CHICAGO—The just-concluded three-game series in Seattle was always going to be huge for the Blue Jays.
You could see its importance come into focus at the beginning of August when the Mariners began to heat up and the Jays started cooling off.
Series success would nicely set up the rest of this road trip, even the rest of the season.
Failure? Well, now we’re going to find out.
The Jays lost the middle game of the set to right-hander Chris Young on Tuesday. That one game, in hindsight, may be looked upon as the turning point in what is looking more and more like a slow, painful drop to .500 or below.
Young was the one Seattle pitcher the Jays had to beat before taking their chances with Hisashi Iwakuma. Instead, the journeyman beat them with an 85 m.p.h. letter-high fastball. He has been doing it all season in posting a solid record of 11-6 with a 3.20 ERA. The Jays started J.A. Happ against Young, and it was exactly the type of matchup they needed to win in order to be contenders.
But the Jays offered little resistance until it was too little, too late.
The complexion of Toronto’s season now changes.
Losing to Felix Hernandez and Iwakuma would have been acceptable if combined with a win over Young. Losing two of three would have left the Jays just one game behind the M’s in the wild-card chase and a couple behind the Tigers. That would have left them in position to compete, especially with Edwin Encarnacion set to return on Friday.
But now it’s all about mathematical hope and putting together a long win streak in the face of starting pitching matchups that rarely seem to favour the Jays. There are no signs of anything good about to happen, unless Encarnacion comes back and carries the offence for 40 games.
Is it a coincidence the Jays’ dismal streak started on the day after the Aug. 1 trade deadline, after GM Alex Anthopoulos failed to pull the trigger on any deal, except for acquiring utility infielder Danny Valencia two days earlier?
The Jays were talking bravely about the return of Brett Lawrie, Adam Lind and Encarnacion being their equivalent moves to a big deadline deal. Lawrie’s return to action lasted all of three innings, and more air was sucked out of the clubhouse.
The Mariners picked up Austin Jackson and added Kendrys Morales. The Tigers got David Price. The Orioles added lefty Andrew Miller to an already solid bullpen. The Yankees picked up Stephen Drew, Chase Headley, Brandon McCarthy and Martin Prado. The Royals made a strong August addition in Josh Willingham. The A’s have Jon Lester.
The Blue Jays? The clubhouse simply received excuses and assurances the money was there but no move seemed a good fit. Whoosh! More air sucked out of the room.
The Jays are 3-9 since the trade deadline and have lost four of their last five series heading in to play the nothing-to-lose White Sox. The raw numbers tell a daunting tale for the Jays.
They have 40 games remaining. To win 95 games, which would seem to be a lock for at least a wild-card and maybe the division, the Jays must go 32-8. To win 90, which would put them in the hunt all the way through the final month, they must win 27 of the next 40. To equal Tim Johnson’s 16-year-old high of 88 wins set in 1998, manager John Gibbons and his troops need to go 25-15.
Even to the most optimistic Jays fans, this would seem to be the best they could hope for.
Simply put, 10 games above .500 over the next 40 games is a tall order for a team that has been 10 games below .500 since maxing out at plus-14 and leading the AL East by six games. Where are the positive signs? Someone needs to step up on both the pitching and hitting sides of the equation.
On June 1, when Mark Buehrle was 10-1, there was a thought that when the Jays visited Chicago he might be vying for career win No. 200. He needed 16 wins at the start of the season. Now, 76 days later, Buehrle will be facing his old team attempting to win his 12th game of the season, trying to regain the precision of his pitches and the good luck that made him an early Cy Young favourite.
The fact of the matter is, in the next 40 games, it’s Buehrle and R.A. Dickey that really need to step it up. Dickey went down 2-0 in the first inning Wednesday in Seattle but did not allow another run through six. The bottom line, though, is they lost and trailed the entire game. There are no consolation prizes in October.
Marcus Stroman is the Jays’ best starter right now, but does that make him an ace? No. Good teams look at the pitching matchups and there is no Blue Jays starter anyone fears.
Stroman is not going to get any better and more competitive than he is now. The four guys that need to step up if the Jays are going to put on any kind of a late-season run are Buehrle and Dickey on the pitching staff and Encarnacion and Jose Bautista on offence.