

It’s too bad it’s buried under a pile of Leafs-autopsy ink.

Swoon City: Toronto, Sports and the Media in 2015

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It’s early on Wednesday morning and I’m driving around, listening to 1050 TSN when I hear the latest Hot Take: the Raptors are bad because the Leafs are bad because Toronto likes bad teams.

 

I used to call this The Toronto Malaise, a general feeling of depression that hangs over the city and it’s sports teams. When I wrote that, the Jays and Leafs were doormats and the Raptors the best of a bad division, fading with nothing to show for it.

 

But that was then and this is now: both the Leafs and Raptors have been in the playoffs in recent years and the Jays might too, if they can stay healthy and shore up their pitching. There are several great athletes in this city and most of them are pretty young. They’re even happy to be here! So things should be looking better, right? Read the rest of this entry »

Written by M.

March 26, 2015 at 10:47 am

In the Crowd Outside the ACC: Raptors/Nets, Game One

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The bus lets you off at the station on Bay and a tunnel takes you into the Bay Atrium next door. From there it’s just a short walk down the Path to Union Station and a series of tunnels that takes you to the Air Canada Centre’s doorstep. I made the trip yesterday with my buddy Eric, hoping to watch some Raptors magic.

It’s been a while since the Raptors were in the playoffs. I’m pretty sure it’s been even longer since they were on ESPN, since people in the US paid any attention to this team. Raptor fans have been waiting for a national spotlight like this for a while. And that’s not even getting into this season’s special circumstances, either.

Coming into this season, the Raptors weren’t highly regarded. Rudy Gay was a high-volume, low-output scorer, although laser eye surgery was supposed to help that a little bit. Near the end of last season, DeMar DeRozan had started playing a lot better and Kyle Lowry was, too. All three seemed like trade bait, a way to help the Raps quickly rebuild as they looked forward to a stacked draft, topped by local talent Andrew Wiggins.

The Raptors flipped Gay to Sacramento early in the season and almost immediately looked better. But they weren’t done: there was a rumoured deal to send Lowry to the Knicks, but someone in New York vetoed the deal. Soon the wins kept piling up and, amidst a poor Atlantic division, the Raptors were in the thick of it. They couldn’t tank, they were just too good in a bad conference: by year’s end, they’d finish with an identical record as Phoenix, a team that didn’t qualify for the postseason.

Juxtapose this welcome surprise against the Toronto sports landscape: the Jays disappointing 2013 campaign, the Leafs crashing and burning late in the season. Two teams everyone expected to go places, both of whom crushed fans in new and exciting ways.

Essentially, going into Saturday, there was a lot of pent-up emotion.

The crowd outside the ACC packed into a tight square. There was a big fence and off to one side, a pile of steel bleachers. Some people brought signs, others brought their kids. One guy in front of me had his son on his shoulders, each wearing Raptors gear. I got there as the second quarter started and the Raptors were keeping pace with the more-experienced Nets team. People were shouting, yelling when calls didn’t go their way. When someone – Vasquez or Lowry, it usually seemed – made a play, they all cheered. It was a good scene and the lone TSN camera outside – a lens on a pole, occasionally swinging around like a pinata, just above our heads – didn’t do it justice.

***

The Eaton Centre is a changed place from even last December. The big Sears is gone, replaced by a gaping white tunnel. The food court is open now, looking more like a restaurant than the place where you could buy Sbarro’s. There’s nice tables, the food stands give you plates and flat screen TVs on every wall. All of them were on the Raptors game.

Eric and I sat there to watch the end of the game. Even here, in a crowded food court, people were yelling and shouting about the Raptors. The guy behind me was there with a young woman and a kid; we often yelled variations of the same line right around the same time. Usually something about Lowry, who was carrying the team on his back. He scored baskets, gambled on huge steals and created the fast break that led to the game’s highlight dunk.

Lowry was doing it alone, it seemed. DeMar DeRozan shot 3-of-13 and seemed even less a factor than that; Amir Johnson scored two points in over 20 minutes of play. Going into this series I worried about the Nets outside shooting and what’d happen if it went to the wire, if Toronto has someone as willing to take the big shot as Brooklyn’s Paul Pierce is. Now I wonder if it’ll even be close – if Toronto can even recover from this game. Lowry was going everything, doing everything.

I remember one possession well: after a turnover, he rushed it back up the court and was fouled hard on his way to the basket, landing on his side and slamming into the base of the net. He was down for a moment; all I could think was how he can’t do this alone. He was still trying, though, in a way I haven’t seen a Raptor try in years. I don’t think I’m alone: as I left the crowd outside the ACC, people were chanting “Ky-le! Ky-le!”

Off Season: The Jays in 2013

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A few Fridays ago, me and maybe 17 thousand of my closest friends caught a Jays game at the Rogers Centre. It was a fun game: RA Dickey pitched well, settling down after allowing two dingers in the first two innings and Brett Lawrie caught a pitch in the face, then slid into second a few minutes later because why the hell wouldn’t he. I enjoyed myself. It was one of those late summer games that felt fun, even if the lineup was all second-stringers and AAA callups and the results didn’t really matter. It was a feeling I had for most of this Jays season.

