Rotation letting Blue Jays down in early going
DETROIT -- Given the soaring expectations that accompanied the Toronto Blue Jays into the 2013 season, their current 3-6 record qualifies as a surprise.
However, when you examine the work of the Toronto starting pitchers over those nine games, you find that the rotation has compiled a 7.59 ERA. That 3-6 record is no longer surprising.
This is bound to change, right? These five starters are much better than this, individually, collectively, however you want to group or categorize them. R.A. Dickey, Brandon Morrow, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, J.A. Happ -- these people are supposed to be the solution, not the problem. Happ had the best starting performance -- a scoreless outing over 5 1/3 innings -- but none of the starters has pitched into the seventh inning this season.
After generating some optimism Wednesday by overcoming a five-run deficit against the Detroit Tigers, the Jays could have reasonably hoped that the exceptionally talented Johnson would keep their momentum going on Thursday. But Johnson gave up six runs in just 1 1/3 innings and the Blue Jays were on their way to an 11-1 loss to the Tigers.
Conditions were far from optimal. The game-time temperature at Comerica Park was 35 degrees and the early innings were accompanied by a cold rain. Johnson was offered the excuse of the weather, but to his credit, he declined that opportunity.
"[Tigers starter Doug Fister] went through the same thing," Johnson said. "He went out there and threw well."
The problems with the Jays' starting pitching have been exacerbated by the defensive shortcomings of two players who had built reputations as solid defenders. Emilio Bonifacio at second and Maicer Izturis at third had not only been committing errors, but had not been making plays that would routinely be considered makeable.
Bonifacio committed four errors in the first eight games. Believing that a brief respite might do Bonifacio some good, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons took Bonifacio out of the starting lineup Thursday, putting Mark DeRosa at third and moving Izturis to second. Bonifacio entered the game in the sixth and played three uneventful innings at second.
"He hasn't quit playing hard, he hasn't dropped his head or anything like that, but he's got to be feeling it," Gibbons said of Bonifacio. "It's been a tough go for him here early. But he's going to be a big part of this team. We're going to need him if we're going to be successful."
There is no road map for a talented team that has what is politely termed "a slow start." If a club plays hard, rather than lapsing into self pity, the talent, at some point, is supposed to take over and the results are supposed to improve.
The Blue Jays made a big offseason splash with major acquisitions. Dickey, Buehrle and Johnson constituted a transformation of their rotation. Jose Reyes at shortstop gave them a dynamic leadoff presence. It should be noted that Reyes (.412/.487/.559) has been simply terrific.
One way or another, the Blue Jays' talent level was lifted. The next thing that is supposed to rise is their victory total. In Toronto's current circumstances, Gibbons was asked if part of the manager's job was to be a reassuring presence, reminding the players that they were, in fact, better than this.
"I haven't consciously tried to approach it that way, but that's how I feel about it," Gibbons said. "I know the heat's been on us, the focus has been on us, but you know what? We've got to take care of this team, go out there and play good baseball every day. We can't get distracted by all that. It's easy to do, you can't get away from all that, the way the media are these days.
"But you've got to fight through that. It's nothing that a few wins in a row won't cure, that's for sure."
Gibbons has not lost his sense of humor, and this is invariably a good sign.
"I'm a little tired of day baseball," he said with a smile. "Is this five days in a row? What are we, the Cubs?"
No, it has not yet come to that. But what has to turn around first to get this team headed in the right direction? "The starting rotation, for sure," Johnson said, supplying the correct answer. Merely competent starts from members of the rotation would at least give the rest of this team a chance to compete, and would give the offensive talent a chance to prevail.
The season is far too new, the sample size is far too small for anything like panic to make an appearance. The Blue Jays remain confident that the current difficulties are a temporary phase, to be replaced by results matching those lofty expectations.
"Every team goes through it; good, bad or ugly," Gibbons said. "It's something a team deals with. It's part of the job. But we'll survive. We'll move on. We'll get this thing going."
The talent level on this team says that is true, the Blue Jays will get this thing going. There are 153 games remaining, but still, the best time to do that would be soon.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.