April 01, 2008

A New Season

Every year, it seems, baseball season has this strange way of sneaking up on me. I've got my eye on spring training. I know the regular season is coming. But every April I find myself saying "What the fuck? The Blue Jays are back already?" Well, game one is in the books, and it ended like too many did in 2007.

I must admit, I was eagerly anticipating opening day on Monday, especially with the Maple Laughs now booking tee times (seriously, the Maple Leafs golfing jokes never get old; keep 'em coming, douche bags!). An afternoon contest, I was stoked to take in the game at work. Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate, and Mother Nature ruined my Monday, already the most difficult day of the week, bar none.

Opening day Monday afternoon became opening night on Tuesday, and the Jays and Yankees played the final home opener in the history of the great Yankee Stadium last night.

There's nothing quite like opening night, be it at home or on the road. Harry "Doc" Halladay on the mound, a clean slate for those who struggled in 2007, and visions of a pennant dancing around in my head. The hope and anticipation of a new season literally puts a spring in my step, no pun intended. I go into every season thinking this is the year the Blue Jays will break their playoff drought. Do I believe the Jays are playoff-bound this season? Absolutely, although my track record isn't all that good (14 years and counting since Joe Carter was told to "touch 'em all" - I still get goosebumps when I hear the late, great Tom Cheek's call - in the Jays' last playoff game). Even after yesterday's disappointing 3-2 loss to the hated Yankees, I'm still calling the Jays to win the wild-card.

If you're thinking whether there exists a Toronto sports franchise whom I think will not make the playoffs in any given season, the answer is a resounding no.

While I will be singing the praises of the Blue Jays time and time again this spring and summer, and hopefully fall, I am pretty pissed off about last night's contest. The Blue Jays played much like they did last season: they made bonehead plays, left a ton of runners on base in scoring position, and were unable to deliver the big hit. So much for displaying an "urgency to win" and doing all "the little things."

OK, I've got to calm down a bit, and pour myself a drink. There, that's better. Thanks, Johnnie. Anyway, it was only one game, for Christ's sake, the Jays lost by one run, and they pretty much beat themselves. Harry was solid on the mound in seven innings and I will say this: the Yankees have one formidable lineup. I guess a payroll north of $200 God damn million dollars will get you some decent hitters, although it was Melky freakin' Cabrera who did the most damage last night, both in the batter's box and in the field. Damn Melky Way.

Alright, before I continue I've got a grievance I must air. If New York City is one of the mecca's of baseball, what the fuck is up with the rampant abuse of the curtain call? Everyone and their mother gets a curtain call in New York. It is completely out of control. Melky Way hits a solo home run that barely clears the short porch in right field (314 feet, give me a break) and he gets a curtain call? Wow. This one-curtain-call-a-game insanity in New York has to stop.

Enough about the Yankees. What the hell was Alex Rios thinking in the first inning when he was doubled off on a broken-bat liner to second base? I'm going to go out on a limb here, but he was probably thinking about how to spend $65 million bucks. It's mistakes like Rios' that the Jays simply can't afford to make in spades this year. If the Jays want to be taken seriously, they've got to play the part. No more mental errors. As Jeff Blair wrote, in a beauty of a feature from Saturday's Globe and Mail, "It's time."

There are a number of new faces on the 2008 Blue Jays. Welcome to town David Eckstein, Scott Rolen, Marco Scutaro, Rod Barajas, Randy Wells and Buck Coats (best name on the team, hands down). Welcome back, Shannon Stewart. While it's great to see Stewart back in a Jays uniform, he came at the expense of Reed Johnson, a personal favourite of mine the last few years. Johnson was, for lack of a better analogy, a grinder. A blue-collar guy who always did whatever needed to be done to get on base. He played the game hard and the right way, and he will be missed around these parts. His release, while not a shock, still stung. It's good to see he landed right on his feet with the Cubs, and I wish him well.

