Lott: Still searching for answers, the Blue Jays lose to a familiar foe in series opener

Michael Saunders
Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Saunders was not deliberately criticizing his fellow hitters. But his observation was disturbingly accurate, and an astute commentary on the state of the Blue Jays’ offence.

On a key play in the eighth inning, Saunders knew he had a better chance of scoring from third on a short fly ball than waiting to score some other way.

“I felt like we had a better chance pushing that play than we did trying to get another hit or a passed ball or an error or something along those lines,” Saunders said.

These days, the Blue Jays will happily take anything along those lines. But after loading the bases in the eighth and needing a run to tie, Troy Tulowitzki hit one of his increasingly familiar short fly balls. Rangers’ right-fielder Nomar Mazara made the catch running toward the foul line. Saunders tagged up and took off.

The tag was waiting when Saunders approached the plate. He slid on his chest, arms outstretched like the wings of a glider. He feinted to his right and slapped the plate with his left hand.

It was the best he could do. Mazara had made a terrific throw. The play was close, but Saunders was called out, and called out again on a video review, because he was out.

The double play ended the inning. The Blue Jays lost 2-1. They left eight runners on base. They struck out 10 times. They wasted a strong pitching performance by R.A. Dickey.

It was another Groundhog Day for the Blue Jays – good pitching, paltry hitting. The kind of game that forces a team to take a risk like the one third-base coach Luis Rivera and Saunders had to take in that eighth inning.

Manager John Gibbons said Saunders had to go.

“The right-fielder’s on the run over to the line,” he said. “We’re trying to make something happen. I got no problem with that at all. Plus, two-out hits are hard to come by.”

In that inning, Rangers’ reliever Sam Dyson came in to face the top of the order. Naturally, Blue Jays fans and the local sportswriting community were aching for something akin to the last time Dyson faced the Jays, in the seventh inning of Game 5 of the ALDS, when Jose Bautista hit the famous bat-flip homer that helped Toronto win a thriller of a series.

That inning has been rehashed for fun and mainly for profit all winter and will be again this week while the Rangers are in town for a four-game series.

This time, Dyson walked Saunders, the leadoff hitter, and gave up a single to Josh Donaldson. Up stepped Bautista, who hit a sharp line drive to Mazara in right, so hard that Saunders could not advance, even if he had tagged up immediately, which he didn’t. But then Dyson walked Edwin Encarnacion to load the bases.

The result for the Blue Jays: no runs, one hit, two left on.

The Jays put the leadoff batter on in the ninth too. But Ryan Goins bunted into a force play at second. Two ground balls later, it was over.

“Bottom line, in these close games, we’re just not executing good enough to win,” Gibbons said. “It’s pretty simple. Baserunning’s been a little shoddy. We haven’t been getting the bunts down like we should. In tight ball games, you don’t win that way.”

And you don’t win if you don’t hit. The offence that was supposed to carry this team has scored 106 runs, an average of 3.93 per game. The pitching staff that was expected to be mediocre has allowed 105 runs, an average of 3.89 per game.

In the last two months of the 2015 season, pitchers could never relax against the Blue Jays’ lineup. So far this season, they have been able to breathe easier after getting through the top four hitters.

The fifth man – the key man in this ragged evolution – is Troy Tulowitzki, one of the best offensive shortstops in history. He is batting .165.

He struck out three times against the Rangers. He has struck out in almost 30 percent of his plate appearances. So has the Jays’ offence.

Gibbons was asked about those strikeouts for the umpteenth time. He didn’t want to talk about them.

“That’s old news, you know,” he said.

And that was the point. A month into the season, the narrative has not changed.

Dickey claimed to be optimistic. You’ve heard the mantra. Too many proven hitters for this slump to persist, etc., etc.

“You’re dealing with a lot of professionals in here, pros’ pros,” he said. “It’s very unlikely that this trend is going to continue. Rarely do you have four or five guys in the lineup not going at the same time. It’s rare.

“We can all sit up here and say it’s going to turn, but until it does, there’s no guarantee.”

Of course it could change. History says it should. But no, there are no guarantees. And so far, there has been no change.

Postscript: A writer looking for low-hanging fruit asked Gibbons whether he had a flashback when Bautista came up against Dyson with two on. Sure, Gibbons said. The setup was perfect. But Dyson got out of it this time.

“He’s good,” Gibbons said. “I think he’s an old Blue Jay farmhand. I don’t know how the hell he got away, but he did.”

Here’s how the hell he got away. In 2012, the Jays called Dyson up from Double-A. Then-manager John Farrell said Dyson had the best stuff of any pitcher in the Toronto system. In two games, Dyson got two outs and gave up four hits and three runs.

On Jan. 30, 2013 – roughly two months after Gibbons was hired as manager – the Jays put Dyson on waivers. The Marlins claimed him. In the middle of 2015, Miami traded him to Texas for two minor-leaguers. Down the stretch, he logged a 1.15 ERA for the Rangers.