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Steve Phillips

TSN Baseball Insider

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The next two weeks could go a long way in determining the AL East. 

The Boston Red Sox (first place, 55-36) resume play with a series against the New York Yankees (fourth place 46-33). In fact, the division-leading Red Sox have eight games with New York and seven with the Blue Jays over the next 15 games. Toronto (third place, eight games behind Boston, 45-42) starts the second half against the Texas Rangers, who are last in the AL West with a 35-55 record, followed by three with the Red Sox, three with the New York Mets (first place in the NL East, 47-40) and four more with the Red Sox. 

If the Blue Jays are going to get back in the division race, they are going to need to step up their own level of play and have the Red Sox fall back to the pack a bit. The Jays can garner some momentum against the lowly Rangers before the series against the Red Sox and Mets. 

Jays GM Ross Atkins has already declared his belief in his team with his acquisition of two quality relievers before the All-Star break. But as it stands now, the Jays look a lot more like a wild-card team than a division winner. That presumption may limit how aggressively the Jays’ front office looks to make a deal of impact versus improvements around the edges. 

Remember, the playoff format this year calls for only five participants in the AL: the three division winners and two wild-card teams. The two wild-card teams play a single-elimination game to earn the right to play the division leader with the best record. Clubs have attacked the trade deadline with less vigour when they only see themselves as a wild-card team as opposed to a division champion.

If the Jays can go 8-2 against the Rangers, Red Sox and Mets, and the Red Sox only go 3-8 in their first 11 games against the Yankees and Jays, Toronto could be within two and a half games of first place. That is doable. The Yankees are hungry coming out of the break and Boston could be licking their wounds after the first Yankees series when they play Toronto. 

If that is the case it changes the trade deadline for Toronto. It may mean a move for closer Craig Kimbrel from the Chicago Cubs. Or a deal for Twins designated hitter Nelson Cruz could be an option. Or even more dramatic, a trade for Nationals’ ace Max Scherzer, which would have to include a pricey contract extension because of his no-trade rights. 

So, the next week to 10 days are imminently important – possibly, the most important 10 days in the last five years.

 

All eyes on the bullpen

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If the Jays are going to find immediate success out of the break it is going to take an improved performance from the bullpen. The time off should have allowed for a necessary rest and reset of the pen. 

The key to a good bullpen is to keep it in the bullpen. That means that the games need to unfold in a way Charlie Montoyo can use his pen when he needs to, not because he has to. That means the starting rotation needs to do their job and avoid getting knocked out of the game in fewer than five innings. On top of that, the offence needs to produce enough margin for error until the relievers rebuild their confidence after a shaky end to the first half. 

The Jays have the fewest save opportunities in the major leagues. They have played the fewest games decided by one run and they haven’t been very good in those games (6-10). That must change in the second half. They have to find ways to prevent opponents from tacking on runs as well. They must do the little things with making plays defensively and good situational hitting if they are going to change the narrative. 

The Jays can do it, but it all starts with the pitching.

 

Major League Baseball hit a home run in Denver

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Baseball has been criticized for its poor marketing of the stars of the game. I understand it, to a degree. Although the game is consumed on a regional and local basis, there is still a need to promote stars across every fan base. This year’s All-Star festivities did that. 

The Home Run Derby was amazingly competitive and interesting. Shohei Ohtani didn’t win but acquitted himself well in a head-to-head match-up with Nationals outfielder Juan Soto.

Orioles first baseman Trey Mancini, who recovered from Stage 3 colon cancer, made it to the Derby finals against defending champion Pete Alonso. Mancini is an inspirational story that has touched fans, media and players. 

Alonso is a bit quirky and odd as he danced his way through each round. He was also caught on camera with his eyes closed meditating between rounds. He is an interesting guy who clearly took the contest seriously as he is now one of three back-to-back champions. 

One of the most interesting aspects of the All-Star Game is the interactions that take place between teammates and players from other teams. It is a great way to see the personalities of the players. 

I came away from the All-Star event feeling like we found out a lot more about Ohtani and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 
Ohtani through an interpreter, admitted to nerves and excitement. He always comes across as humble and appreciative. He is very likable. 

Guerrero came across as the life of the party, willing to engage everyone. He smiled and laughed his way to the MVP award. 

Three moments stuck out to me with Guerrero. First, his hug of Mancini after his effort in the HR Derby. Guerrero hugged him in a way that it was clear that he understood the amazing story and accomplishment of Mancini’s recovery. Second, during the All-Star Game, Guerrero ripped a line drive that almost hit Nationals starter Scherzer in the head. Vlad was out at first, but when he was running back to the dugout he stopped and hugged the least huggable competitor, Scherzer, just to let him know he was glad the pitcher didn’t get hurt. It was a sweet funny moment. Finally, after Guerrero homered in the game and he returned to the dugout, he was greeted by his fellow Blue Jays, Bo Bichette and Teoscar Hernandez. It was sincere happiness for their friend. The reactions of other players toward one another is that of appreciation and respect. I experienced that more this year than any other.

The broadcast of the game had some tremendous moments when they mic'd up players. Cubs utility man Kris Bryant was able to share his appreciation for being a Cub and for their fans. Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. showed how engaging he is by his reaction to ​Guerrero's home run. Freddie Freeman was hilarious, stating his case for father of the year because he introduced his son to Tatis. 

The players seemed in awe of one another and full of respect as well. That message resonated and made me feel the same way.