DETROIT – Pat Hentgen isn't traveling with the Blue Jays this season, having ceded his role as bullpen coach to Bob Stanley in order to spend time with his ailing father, but his eyes light up at the mention of the ballclub.
"You know I watch every single game, right?"
He once again holds the title of special assistant to the organization, which affords Hentgen the opportunity to rove through the minor league system. He's at home a lot, he needs to be with his dad battling cancer, but he may as well be at the field with the way he scrutinizes each development.
"Buehrle's great start right off the top, 10-1 is huge, it reminds you of what Buchholz did last year for the Red Sox," said Hentgen. "On top of that, Dickey's solid. Hutch is solid. The starting rotation's been pretty solid overall so I think that's been a big difference."
The statistics back Hentgen up. How many times did you hear general manager Alex Anthopoulos say, last year, no team that ranks in the bottom five in starting staff ERA has a chance to compete? The answer: more than a few times. The Blue Jays' starters' ERA of 3.77 ranks 14th in baseball and is the best in the American League East. Last year, only the Minnesota Twins had a worse staff ERA than Toronto's.
Rare was the occasion last season, when Hentgen presided over the disappointing club's bullpen, its greatest strength, its best players were on the field at the same time. Brett Lawrie missed the start of the season with a strained oblique. Jose Reyes rolled his ankle in the second week of the season and Lawrie, back from the oblique, did the same in late May. The two weren't on the field together until after the All-Star Break and by then, it didn't matter because the Jays were out of the race.
Now, Lawrie is the key to manager John Gibbons' rotation which features Juan Francisco at third base against right-handed starting pitching and Steve Tolleson at second base against left-handers. Lawrie fills the positional void on the infield.
"I like the fact that they're getting platoons because sometimes those guys need the rest," said Hentgen. "When you run the same nine guys out there every single day, it's not easy for the position players, especially on our turf. The rotation of the designated hitters is a nice move."
Blue Jays fans old enough to remember Hentgen's heyday will recall his nasty, looping curveball. Naturally, Hentgen's impressed with 23-year-old rookie Marcus Stroman.
"He really spins the ball well, really well actually," said Hentgen. "I think he's got multiple looks with his breaking ball. He can curve it, he can slide it, he can cut it, you know, talented guy. I think he's just got to focus on staying on top of the ball and driving the ball down with his fastball, especially when he's behind in the count. He's got great stuff and he's a hell of a competitor."
What about adjustments? Stroman made the likes of Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler look silly on two-strike curveballs last Saturday. Stroman will start Friday night's opener against St. Louis and surely, the Cardinals will have a better book on the young righthander.
"Second time through the league, you have to make an adjustment as a pitcher because the hitters will and I think that he will," said Hentgen. "He's athletic enough and he's good enough. He's just a young guy who's trying to get his feet wet here and get established. He's got a great start under his belt already and probably looking forward to his next start here. I think he shouldn't change a thing. He should go at St. Louis like he just did against Kansas City."
Hentgen isn't trying to split the atom with his analysis of the current Blue Jays. Continued good health, he believes, is the key.
"The starting pitchers have got to stay healthy," said Hentgen. "The key relievers, the core guys out there, they have to stay healthy and obviously the position players. We saw what happened last year when we lost Reyes and Lawrie and Jose (Bautista). It's not easy when you lose three-fifths of your rotation and three of your position players."
Encarnacion's Special Month
Edwin Encarnacion is the American League Player of the Month for May, the first time in his career he's been awarded the honour.
"It's a lot more special for me because the way we've been playing, we've been winning games so that's the more important thing for me and my teammates," said Encarnacion. "It's nothing about just myself. It's just something that we want to play like a team and win like the way we've been doing so that's made it more special."
The numbers don't lie. Encarnacion's 16 home runs in May set a Blue Jays franchise mark for a single month; he became only the third player in major league history to have five multi-home run games in a single month (Harmon Killebrew – May, 1959 and Albert Belle – September, 1995). He led the league with a .763 slugging percentage and 22 extra-base hits.
Encarnacion is also putting together a strong season at first base.
"I feel very proud about my defence," said Encarnacion. "I worked very hard during the offseason. It's something you have to do great. If you don't play good defence, you can't win games."
When the Blue Jays face a right-handed starting pitcher, Adam Lind and Juan Francisco are in the lineup. Manager John Gibbons has, typically, employed two different middle-of-the-order constructs in these situations.
Gibbons picked the latter for Tuesday's game against Tigers' right-hander Anibal Sanchez.
"We've bounced them back and forth a couple of times," said Gibbons. "Tonight, I'm looking at Eddie. You know, Sanchez has been tough on Francisco. He's got the good breaking ball and good off-speed stuff so space them out a little bit."
Gibbons went with the first lineup on Sunday, a 4-0 win over the Royals and right-hander Jeremy Guthrie.
"The other day against Guthrie, I mean Francisco had three home runs off him in six at-bats," said Gibbons. "I just look at the pitcher we're facing, this guy can maybe give him trouble, maybe that's the case, protect Eddie with Lindy there instead."
Colby Rasmus is rehabbing his injured right hamstring in Dunedin, Florida without a timeline for his return to the Blue Jays.
His skipper hasn't received any updates of late.
"No," said manager John Gibbons. "When I do, I'll let you know."
Rasmus has been on the disabled list since May 13. The word is he's progressing toward getting into game action.
As for Sergio Santos, out since May 10 with a strained right forearm, he's scheduled to throw a bullpen session at Comerica Park on Thursday. If that goes well, he'll throw another bullpen session in Toronto on Sunday. If that goes well, Santos expects to join the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons on a rehabilitation assignment next week.