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The Reeling Blue Jays Need to Rebound Fast

The Blue Jays entered September in first place. After dropping two of three to the Red Sox on the weekend and seven of nine during the month, they trail Boston by two games in the AL East.

by John Lott
Sep 12 2016, 4:30pm

Photo by Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

There is a blister on the finger of Aaron Sanchez and a boil on the butt of the Blue Jays.

Both conditions are potentially curable before playoff berths are settled. The Blue Jays spent almost a month in first place and now sit only two games behind the Red Sox. Twenty games remain, 13 against division rivals. A dogfight looms. They have a fighting chance.

But as they lost two of three to Boston on the weekend, the Jays exposed the frailties that have gradually surfaced since the all-star break.

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The rotation that carried them through the first three months has started to crack and has lost its clockwork routine, shifting from five to six pitchers and back again and changing up the pitching order, all to protect the arm of Sanchez during his first full season as a starter.

There was a tradeoff: where it might have made sense for Sanchez's future, it also was disruptive for the other starters.

No one can say for certain how or whether any of that affected game outcomes. But the team is not pitching as well as it did in the first half.

Sanchez is out at the worst possible time. Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In particular, Marco Estrada has a 7.71 ERA over his past five starts. And the Sanchez blister has added a new concern. He is not likely to pitch again until Sept. 21, to guard his arm and heal the blister.

Sanchez, the team's ace, revealed after Sunday's loss that he has occasionally battled a blister on the middle finger of his pitching hand since the season started. The training staff did a good job of containing it until Sunday, when he said he felt it on "maybe the fifth pitch of the game." He could not control his breaking pitches, so he threw mostly fastballs. He hung in for 3.2 innings and six runs.

The offence has sagged, too. Perhaps its biggest weakness can be simply stated: not enough hits. The Jays' hit total ranks 13th in the American League. They're 12th in batting average with runners in scoring position.

Glaringly, Josh Donaldson is not hitting. And when Jose Bautista does hit, he is hitting singles.

The Jays are 2-7 in September, and 27-24 since the all-star break. Before the break, they were scoring roughly one more run per game than they allowed. Since the break, their offence is averaging 4.75 runs and their pitching is allowing 4.57.

The comparable numbers for the Red Sox since the break: 5.45 runs scored per game, 3.69 runs allowed.

Sunday's 11-8 loss squandered seven runs worth of homers by Edwin Encarnacion and Troy Tulowitzki. Afterward, Sanchez and Tulowitzki said what they were expected to say when they met the media.

"I know these guys aren't worried," Sanchez said of his teammates. "I'm definitely not worried. It's just a little rough patch, and as a team I think we're glad to hit it now and not late September. We've got to pick some things up in here and you guys will see it."

Tulowitzki: "It's a veteran clubhouse. We'll be just fine."

***

Perhaps they will be just fine. But if that happens—if they can somehow jump back up and win the division, perhaps working some magic in Boston on the final weekend of the regular season—they will need more help than they're getting from Donaldson and Bautista.

Before Sunday's game, I asked hitting coach Brook Jacoby about Donaldson, who is 0-for-23 and batting .227 over his past 30 games. Unsurprisingly, Jacoby said Donaldson's timing is off.

"Sometimes guys just get caught in between—between the fastball and the breaking ball," Jacoby said. "It's an adjustment he's had to make before and he'll make it again."

Donaldson isn't the only one. Continuing what has been a difficult season, Bautista has seven hits, all singles, in nine September games. Since Aug. 1, he has only four homers.

The Blue Jays need Bautista to rediscover his power stroke. Photo by John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Both Donaldson and Bautista continue to get on base. They remain feared. They draw walks. Pitchers know they could break out at any time.

They are also "banged up," to use the players' parlance. Bautista is still not whole after two DL stints (sprained big toe, sprained left knee). Donaldson has played through plenty of pain (calf strain, sore hamstring, thumb bruise) without complaint.

On Aug. 28, he fouled a pitch off his right kneecap. Afterward, he said he felt like he'd been shot. He also hit three homers that day, and one the next, and none since. But he has not missed a game in that stretch.

Donaldson has played in 138 of the Blue Jays' 142 games. After Sunday's game, he was unavailable to the media because he was in a treatment session to tend to his lingering wounds.

***

Jacoby agreed that the Jays have a deserved reputation as a homer-hitting team. He agreed, too, that maybe, as the stretch-run pressure builds, some batters may occasionally try too hard to hit home runs.

Overall, however, Jacoby said he doesn't believe the stress is getting to his troops. But he also intimated that he's preaching the virtues of a diversified offence.

"I think a lot of these guys enjoy being in these types of games in September," he said. "That's what everybody plays for. But I think the little things become very important. Situational baseball becomes important. You're not going to hit four or five homers in a game every night, and you might not score that many runs in a game every night. So when situations present themselves, we've got to execute."

In the three weekend games, the Blue Jays scored 14 runs. Nine came on homers. They were 4-for-22 with runners in scoring position and stranded 22 runners.

***

Entering a home series with Tampa Bay starting Monday night, the Blue Jays are tied for second place with Baltimore, two games back of Boston and two ahead of the Yankees.

Each team has 20 games remaining. Of the four teams in the race, only Boston plays all of its remaining games within the division, including seven each against the Orioles and Yankees.

The Blue Jays have the fewest games—13—within the division and the oddest schedule among the contenders. Starting Thursday, they hit the road for seven games against the Angels and Mariners. In the past, West Coast trips have often been unkind to the Jays. Success in the west is a key to their playoff ambitions.

The schedule could cut both ways for all the contenders. The cliché is that they will beat up on each other, keeping the race tight until the end, but it's also possible for one team to get hot and administer most of the beatings.

The Red Sox are rolling, and opened up a two-game division lead on the Blue Jays. Photo by Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Boston (30-26), Baltimore (32-27) and Toronto (33-30) all have winning records within the division. The Jays are only 7-9 against the Rays and could certainly help themselves by reversing that trend over the next three days while Baltimore visits Boston.

The Red Sox certainly have the edge. Since the all-star break, they lead the league in runs scored and ERA, and by healthy margins in both categories against their division rivals.

But obviously, anything can happen. A two-game gap among the top three contenders with 20 games left conjures all sorts of possibilities. And no one wants to play a tie-breaker or settle for a one-and-done wild-card spot. The division title is the prize.

"It's going to come down to the end," Tulowitzki said. "It's going to be exciting."

And the urgency quotient is rising by the day.

As Encarnacion said after Saturday's players-only meeting, "we can't lose this thing in September."