Struggling Blue Jays looking to rebound in home opener
Blue Jays second baseman Devon Travis, left, looks on during a loss to the Tampa Bay Rays Sunday, April 9, 2017, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)
With an off-day to get re-acquainted with his adopted city, Jose Bautista made a brief appearance at the Rogers Centre on Monday, cruising the outfield with some young family members and his feisty French Bulldog.
At no point did the veteran who is expected to be central to the success of the Jays offence go anywhere near home plate however.
Perhaps that was a good thing, given Bautista’s tepid form, just one of the contributing factors to the Jays’ 1-5 stutter-start to the 2017 season.
We’ll see on Tuesday when the Jays face the Milwaukee Brewers in the first of 81 home dates, whether a day away from the batting cage will sharpen Bautista and some of his lighter hitting teammates.
After the rough slide through Baltimore and Tampa to start the season and with the Leafs and Raptors finalizing playoff plans, the home opener may have been robbed of some of its festive sizzle.
The Jays find themselves with a 1-5 record for just the second time in franchise history (2004 was the other) and may catch a break against the 2-4 Brew Crew.
So the Jays will be anxious to grab some of that back on Tuesday, with J.A. Happ, the Jays 20-game winner from a year ago facing Brewers right-hander Wily Peralta amid the bunting and a sellout crowd under the roof.
That home-field buzz has provided a noticeable advantage for the Jays in recent seasons and will be a welcome boost after an extra-long spring training and the early struggles to the games that count.
But for a team looking to make a third consecutive trip to the post-season, manager John Gibbons acknowledged that without a turnaround soon, the Jays could be left “chasing” the season, a tough task in division as stout as the AL East.
“It wasn’t a good trip by any means,” Gibbons said as he surveyed the handful of players who participated in the optional workout. “We were in every game and we could have won every one of them really, but that’s not the game works.
“I think we’re all looking forward to getting back to our home field. That will do wonders.”
What would really do wonders, of course, is if the Jays bats come to life, especially with runners in scoring position. And there’s no better place to start that parade than with Bautista, he of the big personality and bigger expectations.
After a rousing start to spring training followed by a solid performance for the Dominican Republic at the World Baseball Classic, Bautista has laboured through the early stutter-start.
In 22 at-bats, he has just three hits and a batting average of .136. Worse, for a player who prides himself on having a good eye at the plate, Bautista has struck out nine times in six games.
“I still think he’s taking some good swings,” Gibbons said. “I do think he’s missing his pitches. There’s been a time or two that he’s swung outside of the zone a little bit more than he normally does. Those aren’t big issues. He can correct those.
“A lot of times, especially if you’re a hitter like Jose that’s got the reputation and you’ve been doing it for years, pitchers are careful with you. Some that he’s fouling off now, in the future he won’t miss them.”
Though a panic phase is still several losses down the road, the start of the season has certainly been a rude welcome for a Jays team that left Florida feeling positive. Bautista was batting at a .414 clip and feeling healthier than he had in two years, Josh Donaldson appeared fully recovered from a calf injury and the starting pitching staff was primed to pick up on a breakthrough 2016 season.
Now in addition to the quiet bats, there is some concern with Donaldson who pulled up with a sore calf on Sunday in Tampa. Donaldson was at the Rogers Centre on Sunday and Gibbons said the third baseman is expected to be in the lineup for the opener.
Another positive for Monday’s first of two against the Brewers is that closer Roberto Osuna is expected to be activated off the disabled list, a welcome relief for the heavily taxed bullpen.
Overall, the Jays will go with the mindset that while ugly in the standings, the season-opening road trip wasn’t all bad. Two of the losses came in extra innings and in the 10-8 loss to the Rays on Saturday, they Jays had a lead late.
“One big hit or one big pitch in a few of them and the results could have been a lot different,” Gibbons said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that these guys are going to hit, but we need it quick.”
GIBBY TAKES THE HEAT
Blue Jays manager John Gibbons isn’t swinging the bat these days, but he fills out the lineup card and sets the batting order for every game.
And with that in mind, Gibbons says he’s willing to shoulder some of the responsibility for the team’s early struggles at the plate.
“I’m accountable to everything that happens here,” Gibbons said on Monday. “There have been people that have suggested maybe (some of the Jays starters) didn’t play enough in spring training and I don’t discount that.
“This particular group … the plan going in was to rest some guys and make sure they are good and ready gear yourself for six months.”
Given the injury woes the team has had recently, that may ultimately be a sound strategy. But Gibbons realizes spark at the plate has to come soon, especially with a big nine-game home stand getting under way on Tuesday against the Brewers.
“There are some guys who are slow starters anyway,” Gibbons said.