Last winter, the Jays revamped the team, adding a great young shortstop, another good pitcher and a guy who’d pitched a perfect game once. Then, in a separate deal, they added a Cy Young-winning pitcher for good measure. This came on top of an already a promising young team: in 2012, the Jays had hung in there until a disastrous injury streak blew their season to shreds. They had dangerous hitters like Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnación. Hanging out in centre field is Colby Rasmus, who alternately disappeared and played like a beast.

The big expected question mark was hanging out at third: Lawrie, who has a ton of potential and a ton of rage. He’s like the guy who knows what he wants and knows he can do it, but when he tries, everything just slips through his fingers like sand. As it turned out, there were more pressing concerns this year than him, but watching Lawrie progress was an interesting experience. There were times when he seemed like everything was coming together and there were times when it seemed like everything was falling apart, like when he banged up a water cooler.

Indeed, the biggest question this season is “what happened?” As in, what happened to the team that 19 different ESPN Experts thought would win the AL East. Hell, four people even had them in the World Series (one even had them winning!).

It’s a question I’m kind of tired of hearing about. This summer, sports talk radio was brimming with angst and loathing, with pundits picking at everything and offering their expertise. Some people had better ideas than others; some people even held out hope the Jays could compete until mid-May. But by the time Canada Day rolled around, it didn’t matter what any of them had to say. Between injuries, problems with the starting rotation and an overtaxed bullpen, this wasn’t the Jays season. The moments that stick in my mind are the ugly ones: JP Arencibia dropping knuckleballs in the home opener, Rasmus walking back to the dugout after yet another strikeout and Jose Reyes exploding at an umpire.

The only positive thing standing out is the legend of Munenori Kawasaki. Called up from Buffalo in late April, he had a memorable year and, improbably, became a fan favourite here in the GTA. An example: against Baltimore on May 26, Toronto went into the ninth inning down by three runs. They rallied: Arencibia knocked in Encarnación, Mark DeRosa scored Adam Lind. With two out and runners on first and third, Kawasaki hit a line drive, scoring the game-winning run. His postgame interview went viral; I actually remember it getting more coverage than the game itself. He had other moments: a game-tying home run (his only one of the year) in June, getting four hits against Baltimore in September, knocking in two runs (with another scoring on an error) in the ninth against Cleveland in July. By the time I saw the Jays in late September, Kawasaki – who hit just .229/.326/.308 over the year – was playing at DH. His 66 jersey was all over, too: I’m sure I saw more of those around than I did Reyes, Buehrle or Encarnación jerseys.

So, what happens from here? I don’t really know. Some of my friends think the Jays should fire Gibbons. My dad thinks both Gibbons and Alex Anthopoulos. I don’t think Toronto needs such a drastic change: pitchers have bad seasons, injuries can strike any time and sometimes they can all happen at once. It wasn’t bad management that led to Reyes getting hurt early in the season and Brett Lawrie getting hurt before it even began. But there are gaps: Arencibia’s struggled and barely remains more than a replacement-level player and the pitching rotation often seemed ragged: Happ was constantly lackluster, Josh Johnson’s battled injuries and an ERA that rose above 6.00 and quick fixes like Chien-Ming Wang often went down in flames.

For me, the big takeaway from this season is the disastrous effects of hype. Toronto went into this season riding a crest of anticipation and hyperbole, in no small encouraged by the also Rogers-owned Sportsnet radio and TV stations. They were hyped to the heavens and sold as a winning team. The ads for the Jays had them posing on a stage in front of wild crowds as Metric’s Stadium Love boomed in the background. The implication was celebration before anything had been achieved. Funny how that one turned out: when things didn’t go swimmingly, people felt scorned and turned on the Jays. As the sportswriter cliche goes, that’s why they play the games.

Remember how four ESPN staff picked the Jays to win it all? The same number of people had Boston making the playoffs. Nobody had them winning anything. It’s like William Goldman says: “Nobody knows anything.”

And I suppose Boston is the flip side to this season. They went from worst to first, poaching the Jays old manager in the process, and had all the success people thought would go Toronto’s way. Maybe some part of me is supposed to be upset about them winning, maybe I’m supposed to still feel angry at John Farrell. Truth be told: I don’t really care anymore. He didn’t want to be in Toronto so he left.  Personally, I’ve have fired him for losing control of the clubhouse, but I don’t have any sympathy for him either. I just don’t care. Last night, for the first time in a few years, I turned the World Series clinching game off early and went to bed. 2013 wasn’t a great baseball season, but at least the new one is only a few months away.

Written by M.

November 1, 2013 at 9:00 am

Sinking Hopes in July – Jays Land, Part Two

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There hasn’t been a follow up to the Blue Jays win streak. There have barely been any wins at all, actually. Since the All-Star break, the Toronto Blue Jays have lost four games in a row and it’s been ugly, folks. Things are not looking good in Jays Land.

I don’t get to go to too many Jays games, but I managed to sneak down last Saturday. It was hot up in the 500s, sitting directly in the sun on a scorching July afternoon.

