Donaldson blast eases pressure

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Three-run home runs can make a world of difference.

The Toronto Blue Jays stumbled out of the gate and were tied 1-1 in the series with the New York Yankees. Blue Jays’ ace Marcus Stroman was walking a fine line after surrendering a pair of runs and the game was in the balance. The reigning Most Valuable Player, Josh Donaldson, stepped up to the dish and demolished a 1-0 split-finger fastball 445 feet off the WestJet flight deck.

“That’s Josh Donaldson, I guess that’s why he’s the MVP,” said Blue Jays’ manager John Gibbons. “That one big home run made the difference.”

Donaldson hit that thing like it owed him money and it immediately changed the momentum of the game and a budding Blue Jays season.

Yankees’ starter Nathan Eovaldi was torching a Jays team that had yet to find its offensive groove. That is, until Donaldson went to pump town. The Jays entered the series with the Yankees 3-4 and fans were becoming fidgety of when the juggernaut that was the Blue Jays last season, was planning on showing up.

It’s early, super early, super ridiculously early.

Blame the organization for blasting nostalgic montage after nostalgic montage prior to Opening Day. Blame the grand mirage of a 17-8 (fourth best in baseball including a 4-0-1 start) spring training record for fans expecting this team to be in kill mode after the first pitch on Opening Day.

Experts across the land were writing in the Jays to either contend or win the herculean American League East for a second-straight year. On paper, this was basically the same team that made a run at the World Series last year.

Overreacting is tempting and easy to do during first 10 games of the season, but teams take time to come together, and the Jays are still trying to find themselves.

Two Jays in particular have come out of the gate hot as a pistol and are carrying the torch while they wait for their fellow home run-slugging teammates to catch up.

Donaldson hasn’t missed a beat, a fastball, or a chance to show off his “new haircut.”

He is the currently the clubhouse leader for most ridiculous haircut. Tied for a close second are; Marcus Stroman’s bleach-blonde flat-top fade, Khris Davis’s rat tail, Andrew McCutchen’s non-dreads, Dallas Keuchel’s beard and whatever Jose Reyes is currently sporting.

He is one of the three silent leaders on offence and he carries himself with the confidence of a WWE champ mixed with the peace of mind of a Buddhist Monk.

He’s opened the season with a 10-game hit streak along with five jacks — including his second career grand slamwich.

“I feel like I’ve been seeing the ball fine, I just wasn’t trusting my hands enough,” Donaldson told Sportsnet’s Hazel Mae. “I was looking for something off-speed, that is how they have been pitching me. I was chasing some stuff in the dirt so I tried to get something up that I could hit.”

“I’m not surprised [how far I hit it], but it felt really good.”

Meanwhile, for Jose Bautista, the baseball looks like a beach ball these days.

Last season’s AL walks leader (110) leads the world with 12 walks. He is getting deep into counts, stinging the ball to the left-centre gap or jacking them out of the yard when he gets his pitch (7 HR and owns a .321/.500/.679 slash line).

With Donaldson and Bautista in mid-season form, the remaining cast has shown signs of coming around.

Troy Tulowitzki belted the first homerun of the MLB campaign, but has since been frustrated at the dish, seeing his average dip below .110.

Entering the rubber match, Tulowitzki ripped a 2-out RBI single to right field to cash in an insurance RBI, the type of hit that can generate production.

One day later, Tulowitzki turned on an inside first-pitch heater from Eovaldi and deposited it in the second deck down the left field line.

“We haven’t quite clicked offensively the way we’re going to. Guys are starting to have better at bats one through nine and that’s our strength,” said Donaldson. “Myself, I’ve had bad at bats along with some other guys in here. We need to progress with better at bats and take advantage of mistakes.”

At times over the past two years, no hitter in baseball can enter heat-check mode the same way Edwin Encarnacion has.

He is still searching for his first dinger of the campaign, but Encarnacion is drawing walks, hitting the ball the other way and hitting booming fly balls.

When he starts to hit the fly balls that scrape the roof of the Rogers Centre, it’s normally only a matter of time until the Encarnacion volcano erupts.

“It was good, we saw some signs of life from a few of our bats tonight,” said Gibbons.

