The Blue Jays now have seven wins on the year, and none better than their one-run victory over the Red Sox earlier this afternoon. No, the lineup didn't explode yet, Storen made the game far more interesting than it had to be in the ninth, and much of the day was spent watching the offense ground into frustrating double plays, but when all the dust settled, there was plenty to like about this affair.
Let's dive into five reasons why today was such a great day for the Blue Jays
1) Kevin Pillar, Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin came through with the game on the line.
The Red Sox were one strike away from wiggling off the hook with only one run allowed after the huge mess Uehara created in the eight inning. In fact, the Jays only hit one ball out of the infield during that entire four-run frame.
When Tulo came to the plate with two out and the bases loaded, Kimbrel had already struck out Encarnacion, and if he gets Tulo as well, there's a chance he comes back out for a clean slate in the ninth leading to what easily could have been a Red Sox win in walk off fashion with Osuna unavailable. Instead Tulo worked the count, ran it full, and got into a position where Kimbrel made a mistake and missed badly with the 3-2 pitch. It was the first time Kimbrel's ever issued a walk with the bases loaded in his career.
For whatever reason, Tulo's had success against Kimbrel. He's now reached base four times in seven plate appearances against him. Perhaps seeing a ton of pitches while coming up three times in four days against the Boston flame thrower helped Tulo lay off the 1-2 and 2-2 offerings and run the count to 3-2. Either way, Kimbrel's last pitch to Tulo wasn't close and it seemed to rattle him.
Russell Martin came up next and had an excellent at bat. He saw nine pitches, all of them fastballs clocked at 96 or above, and made the adjustment against a guy who for whatever reason didn't want to throw a breaking pitch in this spot. The battle ended with Martin going the other way for a base hit for the second time in as many at bats and plating two insurance runs that turned out to be the difference in the game.
Then there's Kevin Pillar who had a huge day at the plate (3-3 with a walk) and oddly set the table for the eighth inning rally in just his second game after being dropped from the leadoff spot - The natural table setter position. Pillar led the team in overall WPA today with a .330 mark, and also posted the third highest individual WPA play (.145) with his single to lead off the eighth inning that Josh Rutledge played into an error that landed Pillar on second. (Naturally, the two highest individual WPA plays were Tulo's walk (.226) and Martin's hit (.168) later in the frame.)
Hopefully this game serves as a spark that helps set these guys ablaze, because if Tulo, Martin and Pillar get hot, this lineup will make life far more difficult on opposing pitchers than we've seen so far. When you take into consideration the way it happened (Pillar on base every time, Tulo drawing a big walk and Martin going the other way twice) and when in the game it happened, this feels like it could be the start of a turning point.
2) Guys, J.A. Happ might be really good now.
J.A. Happ was awesome again today, which is easy to forget after all the madness that unfolded in the eighth and ninth innings, but hugely important if we're talking about what the Jays have to work with in the big picture. His seven innings of one run baseball against a good Red Sox lineup today now gives him a 1.89 ERA over three 2016 starts.
Here's what I'm getting at: Through three games, J.A. Happ has looked closer to the guy who posted a 1.85 ERA for the Pirates in 11 starts at the end of last season than the guy who posted a 4.31 ERA during his first stint in Toronto. It's very possible that Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage made him a better pitcher.
Now this absolutely doesn't mean we should expect an ERA under 2.00 going forward, but it certainly could mean that Happ's ERA is going to be closer to 3.00 than 4.00, which is a game changer with Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez already in this rotation for the foreseeable future. We definitely need more of a sample size to see if this is real or not, but if we get to the end of May and Happ's still posting solid starts, it's probably fair to say that he's at worst a middle of the rotation pitcher.
The biggest thing I like seeing with Happ is the lack of walks. He issued just one free pass today, and it's a theme that's been quietly building with him over the last few seasons. Here's how often opposing batters have walked against him each year since the start of 2010:
Look what happens in 2014, 2015 and (albeit a very small sample size) 2016. Happ's been walking fewer hitters for a while now. It didn't translate to much overall success in 2014 because he allowed a career high 22 home runs and 68 extra base hits, but now that those numbers have come back down to Earth and Happ continues to pile up outings where he doesn't walk many guys, his ERA is dropping too.
