North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Posts Tagged ‘yyz

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

Goodbye Phil, Goodbye Amir

Yesterday was admittedly a pretty big day for Toronto sports, even by its usually outlandish standards. Two of the best athletes in the city left on the same day. I want to take a moment to look at each of them.

1. Exit stage left: Phil Kessel. Arguably the most talented player the Leafs have had in years and certainly the most divisive they’ve had since Tie Domi, Kessel is now a Pittsburgh Penguin.

Kessel’s time in Toronto was marred right from the get-go, when then-GM Brian Burke traded away two first-round picks for the forward. Could the trade really have been six years ago? A story of mine at the Good Point suggests it’s been nearly that long. I defended the trade then; these days, I don’t feel the same way, although I don’t know I care enough to bang out that many words on an off-season trade anymore, either.

The trade is easy to nitpick now. The Leafs lost out on a second-overall pick and Kessel, never much of a talker, burned bridges with the media. By the end of his time here, the Toronto Star’s Dave Feschuk was insinuating Kessel was a coach-killer and even positive stories on him still mentioned an image of laziness. Even now, as he leaves the city, sportswriters are throwing him under the bus for eating too many honk dogs.

In Scottish lore, there were people called sin-eaters. When someone died, these people went to the house and ate a piece of bread, symbolically taking the sins of the deceased onto themselves. The more I think about it, the more I think Kessel filled a similar role for this Leaf team. For basically his whole tenure here, the Leafs were bad. They made the playoffs once and collapsed on an almost annual basis. Problems abounded, but the media honed in on Kessel.

Why? Maybe because he didn’t play along with their games and make them feel like one of the team. Maybe because his trade symbolically defined an era of putting it all on red and seeing the ball land on black. Maybe because somebody had to fill that role and the media weren’t going to throw people they liked being around under the bus. But as the Leafs seasons collapsed into defensive miscues and teams that seemed rudderless, it was the guy who played hurt and alongside replacement level talent and still managed to score 60-points a season who caught the flak.

In all his time here, Kessel was one of the most exciting players on the Leafs to watch. Think I’m kidding? Go watch clips of him in full stride, taking a pass and moving in on the net. At his best, Kessel is a pure skater who can score with ease. He wasn’t always at his best because teams realized they could shut him down and not worry about players like Bozak or Clarkson. Even so, Kessel had moments like this, where he made it all look almost effortless.

I hope he scores 50 in Pittsburgh next year.

2. Exit stage right: Amir Johnson. Perhaps not the most talented Raptor, but certainly one of the most compelling, a fan-favourite who was a lot of fun to watch even when the team wasn’t and someone who genuinely loved the city, hanging out in Toronto long after the season ended. He is now a Boston Celtic. 

When Amir Johnson came here in 2009, the Raptors were a mess. It was their last season with Chris Bosh and they came within a hair of making the postseason, but were eliminated on the last day. The next year, the Raps were in free-fall, winning as many games as the total of different players on their roster: 22.

Over the next couple of years, there was some ugly ball played by the Raptors. This was a time when Andrea Bargnani was avoiding contact and playing away from the basket, when Aaron Gray was making 40 starts at centre and when the Raptors offense struggled to score 90 points per game.

Through it all, Johnson was a blast to watch. He struggled with fouls, yes, and had some injury trouble. But he was a reliable bench option, good for about ten points and ten rebounds per 36 minutes. He was also a lot of fun to watch, someone who gave a lot on the court and looked like he was having a blast, too.

It sounds silly, but in the years after Vince Carter, who admitted he didn’t always try his hardest, after Bosh who left right as he hit his peak and after Hedo Turkoglu, who basically didn’t want to be in Toronto, it was refreshing.

In my files, I’ve got a pitch I wrote for The Classical that I don’t know if I actually sent. It was for a Why We Watch on Amir Johnson. Here’s a small excerpt:

Johnson came to the Raptors in Bosh’s last season. After Bosh left, he settled into a starting role, mostly in the same role: the other big alongside Barganani. He’s also filled another role, too: the fun Raptor.

He has his own Youtube channel, AmirTV. Along with DeMar DeRozan and Sonny Weems, he was part of a group calling themselves The Young Gunz. He’s released a mixtape. And he’s active in Toronto in a way few others are: right before the season’s start, he took part in a Toronto zombie walk. He hangs out here. Bosh was a nice guy, but he didn’t live here.

My pitch is a huge mess – probably why I never bothered sending it – but I think that label is as true now as it was in late 2012. Johnson was a lot of fun, on the court and off. Even now, as his role on the team has been eclipsed by DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Terrence Ross, Johnson was still a sentimental favourite, someone who had bad ankles and still picked up fouls at a ridiculous rate, but had captured something among the fans. Just look at the goodbyes he’s getting from blogs like Raptors Republic.

Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago they were literally giving Raptors tickets away. I was at a game with my friend Eric and an usher came up to us and just handed us a pair of free tickets to another game. We didn’t even have to ask. They have a lot of cultural cache now, thanks to consecutive playoff runs and Drake’s stamp of approval, but for a while there wasn’t much to cheer for. But there was Amir.

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

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