Vancouver Sun

Jays remain in the race despite tumultuous start

- ROB LONGLEY

The “it's early” crowd will keep that stake in the ground for months yet.

And with 129 games remaining for the Toronto Blue Jays — plus two potential moves to new home stadiums — there is plenty still to unfold in the 2021 MLB season. That said, the 17-16 Jays have now played a tumultuous fifth of their season and there remains reason for optimism.

Given the ridiculous rash of injuries the team has encountere­d, a stout schedule and other challenges, the Jays have stayed well positioned in the American League East race while providing ample evidence that their stock can improve considerab­ly.

“We feel good about how we've weathered this portion of the year,” Jays general manager Ross Atkins said recently. “Starting this season with 16 consecutiv­e games (without a day off ), starting away from Toronto at a spring training site, and then having George Springer on the IL for the majority of the time and some other injuries we've had to deal with ... the guys have been competitiv­e.”

Almost definitive­ly, the Jays have been a middle of the road team — and given how things have unfolded, they'll take it. Competitiv­e? Yes, the Blue Jays are that, as they have shown on a number of occasions by grinding out wins in unconventi­onal ways.

Along the way, the Jays have seen their players make a league-high 21 trips to the injured list, including two separate dispatches for Springer, the US$150 million man who should have a massive impact on this team's fate when he finally gets healthy.

There has been a schedule loaded with early dates against solid teams and division leaders. Of the first 33 games, 24 have been against teams with records of .500 or better, a far more gruelling stretch than what the Jays will face in late summer.

So while there have been some bumps, to be sure, starting with the pitching staff that has been ravaged by injuries, the Jays soldier on. At one point, the team was essentiall­y reduced to two reliable starters, and even now, they have just three who would fit that category in Hyun-Jin Ryu, Robbie Ray and Steven Matz.

Coming off a pandemic season, the team expected injuries to be an issue, though perhaps not to this degree.

“The odds of being 100 per cent healthy aren't high, but that calls on the importance of depth, and over the course of the year, we'll be healthier than we are today,” Atkins said. “I can't say enough about how well (pitching coaches) Pete Walker and Matt Buschmann have prepared our pitchers with our baseball operations staff and how (manager Charlie Montoyo) has deployed them to keep us in games and remain competitiv­e.”

On one level, such high wire balancing of the pitching staff necessitat­ed due to injuries isn't sustainabl­e. But to Atkins' point, it's also difficult to envision the traffic to the infirmary his team has seen thus far continuing for the duration of the season.

As that process unfolds, the GM believes the starting pitching situation will get some much-needed assistance when the high-powered offence settles in with consistent production.

There have certainly been flashes of it to date — with Randal Grichuk, Teoscar Hernandez, Marcus Semien and Vlad Guerrero Jr. all having noted hot streaks — but there's no doubt that Springer's regular presence will have a profound impact.

“I'm excited about the offensive potential — that we have confidence in,” Atkins said. “I think you saw the difference when you have George Springer's discipline­d approach in our lineup, and how that impacts others throughout, and how it impacts the starting pitcher.

“As the guys get into the flow of things, our offence will improve.”

Another area of optimism has been infield defence, despite the sketchy starts from both Bo Bichette at shortstop and Cavan Biggio at third base. In the first 20 games of the season, the Jays made a damaging 15 errors. But over their past 13 contests, they have tightened up considerab­ly, making just three miscues.

That improvemen­t has also helped the Jays weather the injury storm, the incessant roster moves, and the absence of Springer for all but four games. Other than one day, they have never been more than two games below .500 or two games above the level-water mark.

Staying in touch has been an accomplish­ment, but now it's on to the next stage of the schedule and another indicator of their developmen­t. Following the three games in Atlanta starting Tuesday, the Jays return to Dunedin for their final Florida home stand before shifting north to Buffalo.

After playing three games against the Phillies back in Dunedin, they Blue Jays begin a 10-day stretch against AL East opponents that will further test and gauge their competitiv­e standing. They play three against Boston and four against Tampa before heading to New York for three games against the Yankees.

“We feel really good about the step that this team has taken this year and are looking forward to the time ahead,” Atkins said.

 ?? CARMEN MANDATO/GETTY IMAGES ?? Bo Bichette reacts to a called strike during the seventh inning of Sunday's 7-4 loss to the Astros. Bichette has been a bright spot for the Jays in the early going, writes Rob Longley.
CARMEN MANDATO/GETTY IMAGES Bo Bichette reacts to a called strike during the seventh inning of Sunday's 7-4 loss to the Astros. Bichette has been a bright spot for the Jays in the early going, writes Rob Longley.
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