Breaking down the baseball heartbreak

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The Blue Jays’ early season struggles

Graphic by Zack Wheler, Graphics Contributor

Graphic by Zack Wheler, Graphics Contributor

Along with many UVic students, I spend winter waiting for classes to wind down, sunshine to arrive, and the Toronto Blue Jays’ regular season to start. While there has been a nearly two-decade black hole of miserable baseball in Toronto, the past number of years have been an exciting, kinetic time to be a Jays fan.

When it goes well, baseball can be soaring, plot-driven, and compelling. When it goes wrong, there’s something that stings about a rotten season of baseball. It’s kind of like a disappointing orange. It looks promising and zesty on the outside, but you cut into it and it’s dry, and offers none of the refreshing sustenance you were hoping for. So far, the Jays’ 2017 season is looking particularly unsatisfying.

Much to my dismay, April has produced some especially heartbreaking games for Jays’ manager John Gibbons and company. The Jays currently sit dead last in their division, with an 11-20 win-loss record. In both interviews and the numbers analyzing their performance, the Jays appear to be a team near deflation.

The team should, in theory, be producing runs and living up to the expectations set by their last two seasons. The team is built to win on high-quality starting pitching and top-of-the-league hitting, rounded out by passable outfield and bullpen work, but virtually none of these things have #ComeTogether this season for a multitude of reasons (and the terrible social media hashtags aren’t helping).

Three reasons stand out for me in particular: the injuries plaguing the team, their pitching woes, and the elephant-sized Bautista issue in the room.

First, the injuries have been numerous and have affected crucial players on the 40-man roster. Among the most notable include 2015 MVP Josh Donaldson and repeat All-Star Troy Tulowitzki. These players have offered stellar defensive work at third base and shortstop respectively, and are critical components in the Jays’ offensive lineup. Donaldson has been removed from the lineup and sent to rehabilitate a calf injury sustained on April 13, while Tulowitzki was placed on the disabled list for a hamstring injury incurred on April 22.

Further, young star pitcher Aaron Sanchez has been placed on the disabled listed with a torn fingernail, and bullpen reliever Bo Schultz has ended his season to receive an ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction (commonly known as Tommy John surgery). Worryingly, injuries continue to mount — pitcher Marcus Stroman complained of “arm tightness” following a loss on May 3. Injuries run deep in the Blue Jays’ roster, and are likely to continue as the season wears on.

But physical ailments are unfortunately only one of the issues plaguing the Jays’ pitching. Opponents appear to have figured out the secret flame in reliever Jason Grilli’s slider, as opposition batters have gone from hitting it 14.3 per cent of the time (.143 AVG) in 2016 to an uncomfortable 38.5 per cent of the time (.385 AVG) in 2017.

Closer Roberto Osuna has seen his earned run average inflate — from 2.68 in 2016 to 5.00 in 2017 — and he’s certainly not the cornerstone that the bullpen could rely on to wrap up games in previous years. Starting pitcher Marco Estrada has continued to be an oasis in the quagmire of the Jays’ pitching problems, but one pitcher cannot carry a team to the offseason.

Lastly, there’s Jose Bautista. While Jose may not be one of the most important issues plaguing the Blue Jays, he’s certainly one of the most visible. After all, he’s the flipper of bats, the face of Booster Juice, and arguably the closest thing the Blue Jays have to a face of the franchise. Bautista’s performance at the plate has been beyond subpar, with a batting average of 0.196 in 2017 compared to .234 and .250 in the two previous seasons, and his performance in the outfield has been similarly weak.

Fans recognize Bautista, and for better or worse, look to him to lead the team. While baseball isn’t the captain-led sport that hockey is, an improvement in Bautista’s performance would relieve many Jays fans.

So why am I still watching? After all of this, optimism remains one of my favourite parts of baseball. “There’s a lot of season to play” is an oft-repeated phrase this early in the summer. A lot can change even in the dying innings of a single game, and I can only hope that with the return of injured players and recent changes to the pitching staff that better news is on the horizon.

We’re only one-sixth of the way through baseball’s 2017 season, so all fans can do is cling to a faint hope that the Jays can still produce some magic this year. Baseball writer Stacey May Fowles lovingly said that “baseball is something to do when there’s nothing to be done” — but let’s hope something can be done to remedy the 2017 Toronto Blue Jays.

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