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Steve Phillips

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The Toronto Blue Jays had a chance to catch their breath on Thursday after returning from the west coast, with just the final stretch run of 10 straight games remaining in the season. The Jays went 4-3 on the road trip, so overall it was a success. It would have been nice to steal the Wednesday game after the dramatic Jose Bautista homer to tie it in the ninth inning, but they just couldn’t pull it off.

The Jays have their starting pitching lined up to face the Yankees in the next four games. Francisco Liriano starts Friday, Marcus Stroman on Saturday, Marco Estrada on Sunday and J.A. Happ on Monday. The Yankees are just 21-24 against left-handed starters this year, so tossing two lefties at them makes sense. Estrada is very effective against left-handed hitters as well with his cutter and changeup.

Toronto’s starting rotation pitched pretty well over the last seven days, and the bullpen has been solid for the most part. In fact, the Jays have the best staff earned-run average (ERA) in the American League over the last week.  
 
Offensively the Jays have been hit and miss this year. It is good to see Josh Donaldson hit one out of the ballpark on the road. It was the first time in a while that his bottom half really worked in his swing. It appears his hip is feeling better. Edwin Encarnacion can be streaky and it looks like he is hot. It was really good to see Bautista contribute with contact instead of walks. His big game-tying homer on Wednesday may be the start of something big.  

It is always good when the horses deliver, but the Jays’ offence is explosive when the complementary guys are also swinging the bats well. Michael Saunders has struggled miserably since the All-Star break. His big homer on the road may get him going. Devon Travis has been pretty consistent at the plate all season. The Jays can put up crooked numbers in multiple innings when Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin are driving the ball. There is reason to hope the offence is ready to break out.  
 
The biggest concern is the team defence. The Jays gave up six unearned runs on their seven-game road trip. You just can’t give good teams extra outs and baserunners. Toronto paid a price for their defensive deficiencies against the Angels and Mariners. They will need to clean that up immediately if they are going to maintain their position in the wild-card race.  
 
Overall, I’m optimistic that the Jays will play well over last week and a half of the season.

Sanchez is something special
 
The Jays are certainly going to have to come up with a plan against Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez.  The 23-year-old rookie has turned The Big Apple upside down with his torrid start. He is hitting .337 with 19 homers and 38 RBI in 44 games this season. He hits it hard and far. He has thunder in his bat. No player has ever reached 19 homers quicker than Sanchez.

Tampa Bay Rays’ manager Kevin Cash learned the hard way earlier this week that you should pitch around the young man whenever possible. The Yankees had runners on second and third with one out and Sanchez coming to the plate. Brad Boxberger, a Tampa Bay reliever, was allowed to pitch to Sanchez and paid a painful price as Sanchez took him deep. With Billy Butler on deck, it made no sense to let the youngster hit. He should have been walked.  
 
The manager and pitching coach identify the one hitter on the other team they will not let beat them before every game. Despite his inexperience, Sanchez is that guy on the Yankees. I expect that John Gibbons and pitching coach Pete Walker will not make the same mistake the Rays did.

It is way too early to predict how the young catcher’s career will go, but it couldn’t have gotten off to a better start. He will go through struggles at some point. The league will make an adjustment and he will have a slump. At some point pitchers will find something to get him out. It will be up to the young man to figure it out and adjust.  
 
To tell you how good Sanchez has been, he would get my vote for American League Rookie of the Year despite the fact that he hasn’t even been up for a third of the season.

Detroit Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer is the other leading candidate for the award. He is 10-7 with a 3.03 ERA in 24 games started and 148.2 innings pitched.  He was the Tigers best pitcher early in the season while Justin Verlander was figuring himself out. Fulmer has slowed a bit as the Tigers have protected his innings late in the season.  

Tyler Naquin, the Indians centre fielder, is a candidate as well. He is hitting .301 with 14 homers and 42 RBI. His .911 OPS is the best on his team. Both Fulmer and Naquin are worthy candidates, but what Sanchez has done is historic. His performance trumps what the others have done, despite his limited playing time.  
 
A crowded wild-card race

The Jays currently cling to the first wild-card spot after the Detroit Tigers passed the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday night as the second wild-card team.  

As much as the Blue Jays would like to focus on the Red Sox in front of them in the standings, it’s hard not to be paranoid with all of the noise behind them. The Tigers, Astros, Mariners, Yankees and Orioles are in their rear-view mirror.

All of these teams have talent, but they also have flaws that lead to inconsistency. That’s why every team in the race has been streaky over the course of the season. The team that gets hot last may walk away a winner. It’s not always the best teams that win, but rather the teams that play the best. That is especially true when there aren’t many games left on the schedule.
 
The Orioles have been vulnerable to the four hard-charging teams because of their unpredictable starting pitching. They were finally caught and their fade may continue as their starting pitching woes deepen. Baltimore is pushing back young starter Kevin Gausman due to an intercostal strain. The Jays will get the most quality starts over the last 10 games, which should give them the best chance to advance. Starting pitching has separated the Jays from the pack all season long.
 