Toronto, with the addition of guys like Eckstein, Barajas, Stewart and Scutaro, have a much deeper bench than they did last year. It's already coming in handy. Injuries, as usual, have already made their mark on this team. Scott Rolen won't be in the lineup until May, Casey Janssen is done for the season with a torn labrum, Matt Stairs is nursing a sore hip (he's 40 years old, slack needs to be cut), and BJ Ryan is still recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Scutaro got the start at third base last night and was, in my opinion, the most effective Blue Jay not named Halladay. He got on base twice via a walk and a fielder's choice, he stole second base twice, and scored a run. It was a delight to see Scutaro's thievery on the base path's. The Jays simply do not steal enough, and I'd love to see that become more a part of their game.

I have made a vow, however, not to use injuries as an excuse this year. I did it about a week ago, just before Rolen went down thanks to a freak injury to his finger nail. My logic behind the vow? If guys like Lyle Overbay, Reed Johnson, Gus Chacin, Troy Glaus, BJ Ryan, Roy Halladay, and AJ Burnett didn't go down with injuries last year, and guys like Josh Towers, Tomo Ohka and Victor Zambrano didn't suck so good, the Jays wouldn't have gotten the performances they did last season from Matt Stairs, Jeremy Accardo, Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum, John McDonald, and Jesse Litsch. Injuries helped the Toronto Blue Jays in 2007.

Guys stepped up last year. I'm hoping the trend will continue. Janssen's out? Fine, life goes on. Brandon League is back and looking like he did two years ago and I'm confident he can eat Casey's innings. BJ's not ready? No big deal, there's no rush. Accardo proved he can close out games in the American League East, and that's no easy task. Scott Rolen's out four-to-six weeks? It sucks, but what can you do? This is why JP Ricciardi went out and signed David Eckstein and Marco Scutaro, and don't forget the serviceable John McDonald on the bench, who played out of his mind last season. Matt Stairs is nursing a sore hip? Stew, a career .300 hitter and one half of the left field platoon, can play everyday if he has to.

Injuries are a part of baseball. I think I've finally come to terms with that. The good teams don't bitch about it. They overcome.

At the same time, I'm scared. What if McGowan, Marcum and Litsch can't duplicate their success from last season? The Jays need these three kids like a crackhead needs a hit. And if AJ Burnett doesn't put together a healthy season, I'm hoping he opts-out of his contract and finds work elsewhere. Like every team in the big's, the questions are plentiful when it comes to the starting rotation. If, however, the kids pitch the way they did last year, and improve, the Jays boast one of the best rotations, and bullpens, in the American League.

The pitching, I pray, will be fine, and do what they did last year, again. It's the hitting that must get better. If Vernon Wells doesn't improve on his 2007 statistics, I will be sick to my stomach in regards to the seven-year, $119 million dollar extension the Jays signed him to last year. Lyle Overbay also needs to bounce back from a brutal 2007 campaign. The pressure is on, as it should be.

While David Eckstein didn't impress me too much in the leadoff position last night - he was 0-for-4 and left a couple of runner's on base - he's a proven hitter who can get on base. He's also a proven winner.

It's more than just one individual hitter, though. Last night, as I wrote above, the Jays beat themselves. As a team, Toronto left 13 runners on base, and went a pathetic 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position. That isn't going to get the job done, not against a team like New York. Vernon, although I hate to single him out, was brutal. He went 0-for-4 in the clean up spot and left four men on base. Come on Vernon. I need you right now.

What makes the loss a bit easier to swallow is that the game was there for the taking last night. The Jays owned a 2-1 lead and had they tacked on a couple of insurance runs, and they certainly had their chances, they could have spoiled the party in the Bronx last night.

Don't get me wrong, there were positives. The Jays stole three bases, two by Scutaro and one by Alex Rios. On the flip side, Gregg Zaun, he of the noodle arm, threw out Derek Jeter trying to steal second base. That doesn't happen everyday, folks.

AJ Burnett takes the ball for the Blue Jays tomorrow night, looking to tie the three-game set at one's. For Burnett, and for manager John Gibbons and GM Ricciardi, this season is a big one. Hell, it's a big one for everyone involved. If the Jays are serious about contending come September, they've got to start the season off on the right foot.

One game down, only 161 to go.

And remember: Blue Jays Baseball. You Gotta Believe.