After splitting a two-game series with the Yankees – where the Jays rallied back in a team effort to win the first game and lost the second game making Bartolo Colon look like the pitcher he was when he won the Cy Young with the Angels in 2005 – the Jays continue their home stand with three games against the surging Tampa Bay Rays.
Joining me for the series preview is Ben Ice, Lead Writer on FanSided’s Rays site Rays Colored Glasses, and he’ll be adding everything on the Rays after the jump. Here’s everything you need to know:
Toronto Blue Jays
2011 Regular Season Record: 8-10, T-3rd in A.L. East (3.0 GB)
Tampa Bay Rays
2011 Regular Season Record: 9-10, 2nd in A.L. East (2.5 GB)
April 22: Jo-Jo Reyes vs. Jeremy Hellickson
Jared: Reyes has been under the microscope ever since he won a spot in the rotation after a very strong spring. After struggling in his first start, pitching seven innings of one-run ball in his second start, and struggling again in his third start, many assumed that he was destined for the minor leagues when reliever Frank Francisco was returning from the disabled list. The fact Reyes was out of options was one of the factors – among others that I covered earlier this week – that allowed him to stay in the rotation in favor of right-hander Jesse Litsch, who pitched better than Reyes in his three starts this season but was optioned to Triple-A Las Vegas on Tuesday.
Reyes will have to keep the ball down in the zone and keep hitters guessing on his second and third times through the lineup if he wants to have any kind of success against the Rays and answer his critics. In his last start, Reyes lasted just three innings and allowed seven hits, four earned runs, and five walks. He has never faced the Rays in his career.
Ben: The latest in the Rays bumper crop of pitchers to make the rotation, Hellickson started the season in fine fashion, striking out ten in a loss against the Los Angeles Angels. Since then he’s been plagued by allowing too many free passes. In two subsequent games against the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins Hellickson has walked seven in 12 and a third innings while recording only four strikeouts. This will be his first start against the Blue Jays.
April 23: Brandon Morrow vs. David Price
Set to make his first Major League start of the season, Morrow returns to the Jays’ rotation after making three rehab starts with Hi-A Dunedin where he allowed 13 hits, eight earned runs, and six walks in just 9.1 innings. Morrow hit the 15-day disabled list at the end of spring training with a right forearm strain, an unfortunate blow to the promising right-hander who went 2-0 with a 0.75 ERA and 16 strikeouts in three spring starts (12 innings).
Morrow has had success against the Rays so far in his career. In eight games (four starts), Morrow has gone 2-1 with a 1.42 ERA in 31.2 innings, allowing 15 walks and just 11 hits as well as 32 strikeouts.
B: After the first two games of the season Price was 0-2 with a 4.85 ERA. Not exactly what we expected from the AL Cy Young runner-up. Since then he has only allowed two earned runs in 15 and 2/3 innings while striking out 12 and recording two wins.
Price faired well against the Blue Jays in 2010, winning all four games started with a sparkling 0.58 ERA. that included a complete game four hit shutout on April 25th. Price struck out nine Blue Jays in that game, recording 23 K’s in 31 innings pitched while allowing only a .198 batting average against.
April 24: Ricky Romero vs. James Shields
J: Romero didn’t look like himself in his last start against the Red Sox at Fenway Park on Monday, lasting just 4.1 innings and allowing eight hits and a season-high five earned runs and five walks. His season ERA “ballooned” to a still respectable 3.12, but he’ll definitely look to cut down on his walks and go deeper into the game as everyone knows he can. Romero’s previous outing of 4.1 innings marked the first time this season that he has lasted fewer than 6.1 innings, and despite that outing, he is still posting the best K/9 and BB/9 numbers of his career so far this season. In 5 career starts against the Rays, Romero is 2-2 with a 4.45 ERA in 32.1 innings with 19 walks and 28 strikeouts.
B: Shields struggled last year with a 5.18 ERA after being a work horse for the Rays in 2007-2009. The wheels were already wobbling in the 2009 season as Shields won only 11 games while recording his first post 4.0 ERA since his breakout season in 2006. The Jays bombed him in two starts in 2010; Shields ERA versus Toronto was 12.00 and he had a .372 BAA. With the exception of his game against the White Sox at U.S. Cellular park on April 8th Shields has recorded a quality start in each of his games so far and looks more like the Big Game James of the past. He’ll need to be on his best behavior against a Toronto team that has slumped recently.
