"The coroner? I'm so sick of that guy..."
Game of the Week is back! Er, sorta. I'm changing it to "Game of the Month" for one very, very important reason: I'm sort of lazy. Hey, writing these game reviews takes time. Right? Probably. Anyway, a few things before we begin...
The local baseball squadron finished April with a record of 12-15. Frankly, when you consider how three starting pitchers had ERAs over 5, the teams best hitter from 2013 spent most of the month batting around the .200 mark and, oh yeah, bullpen implosion after bullpen implosion, the team was very lucky to not be further back than they were. There are several reasons for this:
First: The AL East has been pretty crummy so far. Tampa Bay can't find reliable starting pitching (when was the last time anybody said that?), Boston still look hungover from their 2013 victory run, Baltimore is still waiting for Davis and Jones to become "Oh no! Davis and Jones!" and the Yankees starting rotation, similar to Toronto's, has had one awesome guy (Tanaka) and a lot of inconsistency. That nobody has stepped up to make a claim on the division at least leaves a bit of hope for the Blue Jays, only three games back as of Saturday May 3rd. Well, at least more hope than we've seen around here for a while.
Second: Jose Bautista morphing into Joey Votto, only with more walks and home runs. Seriously, can you imagine these two guys in the same lineup? I can, and do, quite often... ...with the Blue Jays of course! Yeah... that's the one...
Third: The redemption of Melky Cabrera. Amazing what a fella can do once you remove something growing on his spine.
Fourth: The defense has been much, much improved, though we'll see how that continues without Diaz and Goins around. Rasmus and Lawrie have been above average as usual, Melky is moving better than Great Grandma Gladys (unlike last year) and Bautista's arm has reminded us why he's out there in right field. As a side note, I'm a fan of having a glove wiz around in some capacity, just because they're useful players even if they can't hit their weight (and if they're a middle infielder, that's not going to be a large number).
Fifth: The Mark Buehrle Experience. I seriously hope when this guy retires, he writes a book about pitching. I'd read that twenty times.
Speaking of Buehrle, this provides me with a clever little segue into April's Game of the Month! And it is...
April 2nd versus Tampa Bay, at Tropicana Field
The third game of the season, featuring a battle of (very different) lefties: Buehrle and Matt Moore. The top of the first began opportunistically for the Bluebirds, with leadoff hitter Melky Cabrera rapping a single into centerfield followed by Jose Bautista walking a batter later. However, Moore struck out Edwin Encarnacion and then got Dioner Navarro to hit a slow groundball right at the third base bag. The ball bounced straight up off the bag and would have been trouble for the Rays if not for a quick and well timed leap by Third Baseman Evan Longoria, who collected the ball, rediscovered the ground and beat Cabrera to the base, ending the inning.
Toronto would strike in the top of the fourth. On a low 1-1 curveball from Moore, Bautista kept his hands back and blasted the pitch deep into the centerfield bleachers. 1-0 Toronto.
The next batter, Encarnacion, worked Moore to a full count before lining a low inside fastball just a centimetre over Longoria's glove (the great leaping ability abandoned him that time) and into the left-field corner for a double. Navarro was next, inside-outting a Moore pitch into right-field for a single, scoring Edwin without a throw. 2-0 Toronto.
Then the Mark Buehrle Show really began. To finish the fourth, Buehrle struck out Ben Zobrist and Longoria on identical pitches: an inside fastball at 83 MPH that froze both hitters like news that your mother-in-law is coming to live with you. The Rays, not content to stand around slack-jawed at this marvelous display of pitching, began the bottom of the fifth with some noise. Logan Forsythe (the newest Tampa Positional Everyman *TM) punched a double into left-field for his second hit of the game and only the second hit off of Buehrle. (The entire Tampa lineup besides Forsythe must have been at some crazy late night beach party the day before or something.) James Loney struck out but then Sean Rodriguez hit a hard liner which Brett Lawrie had to leap up to snatch away from the outfield grass. Jose Molina hit a lazy fly ball out to right-field and the inning was over with Forsythe still fiddling his thumbs alone at second base. They never invite the new guys to those crazy beach parties.
