JAYS FLY DESPITE PITCHING BLUES

By Murray Chass

April 26, 2009

This is probably like playing fantasy baseball, which readers of this site know I abhor, but what if the Toronto Blue Jays have finally put it all together and are ready to compete for real in the American League East? Doesn’t that division already have enough serious contenders?

Recent experience tells us not to take the Blue Jays seriously. We have heard one season after another how this is the year the Blue Jays have a chance to crash the Yankees-Red Sox party and then they fade. Last year, without fanfare, the Tampa Bay Rays supplanted the Blue Jays as the interloper in the East, dropping Toronto to an unaccustomed fourth place.

This time around the Blue Jays, with 13 victories in their first 18 games, are off to their best start since 1992, the year they won the first of two successive World Series. They reached the weekend with the best record in the major leagues, and they led the American League in batting average, hits, runs, total bases and fielding percentage. They were third in earned run average and second in home runs.

Are they for real? Can they be a legitimate contender? If they are or can be, what will they be contending for?

At most, a division can have only two playoff teams, the champion and the league wild card. Last year the Yankees learned that brutal fact of division life when the Rays derailed them from the post-season by finishing first while Boston finished second.

How would the division respond to a four-team race?

“I think the division is going to be ugly,” J.P. Ricciardi, the Toronto general manager, said. “Everybody will beat everybody up. It may be the year where the healthiest team survives.”

If the outcome of the division race depends on good health, the Blue Jays could be hurting. “We’ve got a whole rotation on the disabled list,” Ricciardi said. He was not exaggerating. “We have five starters on the disabled list,” he said, being more specific.

The Blue Jays knew in spring training that Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan would open the season on the disabled list. Marcum, who had a 9-7 record in 25 starts last season, underwent Tommy John surgery at the end of last season and is expected to be out until at least sometime in August, if he makes it back this year at all.

McGowan made only 19 starts and had a 6-7 record before a shoulder operation shut him down last July.

Casey Janssen didn’t pitch last year after a season as a starter and one as a reliever and was coming back in spring training until another shoulder injury put him on the disabled list. Jesse Litsch, who had a 13-9 record in 28 starts last season, went on the disabled list two weeks ago with an arm injury.

With all of those starters out of commission, the Blue Jays had openings in their rotation, and Ricky Romero, a rookie left-hander, claimed one of them. He won two of his first three starts and had a 1.71 earned run average before he strained an oblique muscle. He joined Marcum, McGowan, Janssen and Litsch on the disabled list.

Scott Richmond, a native Canadian, was another pitcher who benefited from the rotation vacancies, except he has remained healthy with a 1-0 record and 3.48 e.r.a. in two starts.

David Purcey, who had a 3-6 record in 12 starts last season, has avoided injury through four starts; Brian Tallet was brought out of the bullpen for two starts and Brian Burres, who started 22 games for Baltimore last year, was summoned from the minors to start Saturday night.

If you’re trying to keep track, the current starters are Richmond, Purcey, Tallet and Burres, but the best starter – and he’s healthy – is Roy Halladay (above), a two-time 20-game winner, who this season has won three of four starts.

“One nice thing,” Ricciardi said. “We get Doc every fifth day.”

Ricciardi said the Blue Jays are hopeful of getting Marcum (at left) back in the second half of the season, but that recovery would be faster than usual for Tommy John patients. He said they would learn more about McGowan’s status in the next week “when he starts to throw.”

“He may be out for the whole year,” the general manager added. “We’ll know more when he sees Dr. Andrews.” Janssen, Ricciardi said, could be back by mid-May, and Romero should return by mid to late May.

Without a healthy set of starters, the Blue Jays will have trouble keeping up with the Red Sox, the Yankees and the Rays. Even with healthy starters, they may not find their task easy. Are the Blue Jays a legitimate contender?

“It’s way too soon to say,” Ricciardi said. “We’re young in a lot of ways. If we sustain something like this through June we’ll know more. Right now we’re going series to series. There’s a lot of stuff we’re going through right now. The mettle will be tested. We haven’t played the East yet.”

While the focus is on the Blue Jays’ pitching because of all of the injuries, the team’s offense has been the league’s most potent. Second baseman Aaron Hill and designated hitter Adam Lind have been the offensive leaders.

Hill, 27, was hitting .373 with a combined 1.025 on-base and slugging percentage. Lind, 25, was hitting .347 with .982 on-base and slugging. Hill was leading the league in total bases with 52, and Lind was tied for eighth with 41.

CAPPS CAPS PIRATES VICTORIES

To see Matt Capps earn his fifth save in Pittsburgh’s 15th game last week may seem a bit incongruous, considering the Pirates’ proclivity for losing. But based on recent history, it will be more important to see what the Pirates do after those first five saves to determine if they will finally have a winning season.

The Pirates have had 16 successive losing seasons, tying them with the Philadelphia Phillies 1933 through 1948 for longest streaks of losing seasons.

The early save success of the Pirates’ closers has not telegraphed how the team will do over the course of the season. In 2007, for example, Salomon Torres gained four saves in the Pirates’ first six games, five in the first 11 games and six in the first 17 games. However, the team’s record in those first 17 games was 7-10, and the Pirates finished the season with a 68-94 record.

