North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Posts Tagged ‘toronto

Summer Madness – The Jays In September

When I last checked in on the Jays in mid-June, they’d won 11 straight games, often crushing their opponents. Especially Boston in a 13-5 win. Funny how things change, eh?

 

Yesterday, the Jays beat the Detroit Tigers by 15-1, just absolutely crushing them. It was a hell of a day at the plate for everybody (except Tulowitzki, who struck out four times), but especially for Edwin Encarnacion, who hit three home runs. Which is, holy shit, a lot of dingers. It’s great and I love it.

 

Right now – an hour or two before Sunday’s game against the Tigers – Toronto’s record is 73-56. They’re a game and half up in the AL East, are planning on selling playoff tickets for the first time in decades and everybody #LovesThisTeam. Even the grouchy Toronto sports media (who, you’ll notice, aren’t calling on Gibbons’ firing any longer).

 

Things are swell, which is a weird kind of feeling to have about the team this late in the season. Normally by this point, I’ve seen the Jays live a few times and they’re out of the pennant race, so it’s easy to get tickets and wander around the Dome.

 

Not so this year. Not only has security been amped up, but also it’s harder to get around the stadium these days. I’ve been told that the Flight Deck (nee Windows Restaurant) is being sold as standing room only seats. No more dropping ten bucks on 500 seats and spending the day down in the patio.

 

Earlier in the summer, my buddy Eric and I decided to hit the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame instead of watching a game; since then tickets have become expensive on the re-sale market and almost sold out from the box office. I’ve been waiting until I can see them live before I write about this team, but I won’t be seeing a game until September (I’m planning on seeing two, actually).

 

I’m just glad I can get to a game at all, since the Jays are a hot ticket this summer. And just about everybody I know has some strong take on how cool this team is. The guy at work who’s never mentioned sports at all before now says he loves baseball, all the bars in town suddenly have big Jays flags they trot out for games and the local bakery has broken out a Jays-themed birthday cake, complete with a big logo in the middle and what looks like basepaths around the trim.

 

The big difference between this team now and back in June is basically just two players, both of whom are fan favourites and are really, really good. One is Troy Tulowitzki who replaced Jose Reyes at shortstop and the other is ace pitcher David Price, picked up from Detroit at the deadline.

 

Although Tulo hasn’t been hitting as well as he did in Colorado – .300/.348/.471 there vs .227/.331/.373 here – but is still a blast to watch. In his first game as a Jay, Tulo smacked a dinger off of Philadelphia’s Jerome Williams. He’s only hit three more since then, but I’ve quickly seen a spike in people wearing his jersey. He’s a popular fella.

 

Price, on the other hand, is a blast to watch. Not only is he the best pitcher on the team, but he’s arguably one of the best in baseball: a 2.42 ERA, a 5.4 WAR (per Baseball-Reference) and about 10 strikeouts per nine innings. I think my favourite start of his came against the Los Angeles Angels a week or so ago, when he struck out nine through eight innings, including Mike Trout twice. For the first time in a long time, the Jays have a pitcher who gives a feeling that anything can happen with a start, even a no-hitter.

 

Two things have marked Toronto this summer. The first is the Jays, who were eight games back in the AL East on July 28. The other is Drake, who found himself in a hip-hop beef after Meek Mills accused him of using ghostwriters. Both struck back with force: the Jays ripped off a win streak and jumped three teams to lead the division within a month; Drake dropped “Back to Back,” and took Mills to the cleaners both in a record and on the stage at OVO Fest. Fittingly, Drake’s album art was a photo of Joe Carter rounding the bases after hitting the series-clinching home run in the 1993 World Series.

 

Yes, it was a shot at noted Phillies fan Mills, but in another sense it’s fitting; just like Drake, the Jays have bounced back with a vengeance. It’s going to be a fun September.

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Written by M.

August 30, 2015 at 3:39 pm

The Hits Just Keep On Coming: The Jays in June

A little over a month ago, things looked pretty bad for the Jays. When I last wrote about them, they were 13-15, writers were calling for John Gibbons’ firing, and Bautista was getting thrown under the bus for some reason. Now? Things are a lot better and the chorus has slowed down a little bit.

