"Wow! How many home runs are you gonna hit with that bat?"
"Let's see... we play thirty games, ten at-bats a game... three thousand."
As I write this, it's May 11th. The Toronto Blue Jays are 16-16, four games back of the surprisingly good New York Yankees. The start for the Bluebirds so far has felt disappointing: the pitching staff has inspired some to mention the 1970s teams (I wasn't there, I wouldn't know) and every established starting pitcher has performed below expectations. The bullpen has also fallen short of expectations, like a big fight hyped for years that ultimately goes to judge's decision (wait, bad example). Not everybody in the pen has been bad: My namesake Liam Hendriks has pitched well enough to deserve a larger role (still waiting, Gibby), Brett Cecil is starting to get the feel for his curve back after his shoulder issue, and Aaron Loup gonna keep Loupin' yo.
The biggest mistake (and thus debate) thus far has been throwing Miguel Castro into the ninth inning, which worked briefly before not working equally quickly. Look, I can understand the reasoning: the kid was lights out, Cecil still wasn't at full strength, so why the heck not? Once again, this seems to come down to that Ninth Inning Mystique(TM). Maybe it takes an actual big league pitcher to take on that type of situation, a guy with enough experience to compensate when his stuff isn't sharp to still be able to retire the best hitters in the world. Maybe there's a reason why nobody else uses 20 years with electric arms to close games for them. Castro has that arm, but it takes time and many innings to learn the finer points of pitching under that level of assumed pressure. Most importantly, how to use what you have when the "A" stuff isn't there. Castro was dominating when his stuff was so overwhelming, but he hasn't pitched that same way when it doesn't.
Roberto Osuna, on the other hand... well, may he continue to prosper so I can write about him next month. To the game!
April 18 -- Atlanta Braves at Toronto Blue Jays
The Jays haven't really played that many exciting games so far. I blame all the 11-9 slugfests. Eventually in games like that, you know they're gonna score and you're gonna score. It becomes the baseball version of Beat The Clock. There isn't the same tension as a 2-1 grind, where a runner at third with less than two out is so very significant.
Anyway, this matchup featured Braves hurler Alex Wood up against R.A Dickey (hey, keep those jokes to yourself. The GotM is a family program, damnit!). Cameron Maybin began the game with a fly out to centerfield, but the #2 batter Alberto Callaspo (really!) laced a single into left-field. The wily old knuckleballer started fighting the strikezone: #3 hitter Nick Markakis (yeah! really!) drew a five pitch walk, as did cleanup man Freddie Freeman (that's more like it). Suddenly the bases were loaded with only one out, Braves third bagger Chris Johnson coming up. Johnson pounded a ball deep to right-field that sent Jose Bautista to the warning track. It came down just in time to stay in the park and land in Bautista's glove, but it was more than deep enough to score Callaspo. 1-0 Atlanta. A.J Pierzynski worked Dickey to a ten pitch at-bat before striking out to end the inning. In came Alex Wood. You know, in this age of generic pitching windups, it is refreshing to see somebody with a unique delivery. Wood's reminds me of a really tall person having to constantly duck under a low ceiling, or that tab you have to pull to launch a pinball. Josh Donaldson bashed a one out single up the middle but went no further thanks to a Bautista double play. After one, 1-0 Braves.
The top of the second inning began with Dickey striking out Jonny Gomes, who had proved to be an enormous splinter in the palm of the Blue Jays all series. This particular knuckler was so eager to escape contact, it missed Gomes' bat and Russell Martin's glove entirely. It bounced away from Martin, but Gomes stood in the box without moving, thinking he'd fouled the pitch off. It is quite possible he didn't believe he could've missed the pitch that badly, and so the sound of the ball hitting Martin's pads convinced Gomes he actually put wood on it. Next was Kelly Johnson, who bopped a ball into right-field that Bautista made a nice sliding backhand snag on before it could touch the carpet. With two out, up came Andrelton Simmons. Not keen on swinging at the thing, Simmons showed bunt and deadened one right between Martin and Dickey, thirty feet in front of home plate. Dickey charged in, barehanded the ball, and with the gracefulness of a Klingon doing ballet, launched himself and the ball towards first-base. R.A. is a fabulous defensive pitcher, but his style points are better defined as "goofy" than "smooth". It was a fabulous play. The ball beat Simmons by a step and the inning was over. Still 1-0 Atlanta.
