TORONTO – The debate over chemistry, whether it exists in baseball and, if so, to what degree it matters, will likely never be completely settled.
The question gets asked often these days, whether these Blue Jays get along better this year than they did in 2013. The assumption seems to be that they do because they're winning more than they're losing.
J.A. Happ, who along with Mark Buehrle are the only two current Jays to take part in an on-field world championship celebration, summed it up.
“You just feed off each other,” he said. “The music's better. The jokes are better. Everything's better when you're winning. That's kind of the way it goes. People start getting louder. You feed off that. You feed off people's personalities.”
It's a chicken and egg deal. Winning is the egg, which begets the chicken that is chemistry.
More to the point, manager John Gibbons has settled into a number of roster combinations that are producing results. Helping him in this endeavour is a cadre of players who began the season at Triple-A Buffalo.
“We've got a handful of them,” said manager John Gibbons. “We brought [Steve] Tolleson up to be the second baseman against left-handers. He's doing a great job with that. Of course Gose and Pillar, filling in for Colby, have been a pretty good combo there. Kratzy's been up and down a couple of times, but he's fit in. They're all contributing.”
Juan Francisco, signed off the scrap heap when the Milwaukee Brewers decided late in spring they didn't want to pay him despite an 18-home run season last year, is hitting .280/.370/.602 (.973 OPS) with eight home runs.
Anthony Gose entered Monday's action with a slash line of .296/.457/.407. Three of his eight hits are doubles. He's walked seven times against eight strikeouts, a small sample size, but a great ratio nonetheless. Gose has two stolen bases, but anyone who's watched him play knows he's created runs with his speed and prevented runs with his defence.
After a slow start, Kevin Pillar looks up and sees a .304 batting average. Erik Kratz has three home runs in just 45 at-bats. Tolleson, in a small sample size, is hitting better than .300 and has posted a .946 OPS.
Gibbons has also established batteries for all three of his catchers. Kratz has become J.A. Happ's personal catcher. Josh Thole serves the same role for R.A. Dickey. Dioner Navarro is behind the plate for every Mark Buehrle start.
“He's able to give Navarro a little bit of a breather,” said Gibbons of Kratz. “Against left-handed pitching you can DH (Navarro). That's where we feel we're strongest.”
Against right-handed starting pitching, Francisco plays third base and Lawrie second base. Lawrie heads over to third base, where he's most comfortable, when the opposition starts a left-hander. Tolleson plays second.
The Jays have a fearsome late-game bench when the opponent starts a lefty. Adam Lind and Francisco are lingering, waiting for their names to be called.
“As the game goes on, the only place you're vulnerable, you get to a certain point of the game they're always going to have that lefty ready,” said Gibbons. “Teams that have enough lefties (in the bullpen), you're waiting on Lind or Francisco. But I think it makes us stronger.”
The bullpen has settled down since the return of Casey Janssen, who's converted all seven save opportunities since his return from a strained oblique muscle.
Gibbons is most pleased with the progress he's seeing from the rotation.
“It all revolves around starting pitching, you know,” said Gibbons. “If starting pitching's good, you've got a chance. If it's not, it's tough. I don't care what kind of offence you've got, what kind of defence you've got - that's the key to any team in baseball.
Check the May ERA of the four rotation mainstays to see the improvement.
Drew Hutchison (including Monday night): 5 starts, 3.94
Mark Buehrle: 2.16
R.A. Dickey: 2.73
J.A. Happ: 3.20
On the disabled list since May 13 with tightness in his right hamstring, Colby Rasmus is sprinting his way toward a rehab assignment.
“He was out there running and shagging during early BP,” said Gibbons. “We'll see in the next few days what happens.”
Rasmus sprinted the infield cutout on Saturday and the warning track on Sunday. While he's eligible to return from the disabled list on Wednesday, Rasmus will be sent out on a minor-league rehabilitation assignment before rejoining the Blue Jays.
SANTOS PLAYING CATCH
Sergio Santos played catch for the third-straight day on Monday afternoon. He's recovering from a strained right forearm.
“He feels pretty good,” said Gibbons. “No soreness at all. So like Colby, we don't know how long it's going to be for him. He's got to build up a little bit, of course.”
Santos can be activated off the disabled list at any time - he's been out since May 10 - but he'll throw at least two bullpen sessions before heading out on a minor-league rehabilitation assignment.
There's no timetable for Santos's return to the Blue Jays.