Jays staff scuffles, Saunders out 4-6 weeks

* R.A. Dickey struggled with a case of flat knuckleballs as the Jays fell 8-4 to the Houston Astros. ....  

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By Bob Elliott HOUSTON _ They sit 28th best.

Or third worst.

Not good enough for a contending team.

Not good enough to be a .500 team as it turns out.

Check out these numbers: 6.52, 6.17, 5.76 5.54 and 4.26?

Times for the Northwest Flyers Track Club of Houston annual mile?

Prices in discount bin at Honest Ed’s?

Departure times for the next GO train east?

Nope, they are earned run averages of the Blue Jays current rotation this season.

The Jays starting staff has the 28th best ERA in the majors after Friday night's 8-4 loss ... ahead of only the Boston Red Sox and the Colorado Rockies.

They own a 5.15 combined ERA while Boston is 5.51 and the Rockies have compiled a 5.54 team ERA.

R.A. Dickey had a 5.76 mark after allowing seven runs in five innings on a flat Friday night against the Houston Astros before 21,653 fans.

The first-place, ahead-of-schedule Astros has 10 hits and two homers in the final four innings he worked on the way to an 8-4 win over the Jays.

Marco Estrada has a 6.52 mark after two starts, Drew Hutchison owns the 6.17, lefty Mark Buehrle has a 5.54 mark and Aaron Sanchez has a 4.26 ERA while leading the American League in walks.

Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos was asked how disappointing was it to come into Minute Maid and see his team with a sub .500 record -- in 20 words or less.

“Look, you always want to win more games,” Anthopoulos said. “I think it ultimately comes down to what you feel the long term upside of the club is and where you’re at with respect to the division leader. I know the Yankees are in first place and I haven’t looked but they’re probably five over or six over at this point. The division’s still close and it is still, whatever, close to 40 games in so there’s quite a bit of time left.”

(Ah that was 81 words.)

Heading into play Friday the Yankees were six games over .500 sitting in first, while the Jays were last, two games below .500. The Jays sit three games behind the Tampa Bay Rays for the second wild-card berth.

Anthopoulos pointed out how the Jays were in first place by six games June 6.

He didn’t have to point out where they were at the end of September.

Anthopoulos was asked whether Jays management had overestimated the starting staff during the off season.

“No,” he said.

How do the Jays get better?

“Play better,” he said.

The Jays bullpen sits 17th in the majors with a 3.72 mark, converting six of 11 save opportunities. The bullpen trails Cleveland Indians (3.71) and is ahead of the Seattle Mariners (3.77).

Meanwhile, they led the AL in runs scored.

So it all comes down to pitching.


“We didn’t expect Buehrle or Dickey to have ERAs over 5.00, or Hutchison to have an ERA over 6.00,” Anthopoulos told reporters. I think Mark Buehrle started slow in 2013 too. Drew has had two good ones in a row. He could have won Thursday.”

It all starts and ends with the starting pitching.

Do you doubt we’re right?

Well, the first-place Astros went into the game with the third best team ERA and the second best bullpen.


Mound woes: Dickey had a 1-2-3 first, but his knuckler had the dance moves of a guy at the old folks home with two bad hips, one bad knee, a sore ankle and both hearing aids without fully-charged batteries. Starting with the second, Dickey faced 22 batters. Ten reached and seven scored.

On a good night Dickey says out of 10 knuckleballs maybe one or two are flat. And on this night?

“Four or five ... out of every 10, when pitches are flat the ball elevates,” said Dickey. “I’m searching right now, not to throw consistent strikes I’m throwing strikes, I’m searching to throw a ball that has consistancy in its movement.

Dallas Keuchel is a good pitcher. We score four runs off him we should win. That loss is on me.”

The Astros bunched five singles in the second to score three times, then 6-foot-3 George Springer went deep to centre 427 feet with a solo shot and 5-foot-6 Jose Altuve hit a three-run homer in the fourth making it 7-1.

“We watch replays on his pitches and the ball is coming in flat,” said manager John Gibbons. “He goes out and battles.”

In his last five starts Dickey is 1-4 with a 7.34 ERA allowing 38 hits and seven walks in 25 2/3 innings.

Dickey said he would be calling retired knuckleballer Charlie Hough to ask for pointers and advice.