But it was actually a reprieve from the past few days. Earlier in the week, Toronto went through it’s first heat wave of the summer and the night before, a giant storm swept through southern Ontario, ripping shingles off my roof, slamming trees to the ground around town and knocking out power in parts of central Ontario.

The Jays were slammed around, too. Friday night was a 8-5 loss where the Jays blew a 4-1 lead. I had no way of knowing, but when Bautista hit a homer to left in the third, it’d be the last time all weekend Toronto would lead by more than a run.

View from the 500s

View from the 500s

The roads on Saturday were crammed with traffic. On highway 400, it was packed heading out of Toronto and once

I got into the 416, traffic was just packed. It took the better part of an hour to get from Yorkdale to the Bay Street bus terminal. Took a while to get to the game and I arrived late. Still, outside the Rogers Centre it was packed even some time after the first pitch. Packed inside, too.

In a story published at Canadian Business earlier this year, Keith Pelley – president of Rogers Media – said there are four types of fans: diehards, bandwagon jumpers, corporate types and what he called the “Fashionable fan.” They’re an interesting type of fan, jumping on a team because it’s trendy. In a phrase: baseball hipsters. In that story, Pelley said the Jays are “very quickly becoming a fashionable brand.” I know what he means: over the past couple years, crowds at Jays games have been a mix of older fans and younger ones.

But it’s come with a different type of fan, too. Crowds at Jays games can get dicey at times: I remember going to that $2-per-ticket game in 2008 where a bunch of drunken yahoos were arrested by The Cherry Beach Express. And even back in 2006, I wrote about rowdy fans at Argo games. But in the past couple of years it feels like there’s a lot more rowdy young bros at Jays games now, guys in Brett Lawrie jerseys, holding two cans of Canadian and giving lip to pretty much anyone, looking to start a fight. I used to run into them all the time in college. I ran into a group of them on Saturday when they were sitting in my seat. Ran into a bunch more later at the open-air patio in the 200s.

There isn’t a plague of them or anything, but these are the people Yahoo Sports meant when they ripped Jays fans earlier this year. Ditto for Deadspin. It was enough of a problem that The Toronto Star weighed in earlier this year, too. The coverage of unruley fans have tapered and so has their behavior: I only saw one guy get arrested at the game on Saturday!

All the nitrates you'd want in a $11 hot dog!

All the nitrates you’d want in a $11 hot dog!

The Jays weren’t playing too well, either. They were down early and stayed there. It wasn’t for lack of chances: in the fifth, Jose Reyes was at third with no outs. In the eighth, Toronto loaded the bases with no outs. Toronto scored just one run between these two chances. The eighth was particularly frustrating, with two strikeouts ending the inning. This was about the time I left the 500s for some shade and the new open-air patio.

I’ve given Rogers some flack over the years for the way they run Rogers Centre – bad food (Air Canada Centre has better hot dogs), expensive drinks, a sterile environment – but the patio’s a good move. Up to last year, it was Windows restaurant and was rarely used for much of anything. I managed to get into it last year for a game and it was a sad place: a couple of old paintings from the glory days of the early 90s, some tables you could stand around and a bunch of old, disused TVs, the boxy kind with the tube in back.

This year, they ripped all that crap out. There’s no tables, no dusty TVs. A few beer stands and food vendors have replaced the line buffet of hot dogs, peanuts and canned pop. There’s a couple of big TVs showing replays and a box score. And those huge windows are gone. It gets crowded, but it’s a nice spot to watch the game.

The new patio in the 200 level

The new patio in the 200 level

If only the rest of the game was that nice: Rajai Davis was called out on a close play at first, Reyes struck out and Lawrie scored on an Edwin Encarnacion single. With runners on second and third, Adam Lind – who finished with three walks on the day and leads the Jays in on-base percentage – grounded out to close out the game. Ugh.

On the way out, I dropped by the Jays outlet store. If you don’t mind wearing the jersey of a bigot, you can get a jersey for $40. There’s a ton of them! There’s a couple of Rickey Romero twitter shirts, too, which reminded me how quickly those things go out of date. I assume JP Arencebia’s shirt will be there, too.

Next day, it was the same story: Toronto went down, rallied late and couldn’t pull it off. Glad I didn’t make the trip that time: this was the day the Jays honored Carlos Delgado, who was a great Jay (and almost won a MVP award once) and left the Jays as a free agent. His era wasn’t a great one: Toronto continually finished third in the AL East, hovering around .500 despite having Delgado, Roger Clemens and Pat Hentgen. It makes me wonder what’s going to happen down the road: will Toronto put Vernon Wells name up on that wall? Encarnacion? I think it’s pretty safe to think Bautista will get there eventually.

The Jays will, too. Eventually. Things were admittedly worse for the Jays on Monday: a 14-5 loss to the Dodgers, their worst of the season. But Tuesday brought a players-only meeting and a burst from the Jays bats. . But if it’s not one thing, it’s another. The Jays bullpen, so solid all year, collapsed and Toronto blew an 8-3 lead. So it goes in Jays Land.

Written by M.

July 24, 2013 at 5:11 pm