Rangers series could be turning point for Blue Jays

By: Bob Elliott

Canadian Baseball Network

Come September will people talk about the Blue Jays May series against the Texas Rangers?

You know, a little like the way they talk about the Rangers visit in October for Game 5 of the American League Division Series?

Too early to tell, but one thing is for sure. 

The Blue Jays added two games in their win total, games that were slip-sliding away two or three weeks ago, decisions that were making loud sounds in a quiet clubhouse as they landed in the loss column.

They were first dancing for joy in the third base dugout and then running out like five-year-old as if the ice cream truck came over the hill again Wednesday night.

Slumping catcher Russell Martin stayed in on a breaking ball driving a pitch to right, the ball landing on the warning track for the second walk-off in as many nights.  

Even if Rangers outfielder Nomar Mazara had caught the ball, Ezequiel Carrera, pinch running for Edwin Encarnacion, could have moon-walked home with the winner as the Jays edged the Rangers 4-3 with one out in the bottom of the ninth before 25,229 fans at the Rogers Centre. 

With the Jays trailing 3-1, Encarnacion had hit a two-run homer in the sixth.

The night before the hero was Justin Smoak: solo homer in the ninth and a two-run walk-off homer in extras.

“I called Edwin hitting a homer leading off the ninth there,” said Josh Thole, “I know it wouldn’t have been the same innings as Tuesday (ninth and 10th), but it would have been back-to-back homers in back-to-back at-bats in back-to-back games for walk-off wins.”

Are the Jays finally back off the mat, moving to within a game of .500 with the final game of the Rangers series Thursday night?

Encarnacion started the ninth hitting a 2-1 single up the middle for a single. Smoak followed with a five-pitch walk from reliever Tony Barnette. Tulowitzki popped up drawing boos from the restless natives, who had booed Brett Cecil a night earlier. 

With the Jays dugout urging Smoak to get farther off first base, Kevin Pillar walked on a 3-2 pitch to load the bases. And then Martin hit the 1-1 pitch to right field.   

REASONS: There have been plenty of spots to lay blame for this start: a bullpen with its lopsided record (nine losses) which didn’t pick up its first win until the 28th game of the season on Tuesday, three regulars on the Inter-State highway whizzing past the exit to Mario Mendoza’s shrine: Troy Tulowitzki, Martin and Ryan Goins, the Jays striking out more than often than any team in the American League except the Houston Astros and finally last year’s most powerful offensive threat has a team average better than only two teams (Tampa Bay Rays and Houston).

A No. 1 reason for the struggles could be the meat and potatoes of the lineup -- Jose Bautista, Encarnacion and Tulowitzki -- more like last week’s stale stew and watery zucchini than momma’s Sunday family diner.

The Jays received three RBIs from the trio Wednesday: a two-run Encarnacion homer in the sixth tying the game and a run-scoring single by Bautista in the first.

Yet, even that little bit of production belies what has been taking place with the 3-4-5 slots since April 21:

Bautista is 6-for-44 (.136).

Encarnacion is hitting 7-for-63 (.111).

And Tulowitzki, who hit sixth Wednesday as Tuesday’s home run hero, Smoak, moved into the No. 5 spot, is batting 7-for-44 (.159).

If you are scoring along at home ... well you are not using much ink when the Jays are hitting.

TULO LOW: Since being acquired from Colorado Rockies prior to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline last season, shortstop Tulowitzki is hitting .210 with 10 homers, 30 RBIs and 75 strikeouts in 263 at-bats with a .663 OPS. Yet, he is still a key contributor with the glove: making a diving stop of a Prince Fielder smash in the first and firing to second for the first out of the inning; handling a tricky hop on an Elvis Andrus grounder and getting rid of the ball quickly to second baseman Goins for an inning-ending double play in the sixth. It’s a reason he’s ranked No. 1 in total zone runs with seven according to Baseball-reference. Ketel Marte of the Seattle Mariners is second with five.    

LANSING TRIO: There was a time (2012) when all three pitchers were in the rotation at class-A Lansing. Now, Noah Syndergaard, 23, is 11-8 with a 3.11 ERA in 29 starts and 210 strikeouts in 182 1/3 innings with the New York Mets, moved as part of the R.A. Dickey deal ... Lefty Justin Nicolino, 24, is 7-4 with a 3.81 ERA in 14 career starts with 25 strikeouts in 87 1/3 innings for the Miami Marlins, where he was shipped as part of the Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes and Josh Johnson deal ... Sanchez, 22, who has been used both as a starter and a closer, 11-9 with a 2.69 ERA in 71 games, making 17 starts, fanning 122 in 163 2/3 innings.

SLOW START: It took Sanchez 12 pitches to get an out. By that time the Rangers were up 1-0 and had runners on first and first. Sanchez allowed a double to lead-off hitter Rougned Odor, a single to Mazara and a run-scoring single to Adrian Beltre before getting an our. An Ian Desmond grounder made it 2-0. Three singles on the first four hitter of the second made it 3-1 Rangers as Elvis Andrus, No. 9 hitter Bobby Wilson and Odor combined to knocked in a run.

After the Odor single in the second Sanchez allowed only two base runners (a walk to Mazara and a Mitch Moreland single, erased on a double play ball) in his seven innings of work. He allowed three runs on seven hits and two walks in his 101-pitch outing (70 strikes). His ERA sits at 2.82.