JAYS LIMP INTO BREAK

HOW CAN THEY IM­PROVE?

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - MELISSA COUTO

The Toronto Blue Jays will be­gin the un­of­fi­cial sec­ond half of the Ma­jor League Baseball sea­son on Fri­day with a 41-47 record, good for last place in the Amer­i­can League East. With their play­off hopes fad­ing — they’re five games back of the sec­ond AL wild card with seven teams be­tween them — here are five things they need to do to stay afloat.

Fire up the bats

Josh Don­ald­son, Jose Bautista, Troy Tu­low­itzki and Russell Martin all showed signs they were start­ing to heat up of­fen­sively just be­fore the all-star break. Toronto will need their big bats to con­trib­ute in the sec­ond half. The Blue Jays’ of­fence ranks 26th among 30 MLB teams in runs scored with 366 (topranked Hous­ton has 527) and Toronto’s team bat­ting av­er­age is .244, 24th in baseball. For a lineup full of play­ers who can hit for power, the Jays have belted 31 less homers (117) than the Astros (148), who also lead MLB in that cat­e­gory.

Step up with Sanchez

The Blue Jays got only six starts from Aaron Sanchez over the first half of the sea­son as he bat­tled blis­ter and fin­ger­nail is­sues. While re­liever Joe Bi­agini filled in ad­mirably at times, Toronto was clearly miss­ing Sanchez’s power arm. The Jays had ex­pected the 25year-old right-han­der to fig­ure promi­nently in their rotation this year, but a blis­ter that formed in spring train­ing even­tu­ally led to the re­moval of part of his af­fected fin­ger­nail in late April. Sanchez has made only four starts since then with bouts of DL time in be­tween. He had a rough last out­ing be­fore the break — a 12-2 loss to Hous­ton in which he lasted only 1 2/3 in­nings. Toronto will need Sanchez to re­turn to his 2016 form in the sec­ond half. Keep Smoak Smokin’ Last year, Cana­dian out­fielder Michael Saunders blos­somed into an all-star cal­i­bre hit­ter over the first half of Toronto’s sea­son. The Vic­to­ria na­tive had 16 homers and a .298 bat­ting av­er­age at the break, earn­ing a spot on the Amer­i­can League squad for the Mid­sum­mer Clas­sic for the first time in his ca­reer. But Saunders sput­tered in the sec­ond half, hit­ting .178 with a .282 on-base per­cent­age. Toronto can’t af­ford to have the same thing hap­pen to its first-time all-star this sea­son, Justin Smoak. Smoak got off to a rather un­ex­pected hot start, bat­ting .294 with 23 homers and 56 RBIs through 87 games. The 30-year-old switch hit­ter, one of the most con­sis­tent Jays at the plate this sea­son, will need to keep up that pace when he re­turns from the all-star game in Miami. Recharge the bullpen With Toronto’s starters fail­ing to pitch deep into games so of­ten this sea­son, the Blue Jays’ taxed re­lief corps will be wel­com­ing the four-day all-star break. Toronto’s bullpen has pitched 314 in­nings, fifth most in the ma­jors and sec­ond in the Amer­i­can League be­hind Bal­ti­more, and they’ve given up 160 runs (147 of them earned), tied for sixth most in the AL. The bullpen hasn’t been all bad, though. One of the team’s best per­form­ers in the first half has been closer Roberto Osuna, who’s on a streak of 21 straight saves. Keep­ing the 22year-old right-han­der fresh will be one of the keys to Toronto’s suc­cess in the sec­ond half. Re­tool, not re­build The Blue Jays will have a sig­nif­i­cant stretch of 17 games from the end of the all-star break to the trade dead­line on July 31. If by that point man­age­ment feels the play­offs are not within reach, they can still add to their ros­ter at the dead­line, pick­ing up use­ful com­modi­ties that can help the team over the next cou­ple of years. Pend­ing free agents like Marco Estrada, Francisco Liri­ano and even Bautista could go, but only if the re­turn makes sense for Toronto long-term. Big names still un­der con­tract through next sea­son, such as Josh Don­ald­son, will likely stay put — un­less a team presents Toronto with an of­fer too good to pass up.

CHRIS YOUNG, THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Blue Jays third base­man Josh Don­ald­son needs to step it up at the plate for them to con­tend in the sec­ond half of this ma­jor-league baseball sea­son.

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