Monday, June 15, 2015

Toronto's Torrid Hitting Fuels Streak

Pricey free agent addition Russell Martin has been a huge success (US News)
Things were looking pretty bleak for the Toronto Blue Jays on the afternoon of June 2nd. The Jays had just been shut out for the first time this year, dropping Game 1 of a doubleheader to the Washington Nationals 2-0. The team who many thought would win the AL East this year had fallen a season-low seven games below .500, much closer to last place than first place.

Then the Blue Jays started winning, and they haven't lost since. They took the nightcap 7-3, then routed the Nats 8-0 the following day to take the series finale and the series. At the end of a week-long road trip, Toronto was just getting started.

The Blue Jays returned home from our nation's capitol and swept the red-hot Astros, winning the first two games handily before punctuating their second sweep of the year with a come-from-behind, walkoff victory. They followed that sweep with another of the Miami Marlins, which featured another thrilling comeback-walkoff.

Having climbed above .500 for the first time in a month, Toronto traveled to Boston for a three-game set at Fenway. The Jays broke out their bats, scoring 13 runs in the opener and finale--31 in all. In between Toronto ran its win-streak to double digits with a 5-4 victory in 11 innings--the team's second extra inning win of the year and first since April 18th. All three wins were exceptional, with the visitors overcoming a seven-run deficit in the opener, winning the middle game in extras, and pounding the Bosox 13-5 in the finale.

With yesterday's rout, the Blue Jays completed their third consecutive sweep, tying a franchise record with their eleventh straight victory. They've averaged an incredible eight runs per game over the course of their streak, bludgeoning opponents with the best offense in the game. Their pitching has been better as well, allowing three runs or less in seven of the eight games before falling victim to Fenway's friendly confines.

It took them two months, but the Jays have finally bloomed into a team worthy of the preseason hype. They have the majors' best run-differential and have murdered lefties like few others in the Wild Card era.

Not coincidentally, Toronto's win streak has paralleled the re-emergence of All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes, who has hit safely in all 11 of their victories. Reyes, who returned from a four-week absence on Memorial Day, has notched at least one hit in 17 of 18 games since coming off the disabled list, raising his OPS 170 points during that time. He's played a huge role in Toront's win streak, driving in 11 runs out of the leadoff spot and scoring in eight straight games.

Toronto's lineup has also benefited from the resurgence of Russell Martin, who went a month between home runs before jacking three last week, including the game-winning blast in Saturday's extra inning affair. Martin's also currently riding a six-game hit streak, while teammate Edwin Encarnacion has hit safely in seven straight. Jose Bautista, who cranked four home runs in a four-game span after managing just seven through his first 47, also appears to be finding his form after a slow start. If they hit like they have in the past, Josh Donaldson keeps hitting as he has, and Devon Travis comes back strong, Toronto's going to light up scoreboards all summer long.

It's funny that the Blue Jays are essentially the team everyone expected their rival Red Sox to be, leading the majors in runs scored (by a lot, as well as doubles, slugging, OPS, and total bases) but ranking near the bottom (third-to-last) in ERA (and home runs allowed). Toronto's won by outslugging its competition thus far, but for that to continue its position players must stay healthy and productive. That won't be easy given that Martin, Bautista, Encarnacion, Reyes, and Chris Colabello--over half the starting lineup--are all on the wrong side of 30. The pitching will have to improve eventually, because the lineup can only cover their mistakes for so long. Look for Alex Anthopoulos to seek out starting pitching help at the trade deadline--Cole Hamels would be a huge get.

In the meantime, Toronto will shoot for a franchise-record 12th straight victory tonight in Flushing behind Mark Buehrle, who's delivered a pair of strong starts during the run including his first shutout in almost two years. The Mets, who have the same record as the Jays (34-30) and currently sit atop the NL East, will counter with Noah Syndergaard, the rookie phenom who was still in diapers the last time Toronto reached the postseason. Mets fans hope Syndergaard (2.96 FIP) and Citi Field's carvernous dimensions can combine to stifle Toronto's torrid offense, but after seeing the Jays turn Fenway Park into a pinball machine I certainly wouldn't bet on it.

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