The offence must be there to support a pitching staff with a couple questions marks in order for the Jays to contend come September.

Hired gun David Price told the Tim and Sid show last July that his pending free agency wasn’t not about the money; it was about being in the right environment and winning. Ironically, months later he promptly left for a team within the division and for the richest pitcher contract in MLB history. When a pitcher that went 9-1with a 2.30 ERA, 87 strikeouts in 74.1 innings and led a team to the postseason isn’t there anymore, questions about the depth of the rotation were bound to surface.

Well, there was no concern is Stroman’s eyes.

On Opening Day, in Tampa, everyone was introduced to the dominating ground-ball fest that is the Stro Show.

Stroman carved up the Tampa Bay Rays in the opener for five punch-outs in eight innings, yielding three earned runs.

If he wasn’t yanked in a tough position in his second start — he exited a bases loaded situation for reliever Jesse Chavez, who promptly surrendered a first pitch grand slam to Brock Holt — he could possibly be 2-0 with his ERA up to a run and a half lower, as he starts the year as a dark horse Cy Young candidate.

Jeff Sullivan wrote a piece for FanGraphs in February 2015, comparing each of Stroman’s pitches to current and former aces in the bigs.

He attacks hitters with an assortment of pitches, all with incredible downward movement. The combination of his sinker, two-seam heater and curveball allows him to induce groundballs 65.2 per cent of the time (Brett Anderson of the Los Angeles Dodgers led the MLB with a 67.61 percentage last season).

Since he entered the league in 2013, Stroman is 11-3 against the AL East with a 3.09 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP. He elevates his game against the toughest tests within the division.

Much has been made about Stroman’s best friend and offseason workout partner, Aaron Sanchez. The 23-year-old packed on 20 pounds of muscle this offseason with the goal of pitching behind his buddy in the rotation.

The key to Sanchez’s success starts with fastball command and ends with durability.

Last season he walked 44 batters in 92.1 innings. A strained back muscle landed him on the disabled list and sent him to the bullpen upon his return.

In 11 starts last season, Sanchez never finished with a strike rate over 64 per cent. His average throughout his professional career is a crummy 58 per cent.

In his second start against the Yanks, Sanchez struggled with command, especially with the curve. Ninety-eight miles per hour tends to bail pitchers out of sticky situations; Sanchez fanned five in six innings.

“The changeup keeps them off-balance so it’s disrupting the hitters’ timing, which is a priority,” said pitching coach Pete Walker. “That’s what we’re spending a lot of time on early in the season, Stroman is using his changeup more, Sanchez is using his changeup more, Marco (Estrada), he’s unbelievable, so it’s a pitch that’s critical, especially against left-handed hitters. Even at 97, if you see three, four, five of them in an at-bat, you’re going to get the barrel to the ball. He’s going to increase his strikeouts because of it, he’s going to be a more effective pitcher.”

The ceiling for Sanchez is enormous. He possesses the tools to develop into a potential No. 1 starter let alone someone to follow Stroman in a series. If Sanchez can tighten up his command, he might be the most important pitcher in the division.

After Sanchez and Stroman, the rotation drops off the table.

With all due respect to Estrada and his league low opponents batting average last season (0.203), no one saw it coming ­— that’s why he broke camp as a reliever— and it’s unlikely he duplicates that success. He still carries a disappearing changeup and was a solid resign by president Mark Shapiro’s crew at $26 million for two years.

The staff wraps up with the initial brothers; the forever fraudulent R.A. Dickey (8.10 ERA in two starts) and J.A. Happ on repeat (he went 19-20 with a 4.36 ERA 2012-14).

To be fair, each of the Jays’ starters have pitched well enough to allow their offence a chance to win the game. Unfortunately, the bullpen has let a few wins slip from their grasp.

Just as the bats got off to a slow start, the bullpen is currently working out a few gremlins of their own.

The struggle this year will be finding a path to get the ball from Stroman to 21-year-old closer Roberto Osuna.

Four of the five losses this season belong to the bullpen, with Brett Cecil on the hook for two of them (he also has two blown saves).