The bottom of the second began with Edwin Encarnacion grounding out to shortstop. Danny Valencia followed that by bashing one into center-right field for a single, but despite stealing his way into scoring position neither Martin or Kevin Pillar could drive him in, so the score remained 1-0. The top of the third was the R.A. Dickey Dramatic Traveling High Knuckleball Show, being for the benefit of Mr. Kite of course. Dickey fooled Cameron Maybin to swing and miss a high one for a strikeout, and did the exact same to Callaspo. Both pitches started in the exact same spot, the exact same speed, but moved in opposite directions (Maybin's fluttered away, Callaspo's darted in on his hands). The third act of the Show however saw Nick Markakis ask for his money back, as Dickey threw one on a full count a good two feet outside of the zone, walking Markakis. Freddie Freeman was another unsatisfied customer, but instead of asking for a refund, Freeman took a hammer and bashed down the entire tent. It was a low and in knuckler that didn't knuckle, and just like that it was 3-0 Atlanta. Chris Johnson ended the inning with a groundout. I suppose there's always the DVD market.
Now armed with a 3-0 lead, Alex Wood took to the hill in the bottom of the third. Feeling a bit more aggressive, he challenged Steve Tolleson with a dead-red fastball on 0-2, which The Utilityman (come on, that should totally be his nickname) lined past a diving Callaspo into centerfield. After Dalton Pompey lined out, Devon Travis was next. Red hot Devon Travis, hitting every pitch a mile, leading the team in so many offensive categories at this point. So red hot that he, bounced a ball right at Wood, who started a routine 1-6-3 double play. Ah, baseball will do that to you. After three, 3-0 Atlanta.
Sportsnet was barely out of commercial break (they'd shown the boxscore for a split second) when A.J. Pierzynski hijacked Dickey's first pitch and took it for a joyride just over the right-field wall. 4-0 Atlanta. It amuses me somewhat to imagine all the fans watching this game live, going to the bathroom or into the kitchen between the third and fourth innings, only to come out just in time to see Pierzynski rounding the bases. "What the hell? All I did was grab some tortilla chips! They got another run already? You suck Dickey!" Well, if you write it in giant letters on Mount Shelbyville, that way they will know that they suck. Well, Dickey managed to limit any further suckyness by retiring the remaining Braves in order, leaving it 4-0 heading into the bottom of the fourth. Josh Donaldson began it by drawing a well earned walk against Wood. Bautista popped out, then Edwin Encarnacion ruined that well-earned walk by hitting a double play ball at Andrelton Simmons. This is also known as Death and Taxes. After four innings, Atlanta remained in control, 4-0.
The fifth inning began with a Dickey knuckleball hypnotizing Maybin yet again, catching him looking at one high and tight. Callaspo was also caught in a similar trance, swinging and missing a knuckler up at his eyeballs for the second out. The deja-vu of the second inning continued when Markakis drew yet another walk (his third of the game) bringing up Freeman, who had crushed one into the second deck in that second inning. This time however, Freeman rolled over on that low knuckleball, grounding out harmlessly to Devon Travis who slung the ball over to first. The spell was broken. Once again, the commercial break had hardly finished when Danny Valencia began the bottom of the fifth by hijacking a Wood fastball, blasting it into the left-center gap for a leadoff double. Martin grounded out to Simmons and could not advance the runner, but Pillar was next and miraculously laid off an outside full count slider from Wood, drawing the walk. The tying run was suddenly on deck, Tolleson up. All this excitement and tension lasted all of... one pitch, as Tolleson chopped a ball right at the second baseman Callaspo, resulting in an easy double play to end the fifth inning. Toronto was getting runners on base, but the twin killings were, well, killing them. 4-0 Atlanta after five.
