After the disaster that was April, it’s incredible that the Blue Jays have managed to pull themselves back to life so quickly. The Jays went 18-10 in May, essentially erasing that terrible injury-riddled first month in which they started 8-17 and appeared to be fully in holy shit the season is over mode.
But here we are! Just a few games out of a playoff spot and right in the thick of the American League East conversation. To be fair, though, May presented the Jays with a very easy schedule. They were presented the opportunity to climb back up the ladder with games against Seattle, Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati, and they capitalized on it.
June will bring a new set of challenges as the Jays schedule becomes significantly more difficult. The first test is a four-game series with the AL East leading New York Yankees. Three or four wins this weekend would be huge for Toronto’s climb up the division, and would go a long way in solidifying confidence that the team from May is the real deal.
Thursday at 7:07 ET
The CC Sabathia rollercoaster is on its way up right now. Is it going to come down? Probably. Do we know when? Absolutely not. Sabathia had a strong start to the season, but then had four-straight starts in which he allowed four or more runs. Now he’s on a three-start winning streak and has seen his strikeout totals increase. Sabathia doesn’t have the same stuff or velocity that he used to back when he was a perennial Cy Young candidate, but he can still be effective by pitching rather than throwing. When he’s effective, he’s hitting the corners and pounding his cut fastball high and inside. That said, he’s struggled in terms of giving up extra base hits to right-handed hitters this season, as righties are clubbing a .412 slugging percentage off of Sabathia, which could bode well for the Jays lineup.
Going for the Jays will be Marco Estrada, who’s been excellent in back-to-back starts now. In his last two outings, Estrada has tossed 13 2/3 innings, holding Baltimore and Texas to two runs on nine hits while picking up 20 strikeouts. Estrada has faced the Yankees once this season already, going seven innings and allowing only one run. He’s fared well against New York in the past, so this matchup likely favours the Blue Jays.
Friday at 7:07 ET
Speaking of roller coasters, Michael Pineda’s is at possibly an all-time high. Pineda has been excellent this season, posting a 3.32 ERA through 59 2/3 innings over 10 starts. His 7.5 hits per nine is his best since his impressive 13-game rookie stint in 2014, and that seems to be the result of increased changeup usage. Pineda is using off-speed stuff more, and as a result, is inducing more soft and medium contact. He’s also having a better time hitting the strike zone, as his walks per nine are down to 1.8 from 2.7 last season. Pineda has only had one bad start this season, but otherwise, he’s been ridiculously consistent, allowing no more than two runs in nine consecutive starts.
Francisco Liriano will make his first start since being placed on the 10-day disabled list in early May. In his last start, Liriano was hammered for seven runs in two innings by Cleveland and was subsequently placed on the DL with shoulder inflammation. It’s hard to say what we’ll get from Liriano, who’s the wild card of the Jays pitching staff. He strikes a lot of guys out, walks a lot of guys, and can be a totally different pitcher from game to game. I would say this matchup likely favours the Yankees.
Saturday at 1:07 ET
Jordan Montgomery has been very solid for the Yankees in his rookie season. In spring training, he was mixed up in a battle for the team’s fifth rotation spot, won it, and has ran with it. He has a 4.11 ERA through nine starts, and his peripherals are solid. He limits hard contact, throws strikes, and has been largely consistent, though unspectacular, so far this season. His strategy is using his fastball to get ahead in counts and then using an effective slider as a finishing pitch.
Joe Biagini has filled in a similar role as Montgomery for the Yankees. Biagini has now made five starts since being plunked from the bullpen into the rotation and has fared admirably. In his last start, Biagini limited the Rangers to two runs over six innings, which was a good sign after a couple of shaky outings against Milwaukee and Atlanta.
Sunday at 1:07 ET
And finally, on Sunday, we’ll have the battle of young aces. Marcus Stroman has enjoyed a breakout season so far in 2017, as has Luis Severino.
Severino was very bad in 2016, which was disappointing after his excellent rookie stint the year before. But so far this year, he’s easily been New York’s best starter. Severino has tossed 61 1/3 innings, posting a 2.93 ERA and excellent peripherals. He’s striking out 10.1 batters per nine, doesn’t allow much hard contact, and has been able to keep the ball in the zone, which was an issue for him in 2015 and 2016.
Save for two outings, Stroman has been damn good for the Jays this season. One of those bad starts came against the Yankees in New York, but the five runs in three innings performance can be chalked up to an arm injury that forced Stroman from the game. Over his last five outings, Stroman has been very consistent, allowing more than two runs just once. In Aaron Sanchez’s absence, Stroman has certainly stepped up, which has been huge for a team that badly needed it.
Like I said, this is a huge series. The Jays are surging, and the Yankees are slowing down a little bit after coming out of the gates flying. A series sweep would bring the Jays to within a game and a half of the Yankees. A sweep in the other direction would set the Jays back to 9.5 games out of the division. In terms of starting pitchers, I figure Toronto has a clear advantage on Thursday, New York has the advantage on Friday, and Saturday and Sunday are evenly matched.
It isn’t quite ‘rolling into The Bronx MadMax.jpeg’ August 2015 stuff, but this is a very, very big series. It should be fun.