Going into Monday’s game against the Mets, the Jays have won 11 games straight. They ripped into Boston, staging a late-game comeback on Friday, an extra-winning win on Saturday and a crushing 13-5 win on Sunday. It was pretty cool and couldn’t have come against a better opponent; by weekend’s end, there was drama between the Red Sox and their manager John Farrell.

So things have been good. The Jays are hitting, even as injuries limit the amount of at-bats Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion get. But the rest of the order is hitting. Take Josh Donaldson: he hit a dinger in the 11th on Saturday to put the Jays ahead for good. And this month he’s hitting .327/.357/.462. And Russell Martin is hitting .324/.395/.676, too!

But really, the guy I keep thinking about is Jose Reyes. Right after the win streak started, the big story was over some dumb comments from Jays broadcast Jerry Howarth made on the dumb Fan morning show hosted by a guy once fired for being a homophobic jerk on the air.

Essentially, Howarth said Reyes was declining by the game and it was really tragic and so forth. And while Reyes isn’t the player he once was, he’s still been a decent player for the Jays. At the time of Howarth’s remarks, Reyes was hitting .284/.299/.353. This month alone, he’s hitting .333/.393/.490, with his only two home runs this season.

It goes deeper than that, too. Just a couple of days after Howarth’s remarks, Reyes’ basically won a game for the Jays. Down 4-6 in the bottom of the ninth, Reyes knocked in Munenori Kawasaki, stole second and third, then scored on a Chris Colabello single. And he’s supposed to be depressing to watch? Hell, I find even reading the game log exciting.

Indeed, the Jays are finding new and exciting ways to win. They walked off the Marlins on June 9, won a slugfest against Boston and finally recorded a save on the 13th, their first since early May.

See, the thing about this team is that it’s pitching sometimes isn’t all there, but it can hit its way out games when that happens. Between Donaldson, Martin, Bautista and Encarnacion, Toronto has a wealth of slugging, not to mention complementary bats that Gibbons can platoon and use depending on the opposing pitcher.

Which is what I’m finding I love about this team. I enjoy good pitching as much as the next fan, but truthfully, it’s rad to see the Jays hit a bunch and knock in a ton of runs. As cool as it is to see Buehrle pitch a succinct, quick game, it’s a lot of fun to see Donaldson hit one into the former Windows Restaurant or Martin knock one into the seats. It’s even cool to see Kawasaki – someone who isn’t really all that good, really – hit a ground-rule double in the ninth of a close game.

And that’s maybe the thing to remember about this team: they’re at least one arm short of making a real run for the AL East (probably), but when they’re hitting, they can really hit. And frankly, it makes them a lot more fun to watch right now than the Yankees or Rays.

 

Written by M.

June 15, 2015 at 4:10 pm

Blowing up, down and around (or What To Do About the Jays)

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(Optional soundtrack to this post)

Right now, the Jays are in the cellar. They’re 13-15 and in last place. Funny: it wasn’t long ago they were in first and I was going crazy over Jose Bautista again. Funny how things change in a month. Hell, just two weeks ago, there was snow on the ground and today I sat outside and read in short sleeves bare feet.

And things have changed for the Jays. Their youth movement wasn’t paying off quite as well as everyone hoped. Their bullpen has struggled and, at times, so has their offence. All of which means it’s time for that annual Toronto tradition, when hockey minds slip into something more comfortable for summer weather – a loose fitting T-shirt, I imagine, and a pair of jorts – and diagnose the problems of Canada’s lone baseball team.

Why here’s Steve Simmons weighing in on if John Gibbons should be fired! Here’s Jeff Blair, making the same argument! Spoiler: both say it’s not his fault. And I’m sure Michael Grange had a bad opinion somewhere recently, too, although I can’t find it at the moment. On Twitter, perhaps?

Firing Gibbons is the kind of move sportswriters love to pontificate about because it seems like a power play: you’re not producing, so you’re gone. It’s a big bang, the kind of simple, big solution everyone always has for the Jays. And while I agree with Simmons and Blair for once, just writing a column asking that question is throwing fuel on the fire.

Should Gibbons lose his job? No, of course not. There are problems with the Jays, but they’re not really huge problems and, further, they’re not problems Gibbons has any real control over. They include slow starts by some players, young rookies not playing like established veterans and a couple of bullpen meltdowns.

