"Would you say it's time for our viewers to crack each other's heads open and feast on the goo inside?"
"Well yes I would, Kent"
Hey uh, 2014 Blue Jays? You know I was just kidding about that whole "Death Spiral" business, right? Right?
Apologizes for the lateness of this one, I was in Chicago for a bit (more on that another time very soon) and had some other obligations involving laziness and such. But no longer! When we last did a Game of the Month, Toronto was riding high on a modest AL East lead, with consistently solid pitching and good situational hitting. I'm sure that if I had taken a nap for a month that everything would be just fine and.... uh... yikes. Okay.
So yeah, these guys are kinda pretty awful right now. They're 10-20 since I wrote my Death Spiral article (sorry) and 11-23 since beating the Cardinals 3-1 on June 6th. Sure, they're only four games back of First place in the weakest AL East in fifteen years, but who has time for that kind of optimism. I say blow it up!!!!!!!!!!1111
But in not troll-like sarcasm, these kind of rancid runs do happen, even to very, very good teams. The Oakland A's started off 2001 with an 8-18 record on their way to a 100 win season. I don't at all think the 2014 Blue Jays are a 100 win team (good heavens no) but if their good starting pitching can continue this should be a squad that can hang around the playoff picture and still maybe steal a division title. Maybe. The signs surely aren't as encouraging as they were a month ago. Heck, a week ago I liked this team a whole lot better...
Anyhow, let's take a break from this train wreck in progress and focus back on a happier time. The Game of The Month for June, and this should not be a surprise to any one. It's:
June 20th, Toronto Blue Jays at Cincinnati
One of the many things that amused me about this series was how many former Reds Toronto has on their roster (Cincinnati, weirdly, has no former Blue Jays). Dioner Navarro's career was fading quickly when he came to Cincinnati in 2012, and during a brief twenty six game stay (with two postseason appearances) made enough of an impression to get a major league contract with the Cubs. Todd Redmond made his major league debut as a Red, though it was so awful and forgettable I think there's a reason why we've never seen a clip of it during a broadcast. Juan Francisco was signed as an amateur free agent by Cincinnati in 2004, bouncing around in their system with the occasional big league stint until the Redlegs traded him to Atlanta for J.J. Hoover (ugh) in 2012.
And of course, Edwin.
Encarnacion was drafted in the 9th round by the Texas Rangers in 2000 but was traded to the Reds organization a year later for pitcher Rob Bell. The Reds promoted Edwin aggressively, who was only 18 at the time of the trade. By the end of 2003 he was 20 years old and playing in AA ball, holding his own with a solid batting average and on-base skills, though not quite showing the powerful bat that he would be known for. Cincinnati left him in AA for all of 2004, pushed him into AAA to start 2005 and something clicked: In 78 games for Louisville (which is in the International League, not the PCL don't forget), Edwin slashed .314/.388/.548 with 15 long ones and 23 not-quite-as-long-but-still-long ones. Encarnacion had become a legit hitting prospect at this point, but the glove at third base was a problem. His first three full minor league seasons each had 33+ errors, and while by 2005 he had curbed it somewhat he still had commited 19 errors in 77 games at 3B. The Reds, who weren't very good in 2005, didn't really seem to care. They promoted Edwin in late June, traded away the incumbent third baseman (Joe Randa) less than a month later, and Encarnacion became an everyday major leaguer at the age of 22.
Edwin's bat was good enough for the majors almost immediately, as his HR totals improved each of his first four seasons (9, 15, 16, 26) with an OPS+ finishing anywhere between 95-108. But despite his steady improvements with the wood, Encarnacion did not improve with the leather. His tendency to throw the ball away from third base (Reds beat writers often joked that the seats behind first base at Great American Ball Park were the most dangerous in MLB when Edwin played) gained him the unflattering nickname "E5". When Encarnacion started off 2009 by batting .127 in April with only two(!) extra base hits (he was likely playing hurt, as he missed all of May to the disabled list), Cincinnati fans had seen enough: they wanted him gone. At the end of July, Edwin was traded to the Blue Jays with a pair of pitchers for Scott Rolen. We know the rest. That's where we come in.