To the top of the sixth, which was an extremely efficient one for Dickey. He retired the side in order (including a nice snag on a high comebacker to his left) on eleven pitches, ten of them strikes. The bottom of six arrived with Pompey trying to bunt his way aboard, but popping out back to the catcher instead. Travis opted for the more common method of swinging his way aboard, and did so with a high bouncing single over the head of the third baseman. With insane range, Simmons charged over to retrieve the ball in shallow left-field and fired it over to second to keep Travis at first. It's utterly ridiculous how good that guy's glove is. After a deep fly out off the bat of Donaldson, Bautista unleashed a mighty swing, sending the ball hundreds of feet... straight up. Simmons caught it and the sixth was over, the Braves still leading 4-0.
Dickey returned for the top of the seventh and it was a ground ball gala: Kelly Johnson bounced out to the shortstop Tolleson, Simmons hit one sharply up the middle that only he could've possibly made a play of, and then both Maybin and Callaspo hit two hoppers right at Donaldson, which he fired to Travis at second base for force outs each time. No damage, Atlanta was still in front. The bottom of the seventh saw Edwin just miss one (he's been doing a lot of that so far), hitting it deep to centerfield for the first out. Valencia was next and Wood, clearly forgetting that Valencia eats a big hearty bowl of Lefty-O's for breakfast every morning, tried to sneak in a 2-2 fastball low and in, which was smashed off the wall for a one out double. Next up was Martin, who went with a high outside Wood pitch and laced it the other way, dropping it in front of Markakis. Valencia raced around third and scored without trouble. 4-1. Up came Pillar, who was in Jumpy Pillar mode and popped out to first base on Wood's second pitch to him. Two out, Martin at first and Tolleson batting. This time, The Utilityman delivered the tools with an opposite field gap shot, splitting Maybin and Markakis as they chased the ball all the way to the wall. Martin scored, while Tolleson chugged all the way to third base for a triple, which was slightly funny to watch. 4-2, Pompey up at the plate as the tying run. Wood (still in the game) jammed Dalton with a slider low and in, which Pompey hit as a slow grounder to the left of Simmons. Simmons snagged it and fired to first, the ball hitting Freeman's glove just around when Pompey's foot hit the bag. The first base umpire called him safe, to which Braves manager Freddi Gonzalez immediately challenged to no avail. The grounder scored Tolleson, making it 4-3. (The replay showed the ball might have hit Freeman's glove an instant before Pompey hit the bag, but understandably the evidence to overturn the call wasn't strong enough).
This was it for Alex Wood. In came reliever Brandon Cunniff, starting a trend in this game of awesomely named Braves relief pitchers. With the tying run at first in Pompey, Cunniff faced Devon Travis, whom he got to hit a blooper right between left-field, centerfield and shortstop. Unfortunately for Travis, that shortstop happened to be Andrelton Simmons. Simmons ran full speed backwards, the new Dome turf following his tracks like that cloud of dust that follows Roadrunner (I stole that from someone but it's the best description there is) and made a ridiculous basket catch with his back to home plate, ending the inning. But it had been a big inning for the Blue Jays, scoring three times and pulling themselves right back in the game. 4-3 Atlanta after seven.
Colt Hynes (remember him?) was summoned for the Bluebirds to pitch the top of the eighth. A logical move, considering two lefties (Markakis and Freeman) were scheduled to bat. Well, Hynes didn't do his "Can I stick around? Pleeeease?" cause any favours, giving up singles to both those batters to start the inning. Gibbons had seen enough of that, coming out quickly (as quickly as Gibbons can do that) to snatch the ball from Hynes. Now it was Liam Hendriks, brought in to bail the Blue Jays out of this jam and possibly save any chance of winning the game. Chris Johnson was up and smacked a Hendriks offering deep to center, right into the glove of a backtracking Dalton Pompey. Markakis tagged and advanced to third, putting runners at the corners with one out. It was an excellent time for a double play, until a Hendriks pitch bounced off of Martin and rolled left, too close to the plate to score Markakis but far enough to advance Freeman to second. So much for that. A.J. Pierzynski was the batter, and so Hendriks said enough of this double play stuff and threw a nasty 1-2 slider down and in, which Pierzynski whiffed on completely (In subtle Pierzynski fashion, he practically had a seizure of rage upon missing it). Two out now for Jonny Gomes, who also fell into a 1-2 count against Hendriks. Figuring it worked the first time, he threw the same pitch in the same spot to Gomes, who swung and missed it about as badly as Pierzynski had. Hendriks had escaped the jam without damage. It was still a one run game, 4-3. Onions, baby.
