North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

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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

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

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

Two Game Sevens, Two Heartbreakers

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The cool thing about sports is how it makes you care about stuff you really have no control over and no real stakes riding on. The outcome doesn’t really mean anything to you or me or anyone without a stake in the team itself. And even then, their stakes aren’t really all that huge. Toronto wasn’t going to go into the red if they didn’t make the second round.

But still: I cared about the Colts and the Maple Leafs. And on Monday night, both teams lost heartbreakers in game seven of their respective series. The Colts were down most of the game, tied it up late and right as the period wound down, London forward Bo Horvat scored and put the Knights ahead, so late the faceoff was just a formality.

It was as close as a buzzer-beater as I’ve seen in hockey in a long, long time (since maybe that Canucks/Flames series in the late 80s). It was that old line from ABC Sports: the agony of defeat, the ecstasy of victory, all that. The ref waved it off, then it went upstairs and the goal was allowed as the London crowd collectively lost their shit. Within a few minutes, the Colts cleared the ice, the Knights were posting team photos to Instragram (what a brave new world we live in) and I focused on the Leaf game.

And here too was, I suppose, agony. Toronto went ahead early and kept scoring on Rask. Kessel had a goal, then so did Kadri. Soon it was 4-1, Toronto. Later in the third, Boston cut it to 4-2 and with just under two minutes left, they pulled Rask for an extra man.

A little postscript for this season: Toronto was bad in their own end all year long. How many games did they have where they got pounded by shots and only Reimer kept them in the game? Shit, even against teams like New Jersey, the Leafs could barely keep the puck out of their own end. When you read tomorrow about how great they were at hitting the other team, remember that you don’t hit players when you have the puck. As I noted before this series, Toronto had one of the worst Fenwick Close numbers heading into the postseason.

So it shouldn’t have been a giant surprise when Toronto coughed up the lead, when Boston controlled the puck late, when the Bruins could just fire off shots as it looked like all the Leafs hung around in front of the net and couldn’t clear it out of their own end. Reimer just looked overwhelmed and, God bless him, he was. He faced more shots than anyone else in the NHL so far. And he got peppered again on Monday night: the boxscore has him facing 35 shots.

What’s there to say about overtime? Toronto came out strong, got a couple of chances and the same thing happened: Boston started forechecking, kept the puck in their hands and fired off shot after shot. And this time Reimer was literally overwhelmed: he was falling over and all outstretched when Patrice Bergeron put one past him six minutes into the extra frame.

Sure, it sucks, but this series was a fun ride. That’s the cool thing about sports: they’re fun as shit. After all, the Leafs were the also-ran in Toronto for a long time. The Jays have a longer playoff drought, but they had the excuse of Yankees/Red Sox payrolls, too. The Raptors haven’t won much in the past nine years, but they made the postseason a couple of times and even won a division title. And the Argos? They just won a Grey Cup, maybe you remember that. It happened on their home turf.

The Leafs lost, but they got into the playoffs. If nothing else, that’s something to hang on to: this season’s been better than any since the 2005 lockout. Things are slowly getting better for the Worst Sports City in the World (TM). I’m just happy they got this far. And besides, I picked Boston to win in six.

Written by M.

May 13, 2013 at 11:03 pm