Encarnacion's first game back in the city where his career began featured a rather lopsided pitching matchup: the terrific Mat Latos making his second major league start of 2014 against AAA genius Liam Hendriks. Latos set down the Blue Jays without difficulty in the top of the first, while Hendriks did not enjoy such easiness. With one out Todd Frazier lined a Hendriks pitch into right field for a single with one out to get the Reds their first hit. (As an aside, if you watch Reds games you'll notice that Frazier is a terrific opposite field hitter. Many of his home runs are to centrefield or right. This is why we didn't really see the best of his power in the home run derby: usually in that competition hitters pull everything because the pitches are so slow. Anyhow don't mind me, back to the game.) Joey Votto came up and hit a hard ground ball that most shortstops pick on the backhand and likely turn a double play on. However this particular shortstop was the 2014 version of Jose Reyes, who stabbed at the ball but missed it, advancing Frazier to third base and allowing Votto to reach first safely. Fortunately for Hendriks, he managed to get Brandon Phillips to hit another bouncer to a much more capable fielder: Brett Lawrie at third, who went around the horn to get that double play, ending the inning without damage.
The Blue Jays threatened in the second, with Lawrie getting an infield single and then Colby Rasmus lining a Latos offering into right field, advancing Lawrie to third despite the strong arm of the Beaumont Boss, Jay Bruce. With runners on the corners and two out, Latos got a weak grounder off the bat of Munenori Kawasaki, ending the Toronto threat.
Then came the bottom of the second. Yeah. That one. The inning started with Bruce hitting a hard single up the middle. This brought up Devin Mesoraco, who loved the first pitch he got from Hendriks so much he mashed it well over the left field wall. Melky didn't even move. 2-0 Cincinnati.
It continued. Skip Schumaker was up next, and he hit a hard grounder just under a diving Encarnacion at first for a single. Then Hendriks did the inexcusable: ahead of Zack Cozart 0-2, he grooved in a little changeup that Cozart blooped into centre-right field for another single, sending Schumaker to third. I like the Reds shortstop a whole lot but if you're a pitcher giving up an 0-2 count base hit to him, you're probably going to get creamed. Latos hit a groundball just soft enough to score Schumaker and advance Cozart to second. 3-0 Cincinnati.
And then the cream really began to pour. Billy Hamilton hit a blooper that a back pedaling Kawasaki at second just couldn't bring in. Full credit to Cozart, who read the ball brilliantly and had already scored by the time Bautista picked it up. It was a bloop double for Hamilton (he gets a lot of those), 4-0 Cincinnati.
Hendriks hardly had time to catch his breath as with Frazier up, Hamilton broke for third base on the first pitch. Lawrie pushed Hamilton off the base with his tag, which the umpire noticed immediately and called Hamilton safe. Hendriks recovered and got a weak fly ball out of Frazier, not deep enough for Hamilton to score (certainly not on the arm of Bautista). Votto came up and did what Votto does best: walk. (He's so much fun to watch for that very reason. If Joey doesn't think it's a strike, it's rarely a strike. If someone ever drew up a brochure of what the strikezone should look like, Votto would have to be the batter in that brochure). At this point John Gibbons had seen enough. With runners on the corners, two out and Phillips up, he pulled Hendriks for Todd Redmond. It didn't work. Phillips looped one into left-field that a tumbling Melky Cabrera just couldn't quite get to. Hamilton scored easily and Votto chugged around third just as Colby Rasmus grabbed the ball and launched it. But his throw was no where near in time or accurate enough to get the slow footed Votto, while Phillips snuck into second. 6-0 Cincinnati.