The Tigers have the powerhouse veteran offence but their bullpen can collapse on the bridge from the starter to closer Francisco Rodriguez. The Astros have a fiery lineup with shaky starting pitching and a solid bullpen. The Mariners have pretty good starting pitching and a decent bullpen. They have horses in the lineup, and if they can get Robbie Cano to the plate with runners on base in a close game he has a chance to be the star. The Yankees are motivated to prove everyone wrong. They sold at the deadline, but Sanchez has elevated the entire team’s energy and belief. Unfortunately, the Yanks are skipping Masahiro Tanaka’s next start because of a strained forearm. Tanaka is by far their best and most consistent starter. His absence could really hurt the Yanks’ psyche.  
 
The teams that make the Orioles and Jays most vulnerable are the Tigers and Astros. The Tigers play the Royals, Indians and Braves to finish the season. The Astros play the Angels, Mariners and then the Angels again. The Orioles play the Diamondbacks, Jays and Yankees over the last week and a half.  The Jays play the Yankees, Orioles and Red Sox. Clearly, the Jays have the toughest remaining schedule as they play the three other teams in the AL East that are still in the playoff hunt.

My prediction: The Jays will hold on to the first wild-card spot and the Tigers and Astros will tie for the second spot. The Tigers will beat the Astros in the one-game playoff to win the opportunity to play the Jays.

Spitting Seeds

- The Braves have had a tough season, but there have been a few highlights. Freddie Freeman has shown why the Braves have refused all inquiries about acquiring his services. He now has a 42-game on-base streak. The team’s offence has blossomed since they traded for Matt Kemp.  Prior to the deal they were averaging 3.4 runs per game with a .661 OPS. Since the trade they are averaging 5.3 with a .794 OPS. That’s about the same bump the Mets had last year after the Yoenis Cespedes deal. In addition to the veterans, the Braves have gotten a boost from rookie shortstop Dansby Swanson (.314/.363/.422). If you are going to lose, lose with a purpose; figure out who is part of the problem and who is part of the solution.  

- Give the New York Mets credit. No team in baseball has shown as much resiliency. They lost 75 per cent of their infield to injury and 60 per cent of their rotation. Last year they made the postseason because of the amazing powerful young arms in their rotation. Now Matt Harvey and Jacob DeGrom have had surgery and it feels like Steven Matz may be headed that way.  Don’t forget that Noah Syndergaard is still pitching with bone spurs in his elbow.

This week has tested the club’s strength of character at the highest level.  On Wednesday night, it looked like the Mets were going to avoid a sweep at the hands of the Braves as Yoenis Cespedes sent a ninth-inning drive to the right centre field wall. It appeared that the Mets were going to pull off a dramatic walk-off win with a three-run homer. Then Braves’ centre fielder Ender Inciarte climbed the wall and brought the ball back with an unreal catch. The Braves won and the Mets lost. It is the kind of absolutely devastating play that could make grown men cry. Inciarte snatched the ball and the Mets snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory.

The normal reaction to a play like that would be for the players to think that the world is conspiring against them. They could have felt like victims, but instead they shook it off and battled. On Thursday, the Mets came from behind three times and beat the Phillies on a walk-off three-run homer in the 11th inning by Asdrubal Cabrera. That was about as impressive a win as I have seen this year considering the circumstances. It may just get the Mets to the playoffs.

- If the Mets, Cardinals and Giants end in a three-way tie for the National League Wild Card here is what happens:  The Cardinals would be designated as team A, the Mets team B and the Giants team C. The Mets would travel to St. Louis to play the Cardinals.

The winner would be the first wild-card team. The loser would travel to San Francisco to play the Giants. The winner of that game would then travel to St Louis to play the wild-card game.

I am not sure how the Mets, as the second best position among the three teams, would potentially have to play two road games. Yes, they have two shots at possibly making the wild card, but I would rather be in the position that the Giants are. They play at home and the game is after the other two teams already play each other. The loser of the Cards/Mets game would have to travel across two time zones and will most likely have burned their ace. It just doesn’t feel right.

I think that if the Mets lose the game against the Cardinals they should get to play the Giants at home in New York, not in San Fran. That way all three teams have a shot at a home game.

- What has happened to Baltimore?  I mean the fans, not the team. It has long been considered a great baseball town but it is proving to be completely the opposite. The O’s have averaged just over 26,000 fans per game on the season, but in three of the four games against the Boston Red Sox they had fewer fans than the Padres, Phillies and Brewers — three teams out of playoff contention.  

Centre fielder Adam Jones called out his home fans for not showing up. Players thrive and elevate their performance when the home crowd is behind them. Even more startling is how little the Indians are drawing at home. They have a dynamic, exciting team yet very few fans make their way to Progressive Field. It is sad.

- Yasiel Puig had a scuffle with Giants’ starter Madison Bumgarner this week. Surprisingly, Puig’s teammates were quick to his defence. The next day he sent a T-shirt over to Bumgarner that had “#Don’tlookatme” on it.  It was tongue-in-cheek and sarcastic as the issue between Bumgarner and Puig started as a stare down. Puig seems to be having fun with his teammates.  They are cheering for him and patting him on the back. Maybe the Dodgers will keep him after all. He certainly can make some great plays.