One such problem is the Jays defence: the 145 runs they’ve allowed is the most in the majors this season. But that’s been inflated recently: they allowed 12 in a loss to Tampa on Apr. 24, 10 in a loss to Cleveland on May 3, and nine in another Cleveland loss on May 1.

One thing that’s not a problem is their offense, which is the MLB’s best. Forget blowing this team up, they’re blowing around the bases! They’ve scored more than anyone, are sixth in OPS, and average over five runs per game. That’s pretty good! And not something you’d get from Toronto’s Finest. Writes Simmons:

Next on the list is Jose (K) Bautista. K for strikeouts which he is doing too much of… The slow start for Bautista is nothing new — he will find his way, he always does — but his inability to get hits in key situations has factored in games.

Bautista did show he can still make a difference late Monday night against the Yankees. He got a key hit, scored a large run, did what he is paid to do and hasn’t done enough of yet this season.

Never mind how Bautista is fourth on the team in slugging, has five dingers and absolutely showed up Baltimore’s pitching. Never mind how he’s the face of the Jays powerful offense and probably gets more junk than anyone, gets thrown at more than any other Jay. If only there was a way to chart how he’s being pitched to! The guy gets more flak than anyone and when he’s gone, I’m going to genuinely miss the guy.

Thank god for reasonable voices in the Toronto media, like Andrew Stoeten or Arden Zwelling. And especially Mike Wilner. I’m usually hot-and-cold on JaysTalk, but man, he’s had some incredible calls this season and he takes ’em like a champ.

(I think my favourite was when someone earnestly asked if he’d ever tried to play professional baseball, since he likes the sport so much. Not in an accusatory way, more like they just couldn’t understand why he never tried. Wilner asked if he was getting set up, but it never veered into “you can’t if you didn’t” territory, somehow.)

Anyway, I expect the Jays will recover and it’s not all Doom and Gloom. This is a team that can hit and has been all season. Their bullpen’s been iffy, but I imagine it’ll settle down. Look at RA Dickey, who is 1-3 with a 4.50 ERA, but pitched a gem the other night. Look at how young this team suddenly is: 12 players are 26 and under, 27 of them under 30. It’s going to take some time for everything to gel and until then I have faith their offense will hit them out of some lousy pitching nights.

Written by M.

May 6, 2015 at 11:59 am

Lou: Sixth Man of the Year

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I’d been hearing buzz about Lou Williams deserving the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award over the past couple weeks, but truthfully I hadn’t really paid it much heed: I like Williams, I guess, but I truthfully never really thought of him as the league’s best off-the-bench player.

Maybe it’s because in my mind, I want to compare anyone who wins the award with people like Manu Ginobili or (Oklahoma City Thunder-era) James Harden: guards who play off-the-bench but dictate the action when they’re on the court. But I suppose maybe the comparison is unfair: Ginobili is a generational talent and Harden is, well, really good. I mean I just picked him as the NBA’s MVP.

And while Williams isn’t either of those, nobody’s saying he is. But he is good, especially in the role he’s been placed in. So let’s dig in!

This is Williams first season in Toronto and his tenth in the NBA. He’s 28, which is about when players start peaking and his play this season has been full of career-highs. He’s played in 80 games, his most since 2008-09, and logged over 2000 minutes, a career high. Per 36 Minutes, Williams is averaging about 22 points, three rebounds and three assists. Compared to previous years, his rebounding is about the same, his assist rate is down and his scoring has gone through the roof.

In part, it could be called a simple twist of fate: as per a 82 Games report, the second-most used Raptors squad is Williams, Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, James Johnson and Tyler Hansbrough. Not what you’d call a fearsome squad, but that’s basically their second unit. And of those five, only Williams averages more than 10 points per game.

So he focuses on scoring, letting Vasquez control the ball and Patterson or Hansbrough rebound. Remember, Vasquez’s Usage Rate is averaging around 20 per cent, meaning he’s used in a fifth of all plays when he’s on the court. Not bad for second-string guard!). And Williams takes a lot of shots.

This year, Williams has attempted 928 shots, third-most on the team and only slightly behind DeMar DeRozan’s 990. And honestly, I’m surprised is only that few: in my mind’s eye, I can see him taking like a dozen shots a game, hitting a few big ones and missing a few, too.

For every time he’s hit an important bucket (here’s one, here’s another and here’s one from the preseason), I feel like there’s been a game where he shot them out of contention. Two examples: a 109-93 loss to Brooklyn where Williams went 1-of-11 and a 82-75 loss to Milwaukee where he went 1-of-12.