Still it came. The Beaumont Bomber, Jay Bruce, batting for the second time in the inning, popped a high and away Redmond fastball deep into the Cincinnati night. Rasmus and Bautista chased it to the fence but nothing was bringing this one back. It landed just below the Power Stacks, roughly seven rows in. Redmond had thrown five pitches and allowed four runs to score (two belonging to him). 8-0 Cincinnati.
Mercifully, Redmond struck out Devin Mesoraco on three pitches to end the nightmarish (for the Blue Jays anyhow) inning. Eight Cincinnati runs on seven hits, a walk and an RBI groundout. What must have been agonizing (again, for the Blue Jays) was that every hit aside from the two home runs were not well hit. Cincinnati hitters were just blooping balls off the end of the bat onto places on the field were fielders just couldn't catch them. Still, the score was 8-0 and with Latos on the mound this game looked comfortably secure for the Reds.
With two out in the third, Melky Cabrera creamed a high inside fastball from Latos off of the right field wall. Bruce was right there to play it off the wall and would've had a great shot at nabbing Melky at second (Bruce's arm is excellent) but he dropped the ball trying to pick it up and so had no play. Bautista then worked a walk (laying off a tough Latos changeup on the full count) to bring up the former Red, Edwin Encarnacion. Latos pumped in a fastball so down the middle it parted the seas, and Edwin blasted it over the left-field scoreboard wall for a three run shot. As Edwin rounded third base, his low-five to Luis Rivera was so hard that Rivera visibly shook his wrist a few seconds later. 8-3 Cincinnati.
Latos surrendered a pair of uneventful singles to Navarro and Lawrie, as he struck out Rasmus to end the top of the third. Redmond settled in with a quick scoreless bottom of the third. To start the fourth, the always pesky Kawasaki worked a full count walk off Latos, and Redmond bunted him over to second. Jose Reyes came up and hit one hard into right-field, but directly at Jay Bruce who made an easy catch. With two out, the batter was Melky Cabrera, who golfed one high in the air, but not deep. Big Beaumont Bruce camped under it and made the catch to keep the score at 8-3.
Redmond pitched around a Frazier single to post a scoreless fourth inning. The top of the fifth began with Bautista, who drew another walk off Latos to put the leadoff batter on. Edwin couldn't repeat his power show from before however. He bounced a ball to Cozart who played a high inbetween hop perfectly, threw to Phillips and then over to Votto for a just plain beautiful double play (That's a little bit of Jerry Howarth for ya all). Toronto could not muster anything else in the inning. Still 8-3 Cincinnati.
The bottom of the fifth began with promise for the Reds to expand their lead. The Backyard Beamer of Beaumont, Jay Bruce, drew a walk to start the frame. Bruce then ran for second, sliding in safely rather easily because Navarro juggled the ball before he could attempt a throw. Mesoraco then hit a sharp grounder down the third base line, a ball that most surely would've been a hit if the Blue Jays did not employ Brett Lawrie at that position. Lawrie snatched the ball from the line, checked second base in a split second to see if Bruce was coming and fired a perfect throw to first. Bruce, however, decided to break to third base anyhow. Edwin fired the ball back to Lawrie but did so too quickly. His throw bounced off the grass, skipped over Lawrie's glove and into foul territory, allowing Bruce to score easily. Had Edwin made a good throw (ouch) or had Lawrie been able to pick that throw, Bruce would've been out unquestionably. Instead, his aggressiveness paid off. 9-3 Cincinnati.