“I don’t have all the answers right now,” he said. “I need to sit down and look at some video and just keep after it. It’s been a long stretch, a stretch where you go down the checklist of things that you know to do to create a good knuckleball and you’re not able to execute.

“It’s been the longest where I haven’t had the consistent movement you want. I have had stretches before and I’m confident it’s going to turn. But it’s going to turn because I work hard.”


In Game: Ryan Tepera, from nearby Lake Jackson, Tex. worked a scoreless sixth and then allowed a lead-off homer to Luis Valbuena in the seventh. Valbuena went to spring training with the Blue Jays in 2012 but was claimed on waiver that April 4 by the Chicago Cubs. The Jays had Brett Lawrie at third and Omar Vizquel as their back up infielder. Valbuena hit third in the series opener and second Friday as he hit his ninth homer ... The Jays put together a three-run rally in the fifth when after a Jose Bautista infield single and an Edwin Encarnacion walk, Danny Valencia doubled in a run and Chris Colabello hit a run-scoring single to right. Just the way it was drawn up in Dunedin: “if we can get guys on base ahead of Valencia and Colabello ...” Josh Donaldson speared a Jason Castro liner in the second and a Jake Marisnick rocket off his shoe tops in the sixth ... Encarnacion was thrown out from short centre on a ball Dallas Keuchel deflected to Altuve in the second.


Minute sample: We’re not even in the small sample size yet, but Colabello has proven to be a hitting machine. With two more hits Friday he’s batting .474 (18-for-38) with multi-hit games in seven contests.


Longer wait for Saunders; Outfielder Michael Saunders is headed to see Dr. James Andrews on Monday according to Anthopoulos. Saunders will rest his left knee for the next 4-to-6 weeks.

So, out of the expected every day lineup of Saunders in left, Dalton Pompey in centre and Jose Bautista in right ... the teacher could say “absent, absent, absent.”

Saunders injured his knee stepping on a sprinkler at the Bobby Mattick complex, returned made nine starts and is injured again.

Pompey was demoted to triple-A Buffalo after 22 starts and Bautista has now started more games at DH than in right due to re-aggravating his shoulder against Baltimore.

So Danny Valencia, Kevin Pillar and Chris Colabello were in the outfield, left to right Friday night. Ezequiel Carrera has made 10 starts.

“(Saunders) knee was sore and even though he got the cortisone shot and took time off, obviously he played and had pain, so he hasn’t recovered,” Anthopoulos said seated in the Jays third base dugout. “We need to give him rest and at this point I’d expect it to be quite a bit of time.”

Asked if something went wrong with surgery, Anthopoulos shook his head no saying: “When you remove the meniscus, there really isn’t anything to do. If it had been a repair, that would have been different, but removal was the only option.”

Anthopoulos said Saunders “may not be 100% until the off-season.”

One from the room: This month the Blue Jays send infielder Andy Wilkins and right-hander Matt West to the Los Angeles Dodgers for cash considerations.

“I have it figured out,” said one scout. “The Jays are going to sell enough minor leaguers to the Dodgers so that they can buy a free agent next off season.”


Kiss-Cam: The Kiss-Cam panned the crowd at Minute Maid as young (and old) lovers smooched and then stopped on Drew Hutchison and Justin Smoak leaning against the rail in the Blue Jays dugout. A hand pushed Smoak’s noggin closer to Hutchison. It was Mark Buehrle.


Adding on: The Jays acquired shortstop Ronald Torreyes from the Astros on Friday for cash considerations or a player to be named. Torreyes, 22, batted .200 with one double and five RBIs in 19 games for Triple-A Fresno this year. He hit .370 and .356 in his first two years as a pro and in his six season owns a .302 average. Torreyes struck out just 26 times in 460 at-bats last season Triple-A Oklahoma City and he’s struck out just 131 times in 1,953 at-bats over his six-year Minor League career.

To make room for Torreyes infielder Jonathan Diaz was given his outright waivers. Diaz, 30, was hitting .183 at triple-A Buffalo.


Updates: Shortstop Jose Reyes will likely start rehab at some point next week ... Dioner Navarro is in Dunedin recovering from his hamstring injury ... Infielder Maicer Izturis, who suffered a groin injury and then a left knee injury, starts a rehab assignment Monday in Dunedin.