North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Posts Tagged ‘Munenori Kawasaki

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

Rising Hopes in Jays Land

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The other day I found out an interesting fact about the Toronto Blue Jays: their win over Baltimore on June 22 put them over .500 for the first time in nearly a year. 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 pieces.

Right now, every team in the AL East is above .500. It’s a meat grinder of a division, a marathon, all those comforting old cliches. It’s pretty damn exciting, folks. After what happened throughout April and May, if you had asked what my hopes for the season were, I’d have said just getting t0 .500 would be amazing but I’d have expected something like 75 wins, tops. As it goes now, the Jays have 38 and are two games above .500.

It’s been a rough spring, especially for their starters. RA Dickey, who cost the Jays a small ransom back in the winter months, hasn’t been his 2012 self and is struggling with a neck injury. Josh Johnson’s been hot and cold, swaying between gems like his seven-inning, ten-strikeout and zero runs allowed start against Colorado with a rough four runs allowed through six innings start against Baltimore on Sunday. JA Happ is still hurt and Ricky Romero might be finished after self-destructing back in May. The shining spot of late’s been Mark Buehrle, as any number of blogs have told you.

But even though things went south for the Jays pretty early, there was fun, shining moments. Filling this year’s Rajai Davis role – aka the role player inexplicably playing well and winning over fans – is Munenori Kawasaki. Last year, Kawasaki was unassuming for Seattle, hitting .192/.257/.202 in a little over 100 at bats. When Jose Reyes went down with a turned ankle early this season, Kawasaki was called up from AAA Buffalo. I don’t think anyone really expected much of anything.

While he’s hitting better in 2013, with a .341 OBP, Kawasaki is endearing himself locally by coming across as a fun, personable player. He’s given a memorable interview, played catch with fans and danced inside an airplane. Given some of the recent attitude to come out of the Jays locker room, this is a breath of fresh air. He’s not spouting mean-spirited jokes like Escobar did last fall. He doesn’t come across like Brett Lawrie, who cares so much he loses his shit. I don’t think it’s projecting too much to assume most people see Kawasaki as the everyman, getting his chance in the bigs and making the most of it: he comes across as more human than most of this loaded Jays team. It’s a lot more fun to root for someone like him than someone you expect the best from. When he hit a stand-up triple against Colorado on the 19th, the crowd was as into it as anything I’ve seen all season.

And the fans are into it. The Jays started this season, as they usually do, with a sellout crowd. This has, as it usually does, as the season has gone on. But the TV ratings are showing an interesting trend. Let’s break it down, point by point:

  • For the home opener on April 2, the Jays pulled in over 1.4 million viewers.
  • On June 11, they drew about 572,000 in a win over the White Sox.
  • As the Jays started winning games, the ratings started climbing: 604,000 for a game against the Rangers on June 14, then 686,000 on June 18. Last Friday, their win over Baltimore cracked 900,000.

I haven’t seen numbers for the weekend series against Baltimore, but I’m really curious if it’s kept going up.

The big win streak ended against Tampa on Monday night in a 4-1 loss, but that’s okay. It’s just nice to see the Jays mattering again, to see the team back in the thick of things and interest in the team starting to pick up again. Reyes is coming back sometime soon and hopefully JA Happ follows. Maybe another streak is on the horizon or at least a chance to move out of last place.

Written by M.

June 26, 2013 at 11:00 am