Blue Jays: Edwin Encarnacion
Recently ending their experiment with Encarnacion at third base this season, the Jays have officially replaced the struggling Juan Rivera with Encarnacion as their primary designated hitter. It’s hard to complain about the move, as Encarnacion has hit .385 with 10 hits and 3 RBIs in 26 at-bats as a DH this season, compared to hitting just .158 in 19 at-bats as a third baseman.
Over his last 10 games, Encarnacion has gone 13-for-40 (.325) with a .807 OPS, including 5 doubles, 3 RBIs, 2 walks, and 7 runs scored. Over that 10-game span, Encarnacion has managed to hit in eight of those games as well.
Rays: Matt Joyce
B: While he hasn’t flexed his muscles in the power game yet Joyce is batting .458 in his last seven games, out-pacing the more heralded Super Sam Fuld during that stretch. Joyce, who came over from the Detroit Tigers in the Edwin Jackson trade, will be counted on to provide some punch in the lineup.
Blue Jays: Travis Snider
J: With Juan Rivera now out of an everyday role, Travis Snider now finds himself in this section for the first time this season. Prior to his walk-off double against the Yankees on Tuesday, Snider was hitting just .100/.181/.180 in 50 plate appearances dating back to April 5, including 13 strikeouts. Aside from looking visibly frustrated at times – even breaking his bat after his third strikeout of the game on Tuesday – Snider has looked lost at the plate, especially when he is thrown breaking balls. He did manage to follow up Tuesday’s walk-off double with a 2-for-4 performance including a double (but two more strikeouts) on Wednesday, so hopefully it’s a sign of better things to come for the young left-handed hitter.
Rays: B.J. Upton
B: The subject of trade rumors for the past three seasons and derision from fans regarding his seeming lack of hustle in the field, Upton has struck out eight times in his last 20 at bats and hit only .100 in his last six games. Upton was 8 for 31 last year at Rogers Centre, with one home run and five RBI and will need to wake up soon or he may find himself on the move when the trading deadline looms. Justin Ruggiano is making waves with the Rays AAA affiliate Durham Bulls, batting .315 with four home runs and 15 RBI and could be a viable replacement.
Aaron Hill is still considered day-by-day after MRI results came back after he slid awkwardly into second base on Tuesday. Reports have indicated the Jays prefer not to send Hill to the DL, and will do so only if they really have to.
15-day DL: OF Scott Podsednik (plantar fasciitis in left foot), CF Rajai Davis (aggravated right ankle sprain)
60-day DL: RP Jesse Carlson (left shoulder), RP Dustin McGowan (right rotator cuff)
Evan Longoria will travel with the team to Toronto and Minnesota during their upcoming road swing but is not expected to play. He’ll participate in light workouts as he works to return from a strained left oblique that has had him on the DL after only five regular season at bats. Joe Maddon said they’ll continue to watch him closely and decide when he could get back into the game. This is a good sign for the Gold Glove winner and would be a huge boost for the team.
J.P Howell has been on the DL since last season after tearing his labrum and ending his 2010 campaign before it really got underway. It’s expected he’ll start his trip back today as he is scheduled to pitch in two extended spring training games before appearing twice for the Port Charlotte Stone Crabs, the Rays Class A affiliate. If all goes well he’ll pitch at least five times for the team’s AAA Durham Bulls and, barring any set backs, could be back on the team sometime in the middle of May.
Jared: After starting the year 0-6, the Rays have completely turned it around, going 9-4 in their 13 games since, including 8 of their last 10. What have been the main reasons, to you, for the turn around?
Ben: Last year the Rays won the AL East even though they were 26th in the majors in hitting with a .247 BA. This team is built around pitching and defense, but early in the season the starters were getting shelled and the hitters weren’t getting hits. That changed when Sam Fuld starting making plays in the outfield. It gave the media something to focus on and take the glare away from a team that most people in baseball figured was done even before the season started. Now pitching is healthy and the bats are coming around. One thing I’d mention is that had that six game losing streak happened later in the season, reports would have said the Rays were “scuffling.” Baseball has an ebb and flow and right now the team is “flowing.”
J: Conveniently once Manny Ramirez retired, the Rays started to win. Do you feel that Manny was ever a distraction to the team at all, and how are the Rays replacing the production that the team was relying on Ramirez to provide all season?
B: I’m certain that Manny brought some media attention but I don’t think it was negative. It’s possible that some of the players had expectations based on how he hit during spring training, and more so were looking at him to lead the charge. Manny retiring sent a shock through the club house…I believe it was a wake up call that guys would need to step up. Remember that there are still a number of guys who have been there through two AL East championships and an AL pennant. They know how to play through adversity.
