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I'm Trying to Keep My Back From the Wall

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Today's title for a rainy offday post comes courtesy of the fantastic U.K. band the Guillemots, who despite their poor capitalisation skills (they often write it gUiLLeMoTs or some such thing), are fantastic. The title is from their tune "Trains to Brazil" and it just seemed to fit. The Guillemots are from Birmingham, I wonder if they are Birmingham or Aston Villa fans?

Despite a horrendous week, the Jays have actually picked up a game in the AL East standings over the past few days (Boston got swept by the Rays and the Jays are now 3 1/2 games out). They finally snapped a 6-game losing streak yesterday afternoon, thanks to a terrific performance from starter Jesse Litsch, a stellar game out of the leadoff spot by Alex Rios, and some great hitting by Scott Rolen, including his first HR in a Jays uni. I enjoyed Gibby's willingness to shake up the lineup and his hit-and-run with Wells at the plate, not a tactical move exactly but calculated to stop Wells from overpressing and just concentrate on making solid contact.

As I remarked yesterday, the Jays actually had a positive run differential coming into yesterday's game, so there's some reason to be optimistic, particularly with Rolen and Lind now on the team. The Jays pythagorean record is 14-12, which would have them within a hair of first place, interestingly enough. The team has hit .256/.346/.372, which is punchless but not completely awful (97 OPS+), and has walked 109 times, which is 3rd in the league, quite good. As for the starting rotation, there is plenty of room for improvement among Halladay (113 ERA+ vs 128 in his career), A.J. (at a loathsome 69, sure to improve), Litsch (at 87 not terrible for a 5th starter), and McGowan (at 101 and yet to live up to his lofty expectations) - only Marcum (130) has been at the top of his game. Other than Accardo, who struggled early but has picked it up, and League, who was demoted to work on control, the bullpen has been great.

You can guess where this is going, right? Of course, you've been watching the same team I have, and the problem is that the Jays have been abysmal with runners in scoring position. This has really hurt the Jays. The Jays are .215/.308/.312 with runners in scoring position, which sounds bad until you consider their .193/.308/.289 line with RISP and 2 outs. This might not be so terrible in and of itself, but when combined with the Jays awful power thusfar (11th of 14 AL teams in SLG), it means they're just not scoring runs.

Still, there is room for optimism, since most learned folks believe that hitting with runners in scoring position is not a special skill and that would seem to indicate that the Jays are due for a change of fortunes in this department. The Jays were not nearly so pathetic last season in these departments (.788 and .694 with RISP and RISP/2 outs respectively) and that was a pretty bad offensive season. The caution to that is that the Jays are going to need to start showing more power as well. Overbay (1 HR), Hill (2 HR), and Rios (2 HR, though he does have a .484 SLG so I don't want to overstate my case here) are going to have to do better in this department, and Rolen and Lind will need to contribute as well.

I suppose, then, that my current mood is very guarded optimism, despite everything. It is extremely unlikely that the Jays will continue to struggle this way given their secondary numbers, and it is extremely reasonable to expect improved performance from at least 3 rotation spots (while Marcum may admittedly not keep up his thusfar brilliant performance, he seems like a good bet to remain above league average as well) and from several spots in the order, while no one has really been playing over their head offensively at all (well, Rolen in his 3 games perhaps).

The only problem is that where the Jays are right now, they're going to need to play about .600 ball from here on out to contend for a playoff spot, based on the last few years in the AL. That's tough, but not impossible, to do, and of course there's always the chance that this season will be the first in a while where each AL team doesn't need 90-95 wins to make the playoffs. But I wouldn't necessarily bet on that.

The Jays have 3 games against Boston coming up, and while it would be ridiculous to say that they "need" a sweep or a series win, it's indisputable that the team can't afford to linger on the wrong side of .500 for very long if they want to compete. They need to get back to .500 and try to build from there. Can they turn it around?

Some Quick Hits: Scott Downs is apparently nursing what the Jays are calling a "tender shoulder" (whatever that means). Hope Snakeface is allright, other than his last appearance, he's been quite deadly this season. At least Carlson's emergence will soften the blow if Downs has to miss any time. Rios is not surprised to be hitting leadoff, and Gibbons says that when Eckstein returns to the lineup, he'll be in the 2 hole. I guess that's fine, and maybe we can do a little hitting and running with Eckstein (since Rios is quick enough to steal the bag if Eck doesn't make contact), but I hope this doesn't result in a lot of 1st inning bunts, because that would be quite dumb. Eckstein has shown some ability to get on base, but I don't understand the Jays' willingness to hit him 9th and use MacDonald as a defensive replacement. Why are we paying Mac $2 million to play SS once a week and pinch-run? And Eckstein certainly does not seem like the type of player whose ego will be bruised by being taken out for 2 innings occasionally for one of the best fielding SS in the game - he seems like the kind of player who knows and accepts his skills and limitations.