Last season Capps had 5 saves in the Pirates’ first 20 games, then picked up No. 6 in the 21st game. The Pirates’ record was 9-12 at the time, and they finished at 67-95.

BOSTON POPS YANKEES

The heated rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox was renewed in Boston this weekend, but no matter how the games on the field turn out the Red Sox in some ways have it all over the Yankees. One of those ways is the Red Sox participation in cultural and artistic matters, specifically the new compact disc the Red Sox have produced with the Boston Pops, an equally famous Boston institution.

Titled “The Red Sox Album,” the disk features the Pops and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and the nine numbers are conducted by Keith Lockhart, who has conducted the Pops longer than Terry Francona has managed the Red Sox.

The album features two John Philip Sousa marches, concluding with “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and incorporating the crack of David Ortiz’s bat seven times in “The National Game;” a suite from the movie, “The Natural;” “Casey at the Bat” and “Sweet Caroline,” a Neil Diamond tune popularized at Fenway Park.

Also on the disk is the Tanglewood Chorus rendition of “God Bless America,” which Yankee Stadium listeners might find a pleasant and welcome change of pace from Ronan Tynan’s version.

UGLY AVERAGE LOOMS FOR LAWRIE

Alex Gordon, Kansas City’s sometime third baseman, is experiencing Yogi Berra’s “déjà vu all over again.” In his rookie season in 2007, Gordon struggled at bat for two and a half months before he reached .200 in his 60th game June 14. At week’s end, he had played in only 7 games this season and had managed only 2 hits in 21 at-bats for a .095 average.

Gordon, however, was not alone in his struggles. Milton Bradley, the Cubs’ right fielder,  was hitting .043 with 1 hit in 23 at-bats, David Murphy of Texas was hitless in 20 at-bats and Jason Smith of Houston hadn’t had a hit in 17 at-bats.

Catchers in particular were having hitting problems: Jason Kendall, Milwaukee, 6-42, .143; Brian Schneider, Mets, 3-21, .143; Chris Iannetta, Colorado, 5-36, .139;  Gregg Zaun, Baltimore, 5-43, .116; Chris Snyder, Arizona, 3-29, .103; Taylor Teagarden, Texas, 1-15, .067; Matt Treanor, Detroit, 0-13, .000.

But Jed Lowrie (above), Boston’s shortstop, may wind up with the worst start even though he had a hit in 18 at-bats. Lowrie had wrist surgery and may not play again this season so his .056 average could be on his record forever.

SANTANA SEEKS RUNS

The Mets have two distinctly different teams, one that plays when Johan Santana pitches and one that plays when their other starters pitch.

In Santana’s four starts this season,  the Mets have scored 8 runs and allowed 6, averaging a score of 2 runs to 1.5. In the Mets’ other 13 games among their first 17 through Saturday, they have scored 73 runs and given up 71, averaging a score of 5.62 runs for them and 5.46 against.

Perhaps general manager Omar Minaya should devise a scheme to fool the Mets’ hitters into thinking it’s not Santana on the mound when he starts, but it wouldn’t take long for them to figure out it really is their ace. The other team wouldn’t be scoring any runs.

GIVE THAT MAN A CONTRACT

Ned Colletti, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ general manager, is in the last year of a four-year contract, which also includes a mutual option for a fifth year. When a Los Angeles newspaper recently asked Frank McCourt, the team’s owner, if he planned to exercise the option, he lauded Colletti for the job he has done but declined to talk about the option.

Instead McCourt talked about the need to go further than the Dodgers have in recent years and win the World Series. “That is a promise we have made to our fans,” he said.

What can the man possibly be thinking? He should have instantly said of course, we will exercise the option; why wouldn’t we?

Since a previous Dodgers ownership (the Fox Group) foolishly fired Fred Claire in 1998, the Dodgers had a succession of poor choices as general manager. Kevin Malone and Paul DePodesta (McCourt’s first general manager) particularly stood out.

With Colletti, though, the Dodgers finally got it right. They reached the playoffs in two of Colletti’s first three years, winning the National League West title last year, and they are poised to win it again this season.

And for individual achievement, Colletti held his ground in the Manny Ramirez negotiations this past winter and induced Scott Boras, Ramirez’s agent, to blink first.

It would be in McCourt’s best interests to exercise Colletti’s option – or give him a new contract, which would be the more intelligent way to go – because if he should let Colletti go, he would probably bungle the choice for his successor.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST

After watching a Mets game on SNY, the Mets’ network, the other day, I kept the television on, and soon the daily program, “Daily News Live,” came on. One of the show’s panelists was Bob Raissman, the Daily News’ media critic.

Now it isn’t unusual for a Daily News reporter or columnist to be on a Daily News television show, but Raissman, as part of his job, is supposed to assess and critique SNY television shows. How does he do that when he appears on one of its shows?

In addition, I was initially told that SNY paid Raissman $200 a show. A Daily News executive corrected that report, saying the newspaper pays its employees who appear on the show.  I sent Raissman an e-mail asking about what seemed to be to be a clear conflict of interest.

“While you obviously work for the Daily News,” I wrote, “your appearance nevertheless appears to raise a journalistically questionable issue: how does someone whose job it is to critique television sports shows appear on one of those shows? Is that not a conflict of interest?”

Raissman did not reply

 

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