The Blue Jays' season was on display in microcosm in last night's doubleheader. After a frustrating and dispiriting loss in the opener, Toronto fell behind 5-2 early and could easily have given up the ghost. But they battled back, first to tie it, and ever so gradually, to move ahead and eventually win it.
The last two innings in particular were illustrative. The Jays loaded the bases with fewer than two out in both the 8th and 9th, but in neither inning could they deliver a big hit: two sacrifice flies accounted for the difference in the ballgame. Much as the team's grind-it-out spirit was manifested in the comeback win, so too was this simple fact: this offence neither excites its fans nor intimidates its opponents.
The Jays have now played five games against the Yankees and Red Sox in the hottest heat of the pennant race, and although they've won two of those matches, both victories owed more to their opponent's shortcomings than to their own decisive actions. A number of things have to change, especially on offence, before the start of next season if this team wishes to be taken seriously in the AL East.
A few quick thoughts on three key Jays:
--> In the unlikely event that Gustavo Chacin had any designs on winning the AL Rookie of the Year award, last nightís start officially scotched them. Needing a dominant performance on national TV to keep up with the likes of Huston Street and various young Devil Rays, Chacin cratered and did not survive the fourth inning. However, the impression that Chacin has declined precipitously in the second half is not really justified by the numbers.
Pre-All-Star 7-5, 3.57, 103 IP, 109 H, 36 BB, 61 K, 7 HR, .267 Opp BA Post-All-Star 5-4, 3.77, 88 IP, 87 H, 33 BB, 57 K, 12 HR, .262 Opp BAChacinís post-ASB problem has been the gopher ball: after allowing just 7 in the first-half, he surrendered 9 dingers in August alone. His command has been less precise as well. But heís also increased his strikeout rate slightly and lowered his opponentsí batting average in the second half. Last nightís start aside, he has been pretty solid in September (zero homers allowed). So overall, heís been pretty consistent.
All the same, Chacinís performance this season should be considered to be pretty much his maximum output - he does not have a great deal of ceiling left to explore. His final numbers Ė 200 IP, 3.82 ERA Ė should be pretty much the best the Blue Jays should hope for from him going forward. Should his August homeritis recur, Chacin will have a tough time of it Ė his abilities to prevent baserunners are merely average, so he has to avoid long-ball mistakes that would maximize his damage. He may regress next season, and he may stay pretty much the same, but I doubt heís going to get a lot better. None of that should detract from a terrific rookie season from a pitcher who was on nobodyís prospect lists 18 months ago.
--> Another player who has seen his ROY chances drain away is Russ Adams, but in the shortstopís case, the numbers convincingly tell why:
April .218/.295/.327 May .254/.307/.507 June .250/.274/.441 July .329/.427/.380 Aug .269/.361/.413 Sept .187/.216/.242After heating up in July and August, he slammed into a September wall and has seen his average free-fall back to the .250 range. It will come as no surprise to those who know me as an Adams booster that Iím not too worried about that. Most young players in their first full season (acknowledging that Adams was platooned through April and much of May) run out of gas around this time of year. An off-season of conditioning and a full season of experience should help Adams rediscover his groove, and assuming the Jays donít deal him as part of an effort to break up the infield logjam, he should be back leading off in 2006 looking to post the .350+ OBPs he produced in July and August.
--> Speaking of infield logjams, one infielder who was not jamming the basepaths last night was Shea Hillenbrand, who struck out an astounding 7 times in 8 at-bats. Whatís that, a jewel-encrusted double platinum sombrero? Itís been a solid year for Hillenbrand, but itís not ending the way heíd like. He has batted around .280 the last two months, and his power has remained fairly consistent (albeit only 1 round-tripper in September), but with his normal anemic walk rate and the return of his normal HBP rate (just 3 plunkings the last two months, following 19 in the first four), his OBP has been about .315 in that span.
Hillenbrandís nearly-complete season totals (.291/.343/.449) now mirror almost precisely his career numbers (.288/.327/.448); throw out the freak HBP numbers and Hillenbrand had a precisely normal season. Thatís what the Jays can count on if they invite Hillenbrand back for full-time work in 2006. Itís a decently solid line that compares pretty favourably to the production this season of other DH/infielders like Dmitri Young, Raul Ibanez and Ben Broussard. Thereís nothing wrong with any of these guys, but I think most people (including JP Ricciardi) would agree that theyíre the kinds of players a contending team acquires to bat 6th or 7th, not cleanup.