J: How have Felipe Lopez and Casey Kotchman – both signed to minor league contracts in the offseason – been looking both offensively and defensively so far this season?
B: I really expected Kotchman to break camp with the team. His defense is more like Pena’s–Gold Glove caliber — and defense is a premium on this club. His bat will never be mistaken for Pena’s, but when he is swinging well he is a great contact hitter. Playing in his childhood home has to be helping as well. I think he’ll own 1B for the Rays since timely hitting will be more important than slugging. For all that Pena brought to the team he let them down by not getting hits when they really needed him to.
Lopez bat and speed aren’t real strengths anymore but he fills the role that Willy Aybar had the past couple years and skipper Joe Maddon has rewarded him with good positions in the lineup. His value is as a utility player and Maddon loves to massage his lineups on a daily basis. His defense has been ok, with two errors. Lopez is more of a place holder in the lineup and I don’t expect him to get a lot of at bats once Longoria returns, which should be soon.
Ben: The Blue Jays sent down Brent Cecil, who has struggled this year after breaking out in 2010, going 15-7 with a 4.22 ERA. Manager John Farrell said his velocity was down, in the upper 80′s. What is the prognosis for him for the balance of the season?
Jared: With Cecil, his velocity issues went back to spring training, and he got more frustrated with every start. That has just compounded each start into the regular season, with Cecil finally reaching his breaking point when he was pulled after another shaky start against the Yankees in Toronto.
He’s being sent down to Triple-A to get his confidence back, clear his head, and rediscover the pitcher he was when he led the Jays with 15 wins last year. The setting in Vegas is a lot more laid back and Cecil won’t feel as much pressure down there, so he’ll go back to the drawing board mechanically and find his skill again. It’s tough to put a timetable on his return, but it would make sense that Cecil would make at least 3-4 starts down in Vegas before he would be called up again, and if he hits a few snags while he’s down there, he might not even return to the Jays until possibly late May or early June.
B: The Blue Jays batters are in a major funk, hitting only .215 over the last seven days. Who will lead them out of the darkness, and can you see that happening with the Rays coming to town?
J: The Jays’ offense was certainly an issue over the course of their recent 3-7 road trip, and it was noticeable in Wednesday’s game against the Yankees too, where they managed just three extra-base hits off Bartolo Colon.
The Jays are certainly relieved to be back at home, and could very well get back on track against the Rays. It’s tough to predict how they’ll do against Hellickson for the first time, but the matchups favor the Jays against Price and Shields. Both Bautista and Rivera have had success against Price, and Price hasn’t exactly enjoyed pitching in Toronto, lasting just 11 innings in two career starts at the Dome with a 4.91 ERA. As for Shields, many Jays have had success against him, like Bautista (.429), Rivera (.467), and Lind (.344), and Shields has never been overpowering when pitching in Toronto, going 1-3 in six career starts with a 5.87 ERA.
The Jays will look to continue their new running game against the Rays, and other players that could be factors for the Jays would be Yunel Escobar and J.P. Arencibia.
B: Edwin Encarnacion is obviously not the answer at the hot corner, and I can’t imagine Jayson Nix is anything more than a place holder. With Brett Lawrie tearing up AAA, how long before he gets the call?
J: Many people around baseball are confident that it’s definitely a matter of when Lawrie will get called up, rather than if. Having seen him personally this spring, he looked like a natural at third base and was already making some difficult plays at the hot corner despite only having played the position for a month or two. He is a gifted overall athlete, with great speed, great baseball I.Q., and a work ethic that’s second to none.
That being said, although Lawrie impressed Jays management in Spring Training, the biggest reason they wanted to send him to Triple-A was to get him more acclimated to third base. There’s no question that he can contribute offensively – as he’s currently hitting .410/.455/.656 with 7 doubles, 1 triple, and 2 home runs in 14 Triple-A games so far – but he has already committed six errors (both throwing and fielding) this season. The Jays have one of their roving minor league instructors flying down there soon to work with Lawrie specifically on his defense. There’s also been rumblings that he might not stick at third base and eventually move to left field.
As for a timetable to see Lawrie in Toronto, June is the time being thrown around the most, but the Jays could opt to keep him in the minors until the rosters expand in September. Given the Jays’ lack of appealing Major League options at third base, though, it’s a safe bet to say that Lawrie could be wearing a Jays uniform before the All-Star break.
Thanks to Ben for joining me on this series preview!