I don’t mean to shit on his parade, though. I’m pretty psyched that Williams won the award and frankly, it’s pretty cool to see any Raptor win an award like this. And usually, after a poor shooting night or two, Williams rebounds with something good. So here’s hoping his 4-for-16 afternoon on Sunday was his Bad Game of the series against Washington.

Written by M.

April 21, 2015 at 11:22 am

Looking back at the 2014 Toronto Blue Jays

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For a while, it seemed like something could happen: the Toronto Blue Jays could win the AL East! And then, it all kind of fell apart. Well, c’est la vie.

 

I only made it to two games this year, both of them right around the end of June. One was a loss to the White Sox, the other a walk-off win against the Brewers. When I think back to these games, a few moments stand out: an amazing video of Colby Rasmus wearing a straw hat and pretending to fish; watching Edwin Encarnacion hitting a game-winning home run (first time I’ve been in the stands for one of those!); a huge mass of people lined up for the subway at Yorkdale in Jays gear. Oh, and the new, not very good Pizza Nova pizza.

 

It’s been an interesting year for the Jays. Through May they were outstanding: they went 21-9, were slugging their way through games, leading the AL East and separating themselves from the pack. It peaked on June 6, with a 3-1 win over St. Louis: the Jays were 39-24, had won six games in a row and were six games up in the AL east. And then it all kind of fell apart: the hits stopped coming, the injuries started mounting (Izturis went down in April, then Brett Lawrie in June and Encarnacion in early July) . Per Baseball-Reference, Toronto scored 60 fewer runs in June. Combined with Baltimore’s steadily improving pace, Toronto was solidly in second place when I saw my first game in person.

 

The AL East was a little weak this year, but the American League itself was pretty damn hot for most of the year. When Baltimore passed the Jays on July 4, Toronto also fell below the second wild card spot, behind both the LA Angels and Seattle. For most of the year, the AL West was well above everyone else, with the Oakland Athletics looking amazing and two good teams a few games behind.

 

As fun as that was for a casual fan – there was some great stuff happening on the left coast – it wasn’t great for Toronto: even through the end of July, there was a logjam for the second wild card. Most of the Central was in play, particularly Cleveland and Kansas City, plus Seattle and New York. Hell, Tampa was six games out with two months remaining. But by September, Toronto was more or less out of it, even with a nine-of-11 win streak.

 

They had the bad luck to be merely decent in a year when a glut of good teams competed for the second spot. And Toronto was basically just okay: they hit a lot, but they allowed a lot of runs, too. As of this writing, they average 4.4 runs per game, but allow about 4.3 per game. The usual things to blame started popping up on JaysTalk: injuries, underperforming stars, bad management.

 

My favourite is how the Jays didn’t make any big moves at either trade deadline. But to get something, Toronto would’ve had to give something up. It’s a risk/reward proposition; giving up, say, Jose Bautista for, say, David Price (a deal I just made up, I should add) might shore up the rotation, but it’s gutting the team’s offensive production. Does that reward outweigh the risks? It’s a tough call. With prospects it’s trickier: you’re dealing with unknowns.

 

The same proposition goes down through the way the roster’s built. Once players started getting hurt or slumping, the same idea applied to replacements. Rasmus, for example, was hitting awfully all summer: for example, he went .197/.288/.380 in July. By September, Anthony Gose replaced him at centrefield. But Gose isn’t much better at the plate, hitting .221/.310/.270 this season. But he’s better at defense. It’s a variation on the same question: does that defense outweigh the lack of offense? Especially when compared to someone who isn’t producing at an expected level?

 

The same question popped up elsewhere. Does Kawasaki’s merits outweigh his liabilities at the plate? What about Adam Lind: against right-handed pitchers, he’s been outstanding (.357/.415/.548), but against lefties, he’s awful: .061/.162/.223. And here he is, playing regularly at first and DH.

 

When I think back to the 2014 Jays, I keep thinking back to the same few questions: what was happening when it all worked for the team? And why was it so unsustainable?