The top of the sixth started off with Latos making Lawrie look peewee-like on a good changeup low and away for a strikeout. Colby Rasmus followed and dumped a ball shallow but inbetween the left-fielder Schumaker and the center-fielder Hamilton (Billy actually made an acrobatic leap to get out of Schumaker's way as Skip gathered the ball from the outfield grass). Rasmus cruised into second with a double. Kawasaki then punched a ball past the glove of Phillips and into right field for a hit, moving Rasmus to third. Then came Adam Lind's time to shine. The Bearded One stroked one on the ground past a diving Phillips and into right, scoring Rasmus and moving Kawasaki to second. 9-4 Cincinnati. Reyes followed with a bouncer back to Latos, which was hit too softly to turn two (even with a pitcher, Hutchison, running the bases for Lind) so he threw to first to get Reyes for the second out, while both runners advanced. This was the end for Mat Latos, as Reds manager Bryan Price came out to summon lefty Manny Parra to turn Melky Cabrera around. Like Gibbons' decision in the second to bring in Redmond, Price's move for Parra did not work either. Parra walked Cabrera on four pitches, bringing up Bautista with the bases loaded and sending Price out to the mound again. The tall right-hander, Logan Ondrusek (whose name is always way more awesome than his pitching results) came in to face Joey Bats at this critical moment in the game. Ondrusek worked Jose very well, mixing in pitches inside and out, but the patience of Bautista led the count to full. Ondrusek perhaps overthunk the 3-2 pitch, throwing an off speed offering well high and away of the strikezone. Kawasaki scored, making the score 9-5 Cincinnati. Suddenly the tying run was at the plate, and it was Edwin. This was the Blue Jays big chance. Ondrusek got ahead 1-2, and then threw an awful over-the-plate off-speed pitch that major league hitters crush more often than not. This was not, as Edwin was just underneath it, hitting a sad fly ball into the glove of Schumaker in left. The Blue Jays had missed their big chance, still trailing the Reds 9-5.
Chad Jenkins was Toronto's man for the bottom of the sixth. The ground-ball friendly Jenkins had to endure a hiccup from his defense, as Kawasaki at second punted a routine ground ball off the bat of Billy Hamilton. I recently made a similar error in a game, where I had my glove positioned for the backhand when trying for a basket catch would've been better. While my error was from simple inexperience (I've played like a dozen innings of second base in my life. It's not my thing), Kawasaki's was from being inbetween two techniques of catching. He started ready with the forehand to his left, but being a professional baseball player, quickly recognized that putting the glove open and down was his best bet at catching the ball. Unfortunately his hands weren't as quick as his instincts, as the ball kicked off his glove and rolled five feet behind him. The error was completely inconsequential: Frazier flew out to Rasmus and Votto hit a weak one to Edwin guarding the line. Still 9-5 Cincinnati.
The top of the seventh was time for the major league debut of the awesomely named Jumbo Diaz (being 315 pounds will earn you those kind of nicknames). Diaz retired the first opponent of his big league career, Dioner Navarro, but then things became problematic. Brett Lawrie inside-outed (or Jetered, if you're into that kind of thing) a ball that looked harmless into right-field. It kept carrying, and soon the Boxy Beaumont (Jay Bruce) had run out of room. Lawrie chugged around the bases with a solo shot, while Diaz had a look on his face pretty much saying "Well, these major league hitters are pretty good". It was now 9-6 Cincinnati.
With two out now, Kawasaki Kawasakied a single up the middle, just past the sure-handed glove of Zack Cozart. In came the former Red, Juan Francisco, to pinch hit for the pitcher Jenkins. On a 2-2 count, Francisco jetered a pitch deep down the left-field line. Schumaker ran to the wall, but it wasn't coming back. It was a two run shot, and suddenly it was a one run game. 9-8 Cincinnati.
The bottom of the seventh saw the Reds in full "We're Not Giving Up An Eight Run Lead" mode. Mesoraco crunched a ball off of Sergio Santos into the left-field corner, starting off the inning with a double. Santos battled to score two outs, but Schumaker stung a ball up the middle. It was skipping up the infield dirt, seeming destined for the outfield grass, when Kawasaki dove to his right and snatched it cleanly. With perfect infielder smoothness, he got up to his feet and fired a throw to Edwin's chest, getting Schumaker by several steps. It was a terrific play that saved a run, and the score stayed 9-8 for the Reds.