The top of the sixth saw a classic Joe Maddon move. With Lawrie at third and Maicer Izturis at second with two out, Maddon went to his reliever Brandon Gomes. Toronto pinch hit Adam Lind, who was intentionally walked to load the bases. Maddon then went back to the mound to summon lefty Jake McGee to face Melky Cabrera, essentially bringing in Gomes just to intentionally walk someone. Slowing down the game? Instant Replay has got nothing on Joe Maddon. Anyhow, the move worked as McGee got Cabrera to pop out on the first pitch. Still 2-0 Toronto.
The Rays threatened again in the sixth. A leadoff walk to Yunel Escobar found its way to second base with one out, while the heart of Tampa's lineup loomed. Buehrle was clearly displeased with that however, striking out Wil Myers on a slow low curveball and getting Zobrist to bounce out to third to end it.
The top of the seventh saw Jose Bautista, clearly unimpressed with his 4th inning home run, launch an absolute moonshot off Josh Lueke into the back row of the left-field bleachers. 3-0 Toronto. In the bottom, Tampa got the leadoff batter on base again to bring up Buehrle nemesis Forsythe. On cue, Forsythe hit a ball hard that, if not for a nifty quick reaction by Encarnacion at first-base, was destined for right-field. Instead, Edwin snagged it and teamed up with Ryan Goins on a real nice 3-6-3 double play. Instead of runners at second and third with nobody out, the bases were empty with two out. Big play.
Ahead to the bottom of the eighth: Mark Buehrle decides "I like this whole striking out people thing. I'm going to do it three more times!" And that he did, catching every batter of the inning looking on that same 82 MPH brilliantly located Buehrle heater. The bottom of the ninth began like a repeating VHS tape of that eighth: Buehrle striking out Desmond Jennings looking on that same inside fastball. A Wil Myers groundout to short and this one looked in the bag, not to mention one of the best games Mark Buehrle has ever pitched in his millions and millions of MLB innings. (I'm going to believe that until someone tells me otherwise). Ben Zobrist didn't quite feel like heading back to the beach, however, hitting a liner just off Lawrie's glove and into left-field.
That would be all for Buehrle, as Gibbons went for his closer of the moment, Sergio Santos. Santos was the Santos of our recent nightmares in this one, walking Longoria on a pitch miles from the strike zone, putting the tying run at the plate in the form of Matt Joyce. The obvious but unconventional move here would be to summon the lefty Brett Cecil for Joyce, who has extremely pronounced splits against lefties. But that would be craziness, right? Your closer is the guy, and the only guy, you want on the mound to finish close games, right? Right?
Not this time. Gibbons went to Cecil, who struck out Joyce to end the game. Maybe not "conventional", but it sure as hell worked and a very well deserved win for Mark Buehrle. FINAL: 3-0 Toronto. Player of the game would have to be Mark Buehrle, going 8.2 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, with 11 slack jawed strikeouts. Oh and don't forget Bautista's two bombs also.
Everyone is curious about Juan Francisco and whether or not his improvement at the plate is a blip or a more permanent thing. I really have no idea, but I can say from watching the Reds face the Brewers last year that Big Juan does look a bit different at the plate. The Francisco I remember was far more open with his legs, while our version is much more closed in and condensed. I also have this image of him with the Brewers swinging wildly at anything near the zone, pummeling pitches when connecting but missing horribly otherwise. It isn't completely insane to think the guy has taken some kind of step forward at age 27, though as many others have mentioned the key is definitely his plate discipline, for him to not start swinging wildly again when the hits aren't falling in as often.
One of my (many) baseball obsessions are batting stances, and few players are as intriguing as our very own Colby Rasmus. Have you thought, like me, that it seems Colby tinkers with his stance every other week?
That's because he probably does. Ian at Blue Jay Hunter takes a closer look at it here: http://www.bluejayhunter.com/2014/05/the-ever-changing-batting-stance-of.html
And that's your Game of the Month for April! For May, I'm hoping for some extra inning, low scoring, walk-off home run classic, not that I'm picky or anything.