Off day in New York a welcome respite for tepid Blue Jays offence

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NEW YORK – For a day at least, a New York state of mind may have had multiple therapeutic interpretations for a weary Blue Jays team that staggered into its first true off-day of the 2022 season.

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For manager Charlie Montoyo, a run in Central Park, not far from the team’s Manhattan hotel, was atop the agenda.

For a close-knit group of players, a chance for a good meal in a great city surely had to be high on the itinerary.

And for all involved, a day to leave the weighty topics of batting average, runners in scoring position and one-run ball games out of mind, wouldn’t have been the worst approach.

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The Jays reached the 30-game mark with a 17-13 record, an output that given the stout schedule and lack of a true day off since Opening Day, is one many would have signed off on before the season began.

The way they got to that mark, however, was less than desirable and thus had to carry some disappointment as well.

Playing on fumes through the final stretch, the Jays offence went stone cold save for an early outburst in the first half of a doubleheader in Cleveland on Saturday. And for another demoralizing shot, the bullpen gave up a rare eighth-inning lead during Sunday’s 4-2 loss up by the north Ohio shores of Lake Erie.

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“Like everybody in baseball, we’ve been through a lot, but it feels like we’ve run the gauntlet a little,” Jays pitching coach Pete Walker told the Toronto Sun. “But we feel pretty good with where we’re at.

“I’m not going to lie, from a players standpoint it’s been kind of a gruelling 30 games.  I give them a lot of credit for coming to the field every day ready to go with good enthusiasm and energy.

“We’ve been very fortunate from that regard.”

If you break the schedule down into 10-game segments — a good coping mechanism given the long mental journey between 1 and 162 on the MLB calendar — the most recent stretch was noticeably worse than the first two.

Dropping three of four to the Guardians on the weekend meant the Jays had lost five of their previous seven leading to a 4-6 record over 10 games. In the two previous stretches, the team went 6-4 and then 7-3.

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The Jays certainly had one of the more challenging schedules through the opening 30 games, with six contests against the reigning AL champion Houston Astros and seven against the Yankees, who have a stronghold on first in the AL East.

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They have played 20 games in the past 20 days and 30 in the first 31. And that only “dark” day on the sked, they travelled from Toronto and did it the long way — bussing to Buffalo to bypass U.S. COVID-19 testing regulations for those flying into the country. They did have Friday off in Cleveland because of a rainout, but had to play a doubleheader the following day.

The Jays mercifully have two scheduled off days this week including Monday in Manhattan, before facing the Yankees for the first of two and Thursday in Tampa, before a three-game weekend set against the Rays.

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“It definitely was a grind,” said Jays closer Jordan Romano, the workhorse of the bullpen who leads the majors in saves (12) and appearances (14.) “There were no real off days. We had one off day but we travelled so it didn’t really feel like one.

“But just the quality of teams we faced – Houston, Boston, New York. It was a mental grind, a physical grind. But I think we played pretty good ball and all the boys handled it well.”

While there is no alarm with the Jays record, the route they took to get here is at the least surprising for a group projected to score runs at will. Though output is down in many MLB outposts, the Jays funk stands out.

They rank 17th in the majors in scoring with 115 runs, 13th in batting average (.227) and 18th in run differential (minus-10.)  At least they lead the majors in one-run wins (with 10), which has kept their record credible.

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None of those results were expected, given the potent statistical attack, the team showed throughout its 91-win 2021 campaign.

None are expected to continue much longer, either, especially with the return of cleanup hitter Teoscar Hernandez to the lineup. But those around the team have been saying that for a couple of weeks now.

“Of course,” Montoyo said when asked if this week’s respite could provide a good mental break for his team. “It’s been a grind. We’ve played good baseball and we’ve been in every game. The offence is going to click.

“We’ve been playing good teams. To be over .500 after this grind, I’m really proud of my team and we haven’t clicked hitting yet.”

Most troubling, Montoyo acknowledges, is the Jays struggles with runners in scoring position. It was particularly gruesome in the Cleveland series but has been problematic over the past couple of weeks. They’ve scored just 29 runs in their past nine games, which is both underwhelming and an unsustainable output in the tough AL East.

Still, the Jays believe the offence will come around eventually – and there’s little reason to expect it won’t. Now – with five big divisional road games on tap this week – would be a good time to start.

“Obviously you want to win as many games as you can,” Walker said. “There have been a lot of tight ball games and these guys have found ways to win.

“Our aspirations are higher than that but to come out of this above .500, I think it just puts us in a good position going forward. We all know we’ve yet to see our best baseball.”

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