With the acquisition of Drew Storen (career 3.07 ERA, 1.14 WHIP with 95 saves and 76 holds) really helped a bullpen that was lacklustre in comparison to the Kansas City Royals, Boston Red Sox and Yankees.

Before the Jays moved Sanchez from the pen into the rotation, the Jays looked to be on track with lefty Cecil, Sanchez, Storen and Osuna. Four quality arms provided Gibbons the freedom to mix and match his way for the remaining nine outs.

Sanchez’s dominant spring training forced the Jays’ hand to stick him in the rotation, shortening the reliable arms in the pen and it has been a bit of an issue early.

Gibbons showed great confidence in the goggle-wearing lefty by calling on him often.

After Cecil picked up his second loss Tuesday to the Yanks, the skipper brought in Cecil the following night. He struck out Austin Romine, got Jacoby Ellsbury to fly out to centre and Aaron Hicks to roll over to Tulowitzki.

“Let’s face it, if he’s not good this year that’s a big hole,” Gibbons said of Cecil. “I thought he looked pretty good in spring training, to be honest with you, but he’s off right now, there’s no secret about that.”

It took the Jays and Cecil until mid-June, as they struggled through April and May trying to find the winning formula. Familiarity could play a key role for Cecil and the team as they look to have headed down the same path as last year.

Just like one swing turned around a sour start to the season, maybe it’s that last three up, three down inning to turn things around for Cecil.

 

 

SIDE NOTES:

Kevin Pillar isn’t human.

Last season Pillar made highlight reel catch after highlight reel catch as he won the centerfield job a month into the season. He finished a finalist for a Gold Glove behind the Rays’ Kevin Kiermaier and in front of two-time MVP Mike Trout. Not bad company for the second-year outfielder.

It didn’t take long for Pillar to turn in another super hero-like catch.

In the opener in Tampa, he lunged to snatch a ball on the left-centre warning track and almost immediately fell head first into the padded wall. Most people would have broken their neck; Pillar stood up, put his hat on and waved off the training staff.

And then a few days later he nearly had his head taken off by a 97-mph fastball. It luckily bounced off the brim of his helmet. But once again, he popped up as if nothing happened.

The new infield dirt

If you remove your contacts and look at the new infield at the Rogers Centre, you would think you’re looking at a real field. And it almost is.

It looks good! It looks sexy. The grounds crew at the dome excavated 12,000 square feet of concrete in order to install a dirt infield that is 12 inches deep, consisting of gravel, sand and clay.

The turf they installed prior to last season was a joke. So much of a joke, Baltimore Orioles’ manager Buck Showalter didn’t feel safe forcing his infielders to try and catch scorching grounders for the fear of the ball kicking off a seam and into their face.

Out with the old turf, in with the new dirt. So far, it looks great and the ground balls act like ground balls should.

This is a big deal. Players have complained about the stress put on their bodies from playing on AstroTurf in the past, and when one of your biggest contracts is a Band-Aid at shortstop, this was a step in the right direction to help keep players on the field.

When the Jays acquired Donaldson, he mentioned in an interview to the Tim and Sid show that he would switch between wearing cleats when he is hitting to wearing turfs when on defence. No one is sure if he kept this up all season, but at least now he doesn’t have to.

It’s a step in the right direction with natural grass being installed for the 2018 season.

Pat Venditte is the coolest pitcher in the MLB.

The Jays signed Venditte in the winter after he made his MLB debut last season for the Oakland Athletics.

What makes Venditte so amazing is that he throws with both arms.

Last season for the A’s, Venditte appeared in 26 games, 28.2 innings, 23 strikeouts to 12 walks and owned a 1.18 WHIP with a 4.40 ERA.

He might not be the most effective reliever in baseball, but he is the coolest.

It is the wildest thing to see this man warm up and pitch in a game. During his bullpen, he throws three pitches with one arm, quickly spins his six-fingered glove around, sticks it on the other hand and throws three pitches with the other arm. And keeps switching arms until he is either called in or sat down.

He said the novelty of his skill wears off after about a week, but watching A’s games last summer strictly to watch this man pitch, the novelty never wears off.

You can bet that TV commentators Dan Shulman, Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler are going to get a kick out of seeing him throw with both arms in the same inning all summer.

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