The bottom of the eighth brought out a Braves reliever named Cody Martin, who I confess doesn't have a particularly amusing name. Josh Donaldson led off the inning by whacking a Martin offering right in the hole between shortstop and third. Naturally, Simmons managed to dive and come up with the ball, but it spilled out of his glove allowing Donaldson to reach. Yes, even Andrelton Simmons cannot microwave a burrito so hot he himself cannot eat it. Up came Jose Bautista, who you know would try to eat that burrito anyway. He's Jose Freaking Bautista. Martin fell behind 1-0, so he decided to challenge Jose. Bad idea, try again next time (or not). Bautista crushed it into the second deck, giving the home team their first lead in the entire game. Toronto suddenly led by one, 5-4. Martin stayed in, getting Edwin to ground out, giving up a single to Danny Valencia and getting a double play off the bat of Russell Martin, winning the Battle of The Martins. But the damage was done: the Blue Jays had the lead heading into the ninth, making it Miguel Castro time.
Kelly Johnson led off the ninth for the Braves. Like a good troll facing his former team, he worked Castro to 2-0 before smashing a Castro offering deep into the centerfield-right field gap. Pompey went back, tracking it all the way to the wall, leapt and... it was over his glove for a game tying home run. 5-5. To make it feel worse, Pompey landed rather gracelessly on his behind after attempting the jump, reminding me of a forlorn little leaguer who'd been waiting all game for a ball to be hit to him, only to have that one ball just go out of his reach. No, your analogies are too specific! Anyhow, the game was now tied and Castro was looking shaky. After getting the next two batters out, Callaspo singled and advanced to second base on a wild pitch. Up was Markakis, who launched a ball deep into the left-field gap. Kevin Pillar chugged as best he could, closing distance but the ball kept sailing. Then, as though everyone in the Dome were collectively blowing breath at it to slow it down, the ball hung up just enough for Pillar to bring it down at the warning track. Three nail chewing outs to be sure, but the Blue Jays had a chance to win it in the bottom of the ninth.
In for Atlanta was Luis Avilan (okay, that's not bad. Avilan could be a Roxy Music song or something). After retiring Pillar, Avilan coaxed a high hopper off the bat of Ryan Goins. The ball bounced to Freeman at first, who underhanded it to Avilan covering the base just as Goins slid head first in there. Goins was called out and Gibbons challenged right away. The replay was extremely close, but Avilan's foot beat Goins' hand by about two inches, and the call was upheld. Pompey drew a two out walk but would get no further as Travis took a ball for a ride deep to right-field, right-into an Atlanta glove. This one was heading to extras, tied at 5-5.
Brett Cecil was tasked with keeping the Braves off the scoresheet for the 10th inning, and did so rather spectacularly. First was Freddie Freeman, who worked a full count before being caught looking at a Cecil fastball (probably) on the black of the plate. Rookie Jace Peterson was next and rapped a grounder just past Josh Donaldson and into left-field for a one out single. Feeling pretty good about himself, Peterson took a big lead and noticing Cecil's slow leg kick, thought why not sneak his way into scoring position. Unfortunately for him, Cecil was feeling clairvoyant this day, throwing over to first just as the rookie was taking off first move. Peterson was caught hung up between first and second, which rarely ends well for a baserunner. To his credit, he committed to just trying to steal the base, making for a close(ish) tag at second, but he was clearly toast for the second out of the inning. The last chance for the Braves in the 10th was Pierzynski. The ageless/horribly aged catcher bounced one that Edwin dove for, came up with and shoveled to Cecil covering the bag for the third out of the inning. You know, I feel Edwin gets a bad defensive reputation at first base and rightfully so, because there are many aspects to the job he isn't suited for, like PICKING BAD THROWS. But his range isn't bad, and this play in particular is one I'm not sure Smoak makes because Edwin is just a bit quicker off his feet. Take that for what it's worth. Heading into the bottom of the 10th, still tied 5-5.