 

There was a great post on Drunk Jays Fans earlier this season about Dustin McGowan’s pitching. To that point, he’d been pretty good as a mop-up reliever. But a look at his numbers and pitch location showed some dangerous trends: his pitching was regressing and his pitches were often in high-risk areas. Soon enough he exploded on the mound: three hits, three walks and three runs in a blown save against Tampa. He’s melted down a couple of other times, too.

 

That seems to be the Jays in a microcosm this season. In some areas, they were great. Like hitting: for a while, the Jays had scored the most runs in the majors and they’re still near the top. But their bullpen was a mess all season. McGowan struggled, but he was occasionally good, too. But Sergio Santos, brought in as the new closer, barely made it through July before getting the boot. Steve Delabar’s is slightly better ad 4.91. Even closer Casey Janssen, nearly automatic for the first half of the year, has struggled of late: since August, he’s allowed 11 runs and 19 hits in just over 14 innings.

 

At the same time, I’m not sure how much I blame management for this season. I’d hardly call myself a baseball expert, but of the few questionable things Gibbons has done this season, I generally seem to get their logic. Like Gose over Rasmus, like relying on Janssen even after his ERA exploded last month. Some I don’t – what was Frank Francisco doing in the lineup so damn long? – but they don’t seem like something to fire someone over, either.

 

Likewise, Alex Anthopoulos seems generally okay by me. He didn’t add anyone by the deadlines, but he didn’t give up anything key to the team either. This year, there’s some weird tension over spending; who knows what’s been happening upstairs now. And, again as has been noted at DJF, it’s worth noting the Jays have focused on drafting high school players since 2010. Wrote Andrew Stoeten:

“… consider this: a high school draftee from 2010 is now around just 22 years old. Aaron Sanchez is one of them, and he’s just now reaching the big leagues, and one of the youngest pitchers in the majors.  To repeat: a prototypical guy from A.A.’s first draft is now an exceptionally young big leaguer.”

 

It seems unreasonable to fire a guy over 22-year olds not playing like, well, they’re a few years older.

 

For everyone calling this Jays season a bummer, it’s worth pointing out it was a pretty fun year, too. The Jays won a 19-inning game, led their division into June and even had a stretch where Bautista basically carried the team: this month he’s hitting .288/.440/.545. And for all of his crappy starts, JA Happ has also pitched pretty well at times, too. That was maybe my favourite surprise of this season.

 

And for the first time in years, the Jays actually felt like they were in the thick of things. There was a palpable feeling in the air when I went to games, even outside the stadium. When I walked down to see them play the White Sox I was surprised by the amount of Jays jerseys, shirts and hats I saw everywhere: on the subway, hanging out at Yorkdale, even on the street. But then again, when I was in Toronto last weekend, on a day when the Jays played in New York, it was the same thing. There was people milling outside the Rogers Centre, people watching the game at bars up and down Yonge Street and a blue everywhere.

 

It reminded me a little bit of being outside the Air Canada Centre when the Raptors were in the playoffs. That was a big group of great vibes, people not just glad to see the Raptors in the playoffs, but just having a good time to boot. And after last year’s disastrous Jays season, it felt great to have a team winning more often than they lost.

 

Sure, there were rough patches. And the Jays might even finish this season under .500. But I’m also going to miss baseball being on almost every night once it’s gone, too.

Written by M.

September 22, 2014 at 1:48 pm

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!”

Now That The Choke Job’s Over

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Last night, the Toronto Maple Leafs won a hockey game for the first time in a couple of weeks. Even up here, I could hear the collective exhale: maybe this season isn’t a wash after all.

Over the end of March, the Leafs dropped eight games in a row, slowly sliding down the playoff bracket until they dropped off it completely. As far as losing streaks go, it was an interesting one: the Leafs lost close and they lost big but in every loss, they didn’t even pick up a point. Going by that measure, it was their worst streak since the mid-80s, when the team was a perennial doorstop, played in a decaying arena out by College Station and a guy named Harold Ballard owned the team.

Trust me, it’s been fun: when I plowed through a crossword puzzle during the Detroit/Toronto game, I realized I was more interested in a seven-letter word for Tea Time than if Phil Kessel scored a goal. It helped with my reading too: with the game on in the background, I’ve been plowing through Robert Caro’s The Master of the Senate, only occasionally glancing up to look at the score (“Oh, it’s 3-1 Detroit, what did Dion Phaneuf do now?”). Read the rest of this entry »

Written by M.

April 2, 2014 at 11:31 am