Things had just got real as far as Cincinnati was concerned, so for the top of the eighth they summoned big setup man Jonathan Broxton, in the middle of the best season of his long relief career. The lead off batter, Melky Cabrera, worked Broxton to a full count before laying off one of Broxton's excellent low and away sinkers (one that easily could've been strike three) to draw a leadoff walk. The batter was Bautista, who rolled over on another low Broxton sinker and hit a one hopper right at Cozart. One hoppers hit right at Cozart usually become double plays, and this one was no different. There were two out and nobody on for Edwin.
One thing you must understand about Broxton, as good as he is when healthy, is that I absolutely hate watching him pitch. The dude is pitching really well for a team I actively support, but when I'm watching a game and he comes in, I can't stand it. I can barely watch, because the guy is soooooooooo damn slow out there. Broxton is a big guy (not quite as big as Jumbo Diaz) and he pitches like it, as though the recovery time from throwing a baseball is the equivalent of jogging ten kilometres. He takes so long between pitches that I've gone to the bathroom during one of his innings, come back and discover he's thrown two pitches to the same hitter that was up when I left (and I take my time with bathroom matters. Er, yeah. Back to the game). So with Broxton in there, I'm always hoping for a really quick inning. With him against the Blue Jays, I either wanted him to get three first pitch groundouts or give up a pair of first pitch homeruns inbetween those first pitch groundouts. If only the Baseball Gods were so kind. Broxton went to a full count with Edwin (after like five minutes of nonsense between pitches) before walking him on an off-speed offering well low of the zone. The tying run was aboard for Navarro. Broxton got him to two strikes also (it took at least three minutes I'm sure) but Navarro flared a ball deep into the split of Hamilton and Schumaker. Edwin ran hard around the bases, getting a good jump thanks to there being two outs, and rounded third with all he had. Hamilton fired it in to the cutoff man, who unleashed a throw home that was much too late to catch Encarnacion. It was an RBI double for Navarro and Toronto had come all the way back from 8-0 to tie it up. Broxton got a weak popup out of Lawrie to end the frame, but the game was tied up at 9-9.
Dustin McGowan entered the bottom of the eighth for Toronto, getting the Reds in order to preserve the tie. So came the top of the ninth, and so came the Chapman. Likely the hardest throwing pitcher on Planet Earth, Chapman had been entirely infallible since his return from a line drive to the face. Yet without the adrenaline of a save situation (the "pathetic" adrenaline of a tie game in its place) the Cuban Missile was off. He walked Rasmus on an inside fastball that Mesoraco had to lunge to catch (I'm thinking Colby was a little further away from the plate than he normally is, what with Chapman being a lefty and all) which started the inning. Kawasaki bunted Rasmus over to second, which brought up Erik Kratz to pinch hit in a big spot. While seeming rather overmatched for most of the at-bat (a 102 mph fastball will do that to a lot of folks), Kratz was finally able to turn on a 3-2 Chapman slider and launch it deep into the Cincinnati night. It was too well struck for Schumaker to bring it back, so it bounced off the wall to score Rasmus, giving Toronto their first lead of the game at 10-9.
Chapman was rattled from here. After striking out Reyes with hot hot heat, he bounced a slider ten feet in front of home plate to Cabrera, moving Kratz to third. Melky worked Chapman to a full count before punching a 101 mph fastball (how the heck do you do that?) into right field, scoring Kratz to give Toronto a two run lead, 11-9.
The Missile stayed in to face Bautista, who drew another full count walk to put two baserunners on. Chapman had already thrown over thirty pitches in the inning, so Reds manager Price went for Sam LeCure to face Edwin. On 2-2, Edwin got the exact same cruddy off-speed pitch Ondrusek had fooled him with, except this time the Toronto slugger did not miss it. The ball was blasted well into the second deck in left-field, scoring three more runs for the Blue Jays and expanding the lead to 14-9 Toronto. Edwin rounded the bases exactly like he had for his first home run of the game: with swagger, determination, hardened focus and outright contempt towards the team that had both brought him into major league baseball and then had later thrown him away. Beyond all the media platitudes and niceties about a man happy with his current situation, how what's in the past is "in the past", Encarnacion had an intent for this game as clear as a Sergio Santos fastball down the middle: retribution.