In some ways, Happ's the most important guy on the team for the next month because he's not far away from proving he's a much better pitcher than he was the first time the Blue Jays acquired him, and that's exciting stuff to think about.
3) The Jays won without their hottest hitters doing damage.
In his first three at bats today, Jose Bautista grounded into three double plays, wiping out not only his own chance at production, but also Josh Donaldson's early walks. Couple this Encarnacion's strike out with the bases loaded in the eighth inning before Tulo's walk, and it was a rough WPA day for the only three guys on the team who entered the day with an OPS above .800.
It wasn't really a bad day for Donaldson at the plate (he was on base three times and posted a positive 0.38 WPA), but his offensive impact was minimized thanks to Bautista's double plays. Bautista also redeemed himself with a big walk in the eighth inning where it all fell apart for the Red Sox, but at the end of the day, the three bats that have carried the offense so far this season combined for just one hit and a -.282 WPA, and that's important because it should usually result in a Blue Jay loss, especially the way they've been playing so far this season.
This really just emphasizes the importance of the first two points. Guys like Pillar, Tulo, Martin and Happ won you this game today, and the Blue Jays are going to need that to happen every few games if they want to be a great team. This isn't the NBA; in baseball, it doesn't matter how good your stars are if the supporting cast doesn't show up. I watched this first hand for years in Colorado with Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez being amazing and the Rockies having nothing to show for it in the standings because they constructed the rest of the team so poorly.
During the first two weeks of this season, several guys have slumped, meaning that if the Jays don't get something big from Donaldson, Bautista or Encarnacion, they probably lose. That wasn't the case today. Toronto got a big negative WPA from those three combined (again, not really Donaldson's fault) and still won. This is what good TEAMS do.
4) The glove work up the middle continues to be air tight.
I won't spend too much time here since this isn't something that's exclusive to today, but boy does the combination of Pillar, Tulo, Goins and Martin keep runners off the bases. They are such a joy to watch. I'm not sure there's another team that has a better defensive quartet playing those positions in baseball. They just suck the life out of the opposing offense, and they're also a big reason why only the Rays, Royals, A's and White Sox have allowed fewer runs per game than the Blue Jays in the American League so far.
Today, Tulo and Goins both turned slick double plays, Pillar made a diving catch to end the bottom of the eighth and save a run (which turned out to be huge), and Martin looked as comfortable as ever behind the dish guiding Happ through his impressive day on the mound. Again, these guys playing strong defense isn't anything new, but it's important not to take it for granted, because without it I'm not sure Toronto wins this game.
Today just happened to be a day where their glove work helped make the difference in a Blue Jay win, and as long as they stay healthy, I have a feeling it will help make the difference many more times this season.
5) The Blue Jays dealt the Red Sox a crushing early season loss
If you want to know how bad John Farrell wanted this game, look no further than his decision to bring Craig Kimbrel into a tied game with the bases loaded and only one out in the eighth inning. Kimbrel had already pitched twice in the series, throwing 18 pitches on both Friday and Saturday, and hasn't had more than a day off in over a week. After today's outing, he's now thrown 95 pitches in the last eight days, and that doesn't count the many more he most certainly threw to warm up.
I could be wrong, but I don't think the Red Sox ride their most important bullpen arm that hard this early in the season if they're playing the Twins. The Red Sox really, really wanted this game. They wanted to win a four game series against the Blue Jays, they wanted to move two games ahead of them in the standings, and they wanted the physiological benefits that come along with beating the defending division champions five times in seven games. It was a holiday in Massachusetts, the crowd was into the game, Clay Buchholz (a key swing piece in their rotation) kept the Jays off the board for 6.2 innings, and it looked like they were going to win for most of the day until it all came unraveled late.
In other words, a win here would have been an outstanding exclamation point for the Red Sox after the way the first half dozen games went between these two teams, and the Blue Jays denied them that. It wasn't quite payback for the way the Red Sox spoiled the home opener in Toronto, but it did land both teams back at .500, which feels like advantage Blue Jays when you consider the bump in production that's likely coming from their lineup. Not only that, but the Blue Jays also earned a split on the road in a four game series that didn't involve Marcus Stroman, who oh by the way starts tomorrow.
All in all, after everything that's happened these first 14 games, it feels pretty good to be at .500, all while knowing that the Jays haven't played their best baseball yet - Not even close.