And here is what I've been talking about all game! Well, aside from the baseball action itself. The awesome names of the Atlanta relievers! Because for the bottom of the 10th, the Braves brought in a pitcher named Sugar Ray Marimon, which actually seems to be his real first name. I'm not kidding. I checked Baseball Reference, Wikipedia and Google and couldn't find any clue of a different given name. I really want this guy to have a big league career. Why wouldn't you? Well, this was his second big league game and the first man he faced this outing was Josh Donaldson. After missing with the first pitch, Marimon came high and away with an off-speed pitch. Donaldson stayed back and drove it deep into left-field. Eric Young Jr. went back, to the track, to the wall, but ran out of room. Donaldson had gone yard and the game was over. The Blue Jays had won it. And high on Mount Shelbyville, it read: Josh Donaldson Rules, Suckers! FINAL: 6-5 Toronto.
There is only one thought that comes to mind when Kevin Pillar is mentioned: what a weird, weird player. He seems like somebody from a universe long ago, where his incurable allergy to walks would be forgiven among the moustached masses. As a ballplayer, he reminds me of one of those items you get after beating a boss in Super Mario Bros 3: useful in most situations, but extremely useful in certain ones. As a hitter, he is what he is. At worst, you save him for that level where the giant fish tries to eat you. Everybody needs help with that level.
I can't help but think the atrocious pitching has hidden a major issue for the Bluebirds this year: injuries. And fair enough, the only injured pitcher of any significance is that Duke college student. Ha, kids these days, turning demoralizing injuries into opportunities for self-improvement. Where does it end???? Anyway, the injuries to the big league team have all been on the hitting side (Reyes' ribs, Bautista's shoulder, Navarro's hamstring, Saunders' everything probably). But that storyline has been lost because of how well the team has been able to score runs despite those absences. I certainly wasn't eagerly awaiting Michael Saunders to return solely because the offense was in the toilet, and unless he's replacing Chris Colabello I doubt he'll be much of a defensive upgrade with that knee problem, which is sure to bark at him again at some point. Hopefully this latest DL stint can give him the rest to actually get completely healthy, because he clearly wasn't. Can't blame a guy for wanting to rush back on the field though, especially for a new team.
As I'm sure so many of you are sick of me bonking you over the head with, I also follow the Cincinnati Reds quite closely. So here's a new segment where I briefly take a look at my National League squad. So far they're... um... okay. They've pretty much had the exact same season as the Blue Jays so far, with minor differences. Always a strong pitching outfit in recent years, the Reds have had four pitchers perform tremendously great so far: Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, Aroldis Chapman and Anthony DeSclafani. J.J. Hoover has been solid so far out of the pen, but he's J.J. Hoover and I can't get over a guy who went 1-10 out of the bullpen last season. What's weird is every other pitcher has been anywhere between really bad and Sergio Santos 2014. Compare that with the Blue Jays, who have nobody pitching as well as those tremendous four but have a bunch of guys at a "meh" level the Reds would love to get. Other storylines in Cincinnati include the resurgence of Joey Votto's power (hell yeah), Zack Cozart actually hitting (scary) and Todd Frazier launching lots of home runs with nobody on base (10 bombs, 19 RBIs). They're hanging around .500 for now, so we'll check in on them next time.
That's it! See you next month. Come on boys, give me a pitching duel or something. Those are quicker to write at least...
You can watch the condensed version of this game here! At MLB.com: http://m.mlb.com/video/v79179483/41815-condensed-game-atltor