Edwin's first few seasons in Toronto weren't exactly ones showers with roses, and I think throughout all of those dark times he never let go of the team that had given up on him, the ones who traded him away as an afterthought. Maybe it didn't gnaw away at him like a crippled captain obsessing over a slippery whale (because really, how is a story like that interesting) but it must have always been in the back of his mind, even when things really clicked for him with the Blue Jays. His reaction when he missed that gopher pitch from Ondrusek was unlike anything I've ever seen from Edwin: wild anger and frustration with himself, like Bautista on a grumpy day. This was personal for him, and that third inning home run in an 8-0 game wasn't good enough. He wanted all those Reds fans in the stands who had booed him, written him off, wanted him gone and had been happy to forget about him forever, sitting there helplessly to watch as he showed them what he was truly capable of all along. His second home run was the nail in the coffin for this game and he relished that moment, watching it go from the box and then rounding the bases just slow enough to rub it in but not be a total dick about it. Once again Luis Rivera had to shake his wrist from the force of Edwin's low five.
Despite a five run advantage, Casey Jannsen had already been warming up and well shucks, it's not like we have any other relievers left and in a wacky game like this what the hey! Here comes Casey! It also led to a weird moment for me when my favorite pitcher in major league baseball (Janssen) got to face my favorite hitter (Votto). It was weird, man. Votto's Vottomatic Walk Approach(TM) isn't the kind of thing to work on a strike machine like Janssen, so on 0-2 Votto did something he rarely does: pop up to an infielder. Seriously, look it up. He never does that, it's crazy how good he is. Anyhow, Janssen's awesomeness was dominant in this one, thwarting any hope of a miraculous Reds comeback. FINAL: 14-9 Toronto.
A damned exciting game, to be sure. Toronto used two starting pitchers as pinch runners (Stroman and Hutchison), and Aroldis Chapman gave up more runs in 0.2 innings than he's given up the rest of the season (probably, I'm too lazy to look it up). This as also definitely a game that has proven any momentum theory of heartbreaking loss or comeback wrong: the Reds are 16-7 since blowing an eight run lead to the Blue Jays and are right in the middle of the National League wildcard hunt and Central division crown, while Toronto has gone 7-14 and have squandered their AL East lead, now trailing Baltimore by four games. What's the reason behind this trend? I dunno, I've already written way too many words in this damn article and I'm desperate to wrap it up.
Unless he gets traded (unlikely) or injured (likely), the 2014 Blue Jays are gonna be stuck with Jose Reyes at shortstop. There's no way you ask a guy of Reyes' reputation and caliber to change positions midseason (especially to a position he hasn't played in well over a decade probably) so any dream of him moving to second base I figure are pretty futile. Also, I think at this stage he would be an awful second baseman. He and his glove just aren't quick enough. If the guy starts hitting like he can though, we'll start looking the other way when it comes to his subpar defense. That Bronx team has been doing it with their shortstop for a while so why can't we? Right? Er, uh... never mind. I think I just jetered myself.
Should the team look to trade away their new big three (Dalton Pompey, Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez) for immediate help? I dunno. I don't have all the answers. Why are you asking me? Leave me alone! I'm not a big Sanchez guy anyway (home plate doesn't move but his stuff makes it move it seems) but Norris I'm quite fond of and Pompey blinds me with his Canadianness (and that he plays a pretty darn good centerfield by most accounts. We might need that pretty soon). So it was the right deal for a guy who can really help the team this year and next, I'd be willing to let Sanchez go. But what do I know? Also, I think the team has to first figure out what exactly they need more: starting pitching or hitting.
Reimold looks like a hitter. Too bad he got hurt. Happens to lots of guys. If he can ever be completely healthy for a few years, he could be real good. Candy and Nuts and all that.
The next few weeks are going to be very, very interesting in regards to where this franchise is going for the next little while. Don't forget though, there's still a lot of baseball left to be played in 